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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sweden – April 14-16

Monday was a long trip back from Kristiansand, Norway to Stockholm on the train. While long, the weather and scenery were beautiful and it was a relaxing time.

Tuesday morning we went to the morning rehearsal of RK—their final rehearsal before their short tour to Visby (on the island of Gotland), Kristianstad, Hässleholm, and Halmstad. It’s a nice program: Mantyjärvi Pseudojojk, Sandström April o tystnad, some of Nystroem’s Havsvisioner, Lidholm . . . a riveder le stelle (one of the great 20th century a cappella masterpieces, I think), Werle trees, Jan Sandström Biegga Luothe, Stenhammar 3 Körvisor, and some Swedish traditional favorites (like Hogo Alfvén’s Aftonen). Major soloists in the Lidholm (Helena Ströberg), Werle (Johan Pejler) and Jan Sandström (Mathias Brorson) all are doing beautifully on these challenging solos.

Tuesday evening we went to Konserthuset for a program with the London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding conducting. This is a little unusual, since Daniel is Chief Conductor of the Swedish Radio Orchestra—here he was appearing at the “rival” concert hall (home of the Stockholm Philharmonic) with his “other” orchestra, as he’s Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO. We saw a number of RK’s members there, the concertmaster of the Stockholm Philharmonic, and I’m sure there were many members of both the Radio Orchestra and Stockholm Philharmonic!

The program was interesting: Boulez Mémoriale for flute and eight instruments, Prokofiev 2nd violin concerto with Viktoria Mullova as soloist, and Brahms 2nd Symphony.

The Boulez was well-played by the six string players, 2 horns and principal flute. The principal horn at the end has a long diminuendo, which was extraordinary, truly a niente (to nothing).

We were once again in the choir loft at the back of the orchestra, so we couldn’t hear Mullova as well as I might have liked (especially when she was accompanied by fairly big tuttis), but she gave a wonderful performance. The orchestra was good, but not as tight as I might have expected.

The Brahms, long one of my favorite symphonies, was given a very good performance, Daniel very much in charge.

Harding does make noise while conducting (with outgoing breath especially at intense moments), perhaps not audible from the other part of the house, but very clear from where we were! This is an interesting problem for conductors, who don’t (or shouldn’t!) make noise when conducting—only the ensemble should! Of course, many musicians (Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson) do make noise when playing. When I worked with the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz was also known for his vocal noises (not singing) during conducting. In recording sessions (where I was usually back with the producer and recording engineer), the producer could communicate to the whole ensemble in between takes with a speaker (“winds out of tune at G,” “we need better ensemble from the low strings at B,” etc.), but also with a phone with which he could talk to Jerry. Sometimes this was because of something more sensitive (dealing with a particular player, or a tempo that wasn’t matching up to previous takes), but also occasionally, “Jerry, you’re making noise again.” This is a difficult habit to break, since musical intensity and expressivity becomes closely associated with the noises—take away the noise and one doesn’t feel the same intensity.

In a roundabout way, this leads to my feeling that conductors need to learn a clear, pattern-based technique early on. Abe Kaplan told me once that when he watched Robert Shaw doing an a cappella work, where he used an unconventional conducting technique, his conducting was free and extraordinarily expressive. In the same way, in front of an orchestra, using a technique he’d learned much later in life, his technique didn’t have the same expressive intensity. Abe felt that Shaw’s expressive conducting (not pattern based) was simply so strongly learned that when he switched to a pattern-based technique, he couldn’t incorporate his expressive gestures into it. Perhaps those readers who worked with Shaw over a long period of time can say if they think this is correct or not.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my early experiences was with a conductor who was quite uncomfortable in front of orchestras, so I decided I wanted to have a technique that would allow me to do both equally well. For me, having worked hard on developing a clear technique, early on it was my struggle to be expressive as a conductor (that has to do with personality, too, of course). Later, with more and more experience, I gradually learned to be more and more expressive but still within traditional patterns (when necessary).

It’s not necessary, of course, to always work within a pattern. One of the most expressive conductors I remember watching was Sergiu Commissiona at Aspen in 1977 or so (he was best known for his work with the Baltimore Symphony). In a master class he told of how he began with a very strict technique and then, over the course of years, learned “what the orchestra didn’t need.” I feel if conductors absorb a clear and clean technique (able to handle all technical requirements) at the beginning, they can then learn to be expressive without losing the basis of their technique. More about this at another time, perhaps.

Another thing notable about Harding’s conducting technique (which is excellent and expressive) is that he does very little subdividing in slow tempos. That was something I learned from Gerard Schwarz as well. While I didn’t like Jerry’s conducting technique in general (his fast tempi had a quick rebound and almost a double ictus with elbow and baton), he rarely subdivided in slow tempi. This forced the orchestra to really listen and feel the underlying pulse. It was a great thing to learn—that sometimes not being “clear” can get the best musical results.

At any rate, fun concert!

Today was a fairly relaxed day, with Gunilla coming over during the afternoon for dinner and a visit (she brought some beautiful salmon and strawberries and we supplied the rest). We had a lovely time, as we always do when Gunilla is around. You may ask, “aren’t you staying at Gunilla’s apartment??” Well, yes, we are. Gunilla’s here this week to visit a few friends and is, of course, an invitee to Orphei Drängar’s big program this weekend. So, she’s staying with a girlfriend this week. She’ll come back on Friday and we’ll take the train together to Uppsala. It’s wonderful to have the time to catch up!

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