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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Conducting Orfeo—Collaborations

I had the opportunity to conduct Monteverdi’s Orfeo Nov. 15 and 16 in Edmonton—a rare experience to collaborate in such a way with an extraordinarily talented cast, wonderful stage director, and fabulous period-instrument band (as well as a 15 member chorus I handpicked, primarily Pro Coro members or former members). Orfeo is truly a masterwork and it was a privilege to be a part of those performances.

I use the word “collaborate” because in such a situation I’m part of a team in a way that can’t happen when I conduct a chorus or orchestra as I do most of the time. Of course, with my choirs (or while guest conducting) or working with very talented instrumentalists (as I do when working with members of the Edmonton Symphony and Pro Coro on major works), I want to create a situation where each musician brings the best of their talent and musical ideas to the rehearsals and performances.

But with limited rehearsal time and the need to bring a large number of individuals into one corporate vision of the music to be performed, I take control of most aspects of the performance: tempi, dynamics, phrasing, etc. Much of this has to be dictated to the musicians, whether through gesture (best, if I can do it), demonstration, or talking to them in rehearsal.

Yes, I’m open to ideas (best to get suggestions at breaks and not during rehearsal) and always willing to listen to the talented people I get to work with, but primarily, it has to be my vision of the music which is communicated.

And yes, I absolutely want my musicians to bring everything they have to the table—our performance won’t get very far if they don’t use every bit of their talent, experience, and knowledge in the music we perform. That’s the joy of working with talented, experienced musicians: I can expect that they will begin to play or sing from the first rehearsal with their own ideas of what the sound should be, how to phrase, how to interpret. But I still have to shape those ideas into a performance that has unity of vision.

When I work with soloists, vocal or instrumental (and having conducted lots of major works, I’ve had that opportunity regularly, as well as conducting a number of instrumental concertos) it’s absolutely collaboration—and the better the soloist, the more I need (and want) to listen to what they bring to the party. Their ideas, their knowledge of the music (which they may have performed many times), and their knowledge of what works for them, technically and musically, means I listen carefully to what they’re doing. In this sense, I want to become the perfect accompanist, supporting their interpretation (it’s a different experience working with students, since their experience is much less, and there has to be much more coaching of all aspects of their performance).

Of course, it’s possible to have differing ideas and that can become a fruitful interchange. It’s rare for me to have a soloist with a truly different concept of the music, but it happens occasionally. I’ve never had the experience that Leonard Bernstein did conducting the Brahms D Minor piano concerto with Glenn Gould—in that famous performance, Bernstein spoke to the audience beforehand with his “disclaimer” that the interpretation was distinctly not his (here as transcribed from a bootleg recording of the performance):

Don't be frightened, Mr.Gould is here. (audience laughter) He will appear in a moment. I'm not- um- as you know in the habit of speaking on any concert except the Thursday night previews, but a curious situation has arisen, which merits, I think, a word or two. You are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unorthodox performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance distinctly different from any I've ever heard, or even dreamt of for that matter, in its remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms' dynamic indications. I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould's conception and this raises the interesting question: "What am I doing conducting it?" (mild laughter from the audience) I'm conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it, too.

But the age old question still remains: "In a concerto, who is the boss (audience laughter) the soloist or the conductor?" (Audience laughter grows louder) The answer is, of course, sometimes the one and sometimes the other depending on the people involved. But almost always, the two manage to get together by persuasion or charm or even threats (audience laughs) to achieve a unified performance. I have only once before in my life, had to submit to a soloist's wholly new and incompatible concept and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould. (audience laughs loudly) But, but THIS time, the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer. Then why, to repeat the question, am I conducting it? Why I do I not make a minor scandal -- get a substitute soloist, or let an assistant conduct? Because I am FASCINATED, glad to have the chance for a new look at this much played work; Because, what's more, there are moments in Mr. Gould's performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction. Thirdly, because we can ALL learn something from this extraordinary artist who is a THINKING performer, and finally because there IS in music what Dimitri Mitropoulos used to call "the SPORTIVE element" (mild audience laughter) that FACTOR of curiosity, adventure, experiment, and I can assure you that it HAS been an adventure this week (audience laughter) collaborating with Mr. Gould on this Brahms concerto and it's in this spirit of adventure that we now present it to you.

An amazing moment!

At any rate, Orfeo is the perfect example of a different kind of collaboration, since each principal cast member brought their own experience, talent, and extensive study to their roles; and each instrumentalist brought not only that experience, but a deep knowledge of period style and performance practices. Add to that the necessary (and fun) collaboration with staging and drama, plus the fact that there is a huge amount in the score that isn’t specified, and you have a situation where I can’t (nor would I want to) simply dictate many of the decisions that have to be made.

On to specifics in the next post.