And to those of you who thinks that a conductor is just some funny guy who waves his hands in the air to look good and doesn’t even look good and who is just another jerk who gets good money for doing nuttin’, that’s not how it is. It’s more like this:
A piece of music of this type is written on a piece of paper in a notation that you can’t read, and I, not being a conductor, would have trouble too if I didn’t know the piece, meaning having heard it several times, because there are a lot of instruments on each page and I’m not really used to it. I could maybe sightread simple stuff and hear a little in my head just by reading, but I’m not really good at it. Some are.
But the piece of paper thing means you need some people to play it. That’s the orchestra in this case, everyone would understand that, but they’re too many to quite agree on how to do it. A piece of music also needs an
interpreter, because in a way it doesn’t exist until someone plays it and you hear it as part of the audience, and if you’ve listened to John Lennon and what’s her name…Eva Cassidy, sing “Imagine” you know well that two musicians can do the same music in completely different ways and still bloody good. That’s interpretation.
That’s the normal situation in the classical world, the jobs of musician and composer split up basically a couple of hundred years ago, so today not many composers play their own music. Some electronic nerds do, and of course there are always exceptions to the rule. But anyway, much of the going to concerts is like going to the museum, I mean, Mozart died in 1791, Bach in 1750. They can’t play anymore.
But as I said, to make a piece of music sound as something anyone would like to listen to is a job in itself, and the reason for the being of the conductor, I guess, is the size of the band, in addition to the interest we have in what the different people do up there. When you have heard a little music you start getting favourites, of course favourite pieces, but also favourite musicians.
In many groups the music is interpreted in cooperation, with no leader, like in a string quartet or a wind quintet. Well, there is something called a primarius in a quartet, and he’s kind of more important than the rest. But don’t ask me more, ask a string player. I’m a pianist, basically.
There are, of course, more things to say, as in any profession, but anyway, a conductor in a symphony orchestra usually travels the world and arrives on Monday somewhere, and from then until Thursday he or she has to make decisions about tempos, shades of sound, bowing (now its’ getting fiddly again, but basically I think it’s about pushing the bow upwards or dragging it downwards, where you start a phrase, a part of the music, has an impact on the sound, and also has something to say for where you end up, technically and musically. You have to consider what is possible too, if there are many notes etc coming after the first ones).
I’m sure a string player would kill me for putting it like this, but anyway.
Thursday is normally concert day, or Friday, or both.
There are always places in the music that are difficult, technically or musically, the logic of one passage has to lead into the next, wind players or singers (there may be a choir or soloists) have to breathe, and all this has to do with both tempo, of course, and the way that you do it. If you don’t have the right feel to it it sure doesn’t feel good to sing it. I’m sure you know that from your experience with Christmas carols or favourite tunes or something else. Doesn’t feel good to play it either.
There are a lot of technicalities, and they’re almost always important, because most of it comes out when you play, one way or another. So you’d better prepare.
And the general concept of the whole thing is a big thing – many, me for instance, see music as ideas put on stage, and if your idea of what the piece is isn’t any good, probably it won’t sound good either. At least, some have some great things to put into it, and you can hear it. More if you’ve heard more, of course, I mean, there are experts on biking too, right?
But what the conductor says to the musicians doesn’t always tell a listener on the rehearsal quite what’s going on, it depends what type he or she is. Some have mainly practical instructions, like a little slower there and give some more here, while others give you glimpses into whatever part of history the music is dealing with, like religious history for church music, or whatever field they have been interested in or working with.There are many ways of seeing music, understanding it, not quite as many types as there are musicians, I think, but still, many.
But meeting a conductor is in some ways like meeting people in general, some express themselves mostly through elaborate words, some say more through actions. Some say a lot, some let it happen, I have that one from an experienced orchestral player, so it must be right.
You bring your personality into the music, and suddenly, especially when you are really lucky, that’s kind of gone too, unimportant, disappeared into the music like a spirit in a heap of rags, as we say, and what’s there…is a mix of everything, sound as the composer intended, as the musicians and the conductor intended, and the music itself, the ideas, whatever they might be in tonight’s programme, God, if you believe in him, a soundscape, something, going into your mind and soul and body and whatever you brought with you to the concert hall. The quiet sound of strings in the beginning of a concert. That used to be the magic moment for me as a listener, still is.
(There are a lot of jokes in this world too, for instance this one, supposedly from Denmark:
The old, experienced, slightly worn-out viola player sits beside the new guy, who is eager to work really hard and get everything dead right. The conductor is foreign, speaks no Danish, only bad English.
The young guy says nervously to the old one:
– I can’t understand a word of what the conductor is saying!
The old guy replies:
– Exactly. Isn’t it wonderful?)
This told maybe also to take a little of the bother out of nervousness, which is every day part of a musician’s life. More the closer to the concert you get, less in periods, sometimes and for some destroying everything.
Viola players, by the way, is the normal laughing-stock in the orchestral world, probably originally because they were seen as the guys or girls who weren’t good enough to play the violin, also jokingly, the violin being one of the great hero, read soloist instruments.
It’s all friendly, and I can’t imagine there’s any less difficulty in getting the good stuff out of a viola than a violin, but the truth is, and that is a fact, many of the viola players make very good friends, and I should already be careful with what I say, because I’ve also known violinists who are really kind.
This is the world of orchestras, which I know almost only as a listener, and through friends who play. Other conductors have their own choir, or choirs, for instance, who meet every Monday and have concerts in the local music school or the church, and they get to know each other pretty well and socially, I can say that this is really a thrill, I’ve been part of it as a pianist accompanying.
You may find people in this line of work who get up late and stay up late, and I think they still get some pay for what they do. Nowadays there are flocks of people, here in Norway for instance, who don’t think that people work unless they work 9-5, or they don’t think people will work if they don’t get much pay, or they think that it isn’t work at all if you don’t get paid, and honestly, I’ve never met a rich musician (they do exist, I believe, but they’re not many) and I’ve never met one who doesn’t work. Often pretty hard. Of course, some have fixed positions and get routine after years in the business, but you can’t just turn the page and do as you did last time, because people tend to go home and not come back, they didn’t find what they were looking for.
Teachers can’t either, by the way, the two professions are not that different and there are many who double. If you’ve tried to say the same thing twice to kids you know that more often than not it doesn’t work, at least not well. I would like to claim that as a general strategy it doesn’t work at all, but I think it’s more correct to say that you shouldn’t start in that end too often.
I can say this much, I hope, as a father and a teacher.
And as a musician.
That’s creative businesses, professionally not saying the same thing twice, as often as you are absolutely able to.
It’s the complete opposite of a machine, if you think about it.
If this was a little too dry, I mean computer texts can get you thirsty, actually, then listen to this. It’s one of my favourites right now, and yes, the pianist is supposed to be good and she is good, and probably the conductor too, sorry, I still know more about pianists than conductors, but the whole thing sounds swell to me.
And don’t watch too closely, it’s not that exciting. It’s just a lot of people in nice dress, at work.
Listen instead, if you like.
PS You may get the impression that I’m only into classical music. I’m not. I love jazz, almost all kinds. I play other stuff, ragtime, pop tunes so-called, church music even. I’d love to do real tango. I am addicted to folk music. I have a dream to become a really good tin whistler some time. It probably won’t happen, but the dream is there.
I am not a big rock fan, but I appreciate it as an art, and some stuff I really like.
Every type of art has its heroes, and its villains, I guess, too.
When listening to this again, I think that the first movement is the most worthwhile. The rest is maybe too mainstream Rachmaninoff, meaning the playing is maybe too romantic, in my opinion. This concerto I believe verges on madness, at least something darker. I have never tried to play it, but by listening, I think there’s something in that direction that needs to be explored.