Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Touring Test #1

I have spent this last week in New York; on tour as assistant conductor with the Royal Danish Opera. With three different performances - concert, opera, chamber music - our danish delegation has been a part of this year's Lincoln Center Festival. I was here as a failsafe, a backup in case that something random should happen to Michael Schønwandt, preventing him from conducting the tour. Cancelling the multi-million kroner one-shot performance of "Selma Jezkova" would have been pretty disastrous, so I landed a week in NY, trying my best to help Michael with listening to balance and giving corrections, and otherwise staying out of the way.

Naturally, we brought danish music: Nielsen, Ruders and...uhm...well, that's it for danish composers. Most likely those are the only two that concertgoers in New York would be able to recognise, so all in all safe and sound choices. Nielsen remains the danish 'national composer', the aptitudinal benchmark for all danish composers, and Poul Ruders is the most prolific and most performed (in the US) of all danish composers.

On a side note, the NY Phil and Alan Gilbert will attempt another Nielsen revival in the US, performing and recording all of his concerts and symphonies. I can't imagine they will be hugely succesful though. Nielsen's orchestra music is still - with a few exceptions - too esoteric, too eclectic, too...random...for him to aqquire any solid mainstream following outside of a country like Denmark, where we really have very few national heroes to choose from. Alan Gilbert says "I'm sure Nielsen's time is coming" so let's hope he's correct. Being the chief conductor of the NY Phil should lend some weight to his opinion, and with the great pieces (4th and 5th symphony, clarinet and violin concerto) leading the way, the rest of Nielsen's oeuvre might follow.

Back to the tour:
The Royal Danish Orchestra and Michael Schønwandt played a great concert (yeah, you could say I'm biased, but so far the critics have agreed) in the somewhat wet accoustics of Alice Tully hall on thursday.
They opened with Nielsen's "Pan & Syrinx", a short and strange orchestra piece, perhaps something akin to a octagonal bonbon; it feels really akward in your mouth even if it still has a likeable flavor.
Apparently Nielsen composed it in about 10 days, and I wouldn't be surprised if that were true. It has great spontaneous compositional elements (like the percussion/low-strings polymetric counterpoint at the tutti culmination measure#135-142) but also several elements that surely would benefit from a bit of critical editing: Leading up to the middlesections first culmination at measure 110, the 1st Clarinet and Cor Anglais fight an impossible fight for prominence, the Cor Anglais especially suffering in a range that doesn't allow it to project a real 'ff' and hence their screaming duet is reduced to one screaming clarinet and one distant cry for help from the Cor Anglais. At another tutti 'ff'' - measure #51 - Nielsen decides to have the bassoons play a strange downward arpeggio figure, which is completely unrelated to anything else going on and is absolutely drowned in the massive sound of the rest of the orchestra. Only a lot of creative editing allows you to hear this on a recording, for it stands no chance in a live performance.

After "Pan & Syrinx" followed the much performed and always wellrecieved clarinet concerto. John Kruse performed the solopart in what I felt was somewhat under his normally amazing standards, rushing many sections and feeling short-of-breath. I think he was nervous, and boy, I don't blame him.
When that is said, it was by any other measure a great performance, but knowing from experience that he can do it better, I felt slightly dissapointed. John is one of those rare players that can singlehandedly 'make' a concert and leave you speachless with one of his beautiful flowing lines, and I couldn't help feeling that, when push comes to shove, he might be too much of a nice guy for Nielsen's hysterical concerto. I'll bring that thought with me for next time I hear John perform it. He might prove me completely wrong.

I don't love the clarinetconcerto immensely, even if I respect it highly and consider it among Nielsen's very best works. For example I find the recurring 3/4 'quasi adagio' meandering theme (first occuring at measure #219) to be too bland for Nielsen to give it repeated appearances, and personally my ears grow tired of the dark strings/horn/bassoon emulsion that he limited the orchestration to. Granted, the snaredrum is a refreshing element and something very and truly original, but for some reason it eventually comes out as slightly impotent. Had Nielsen given the snaredrum a cadenza of it's own, and perhaps upgraded it to a Concerto for Clarinet and Snaredrum, I think would have been eternally fascinated. Also, the concerto lacks a true apoteose which makes it more interesting than fulfilling.
We spent some time in the GP balancing the concerto, and the result was very satysfying. Many details were blurred on account of the acoustics, but the orchestra played almost impeccably, and the inherent struggles and bright contrasts of the piece were extremely satisifying to follow in concert. 

Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" ended the concert, and as always with this piece (and most of Stravnisky's pieces to be honest) I was left feeling slightly dissapointed. You couldn't put a finger to the performance; the orchestra played with precision and enthusiasm, Schønwandt kept the spirit up and the piece flowing, and his tendency to push every allegro never tipped the barrel on this night, because the orchestra was able to honor it.
But, I would much rather hear the original material by Pergolesi than sit through 40 minutes of Stravinsky's static orchestration. Much less of a cerebral exercise than say "L'histoire du Soldat", "Pulcinella" is nonetheless still too full of those 'interesting' and 'daring' collage techniques that has since left many a music student scratching his head when trying to analyze structure and form of these sections of Stravinsky's pieces. You can't; you can only say "this goes here, and that goes there" and then leave it at that. I hate it when any composer is demonstrating technique over musical development, and I feel that's what happens too often with old Igor.
Also, of other composers exploring neoclassical elements at the time, I get infinitely more pleasure and fulfillment from both Prokoffiev and Britten.

The Sinfonia Concertante setup of Pulcinella is potentially interesting, but it requires that the Concertino (the smaller section of solistic players) is isolated and really treated as soloists, which was not the case for this evening's concert. The result is that whenever the Concertino-group has anything of interest, it's too often drowned out by the Ripieno (the tutti-section of the orchestra).
Also, whenever Stravinsky starts piling tonalities on top of eachother - like colorful legos - it never really leads somewhere interesting, but simply dissipates after 3-4 bars, and when the "Tarantella" drowns in the muddled orchestration, and when the winds embark on the dull 8-minute theme-with-variations towards the end of the piece, I am so dissinterested I start counting lightbulbs in the ceiling.
This evening, our trio of singers were not really a coherent unit, but it didn't bother me so much as the piece itself. I'm sorry, Stravinsky, you still only have a few pieces that keep me interested.

Ultimately, the test for any touring orchestra is whether or not it lives up to the standards expected in those cities it visits. The standards by which orchestras are measured in New York is obviously are pretty high, and as an orchestra, The Royal Danish Orchestra passed with flying colors.
I was not a personal fan of the repertoire choices, but I understand why an orchestra would hesitate to bring the truly great pieces to a city where the best orchestras of the world take turns playing them, and I guess projects like these get so caught up in political considerations that it would appear sacrilegous to not play at least two Nielsen pieces. What the "Pulcinella" is doing in any concert program, except make people hum along, laugh knowingly at the 'funny' doublebass solo, and consider themselves daring for accepting the more dissonant parts of the suite I can't say.

In #2 of "The Touring Test", I'll tell you why our performance of Poul Ruders' "Selma Jezkova" (the opera formerly know as "Dancer in the dark") was both a complete failure and a formidable success, but for now I'll leave you with this:
I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.
- Igor Stravinsky
Paradoxically, I could say the exact opposite about a lot of Stravinsky's music.

- Jesper

Saturday, July 23, 2011

On Conducting Contemporary Music #1

Although I have not been in the game for that many years, I would say I have already quite an extensive experience with contemporary music. Since I started conducting, I have had a regular trickle of gigs conducting contemporary music. They mostly come in one of three basic formats:
  1. Workshop - wherein the composer is there for the entire rehearsal period, and where I have 'carte blanche' to try and help the composers improve on the piece - ideally in a closeknit partnership with the composer himself, with the musicians and sometimes including another 'sensei' (like an older, respected composer).
    These workshops - of which I have done at least 6 or 7 - can be a very mixed experience, since it often involves very fresh and unschooled composers and sometimes even the occasional nutjob. By that I mean someone who has absolutely no idea of what composition is really about, but somehow slipped through the application process and is now presenting a panel of expert musicians with his arrangement of something similar to the string parts of a Beyonce track.
    I have had a lot of great experiences with hardworking, humble, talented composers at such workshops, but about 90% of the time is spent sorting out basic mistakes, explaining basic compositional concepts (that their teachers apparently have not bothered to pass on), controlling egos and soothing frustrated musicians who are trying to concieve the young masterminds' incomprehensible babble.
    What is very important to note though, is that by doing this we are an active part of a sorting process, which is important and necessary. Can you imagine how many halfwit composers were active at the time of Mozart or Brahms, and which whose music we are now thankfully free from listening to(well, mostly anyway)? These workshops are a part of the process of sorting the wheat from the chaff, and therefore they are necessary and extremely important for the nurturing and development of contemporary music.

  2. Generic Contemporary Music Festival Concert: wherein the ensemble and I are allowed to focus on performing the given piece to the best of our abilities. A standard concert production with typically 4-5 rehearsals and a concert in a small venue for a small crowd consisting mainly of other composers.
    The quality of the pieces is generally much higher technically than at the workshops, but not necessarily more satisfying artistically.
    More often then not, there will be 2-3 musicians in the group (of proclaimed "specialists") who have not prepared for the concert and will reply to any unusual technique or demanding passages with the standard catch phrase: "This is impossible to play!" (A phrase Richard Strauss heard a million times!!)
    What they are really saying is: "I could probably play this if I had taken the time and effort to really practise it, but I couldn't be bothered, since this gig pays like sh*t and no one can tell the difference in the end anyway."
    They might sometimes be right with that last bit, but they are not right in passing judging before the fact or without proper evidence or jury!!
    These festivals like our local UNM, Nordic Music Days or Music And Art Around are showcases for young composers, and a great opportunity for many of them. I hope these types of festivals will continue to thrive and attract government funding for they are the next step in that process of sorting.
  3. The last rung of the ladder is of course the completely top-professional Generic Symphony Orchestra Plays Contemporary Music-session/Generic Opera Company Performs Newly Commisioned Opera.
    These are the most costly (very!) and prestigious (for the composer!) productions of new music, and they get the occasional wellearned media coverage. They can be very frustrating for all involved, but they can also be great triumphs and breakthroughs for both composers and for 'art music' as such. I will share some of my own personal up and downs later on. I have conducted contemporary opera at the Royal Danish Opera and premiered new orchestra pieces with the Cph:Phil, and there are interesting stories behind all these experiences.
Now it's time for me to focus on what has so far been a very rewarding experience with contemporary music - Poul Ruders opera "Selma Jezkova" - and leave you with this insight:
"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones." - John Cage

Friday, July 22, 2011


Time to start scribbling down the "adventures" of this (semi)young orchestra Conductor, struggling to make a living from his dying artform in a small city in a small country in a small world.

This blog wil take shape slowly and will most likely just linger in solitude in some dark crevasse of the internet. If you happen by it, try to appreciate it and feed it some water and a few small insects perhaps.

As for the contents of the blog, I will try to journal my way through the classical music business of today. I will attempt to describe the frustrations and hardships that comes from having chosen Conducting as my metier. They are seemingly endless, and since the positive and wonderful moments are...very powerful few and far between, i regularly question both my sanity and ability to stay on this course.

I learned the basics of conducting at a young age (14), but it wasn't until 7 years later, when I found myself playing the french horn in one of Denmark's better professional orchestras, that the cursed desire to be the man with the plan invaded my mind.

As I played my horn, I watched many wonderful, creative and skillful conductors at work, but also cringed at the futile attempts of many of the 'lesser gods'. Had I known at the time how difficult it is to be merely a decent conductor, I would have shown them much more sympathy. I will have much more on this - on how I now try to stay humble, and how I have also sorely regretted my own behaviour at times - in a later blogpost. I promise!
Since I was at the time apparently vulnerable to the advances of insanity - on account of a bad loveaffair with a quite 'troubled' girl - I decided to quit my wellpaid, steady, comfy, (dare-i-say-easy?) job as an orchestra musician in favor of what should later turn out to be a difficult, ever-agonizing search for mostly underpaid, humiliating work. 
Well ok, it's not only that of course, but for the sake of the entertainment value and storyline-intergrity of this blog I'll let that description stand.

Mind you, I don't regret it for a second, but I bite my knuckles and often wonder what would have happened had I stayed in the orchestra. I am quite convinced I would not still be there, in case you're wondering.

The conducting studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Music were initially less fruitful than I had hoped, but eventually I found a fantastic teacher and real maestro in Giancarlo Andretta; a strict tutor and a technically brilliant conductor who almost singlehandedly pushed things in the right direction for me. (Props also go out to this very smart man, and also - I must admit - this crazy specimen). 
Unfortunately, many of the secondary subjects that the program offered us on paper received only a minimum of attention, were directly scrapped or suffered from such incompetent teaching that any conducting student that meant serious business basically had to learn it himself somehow. This included important subjects to our metier such as playing from a score, vocal accompagnement, choral conducting etc. etc.
How the program fares now I dare not think of, since funding have dwindled even more since then.

The program at the RDAM had us conduct the country's professional regional orchestras (like the one I had just left) up to 4-5 times a year, which is something every conducting student can only dream of. While this seems like a unequivocally positive thing, I have since learned that it is not. On the contrary, I think it has so far kept me from working with some of those orchestras (there are 4 orchestras in this country I have still not conducted professionally); work which my curriculum by now difinetely merits. Why? Because they saw us conduct at our worst; as clueless students and they resented it.
I usually like to say that orchestras are like elephants; they have a very thick skin and they never forget, so, I don't blame the orchestras that won't hire me anno 2005, but...hopefully, I'm a very different kind of conductor now...

On a sidenote it still worries me that, at the time, the academy could - and gladly would - claim they had the worlds best conducting program on account of this setup with the regional orchestras. In reality it meant that the more frequent conducting sessions with the student orchestra was a complete joke, simply because there was absolutely no pressure on the students to take it seriously, and the strings especially were notoriously unprepared and unaware. You could compare it to teaching someone how to drive using a soapbox car.
Also, these claims completely fall apart if any sort of scrutiny is applied when looking at what some of the conducting students from that time are now doing. With one possible exception (and I know it's definetely not been easy for him either), none of my fellow students from that time can claim to make a living from conducting.

This is not solely their fault or any testament to talent or lack thereof. It's a testament to the harsh reality of this business, to the incompetence and fiscal impotence of the educational system, and to the many misconceptions of our role as conductors.

Although I can personally now claim to be one of 10-15 people in this country making a living from conducting alone, the reality is I made more money as 'just' an orchestra musician, and I often want to scream to high heavens with anger and frustration at this business, at the work and - of course - at myself (!!).

Having written these lines, I realise there's much more to say. This is not a boring life to say the least, even if it is a frustrating one at times. So, stay tuned for more insights on what life can be like for a professional bread-and-butter conductor such as myself.

In two days I take off for New York as assistant conductor on this mini-tour with the Royal Danish Opera and I will try to blog on from over there, but in the meantime I leave you with this quote:
"Try everything once, except folkdancing and incest." - Sir Thomas Beecham.

- Jesper

If you could magically create your dream conductor, but he/she could only posess one quality, he/she should preferably be...