Monday, August 29, 2011

What constitutes a great conductor - analyzing the components of a Maestro



Inspired by a list in this article by Marc Wigglesworth containing all the qualities orchestra musicians expect from a conductor, I will attempt to put to words what I, as a professional conductor, consider the traits that characterizes the truly great ones. And I don't mean just a good conductor, because there are a lot of those around - smart, reliable, efficient, easy to play with etc. - I mean the great ones.
The ones that make you cry.
The ones the orchestras and soloists talk about for decades.
The ones that, once they have arrived at the production, you hope they never leave.

But let's start with the original list of orchestra members' demands, cos' this is damn interesting.
In the original article, the list appears in a quite random order, so I have attempted to categorize the insane number of demands on the list.

Here goes:
  • Positive personality traits
    • enthusiastic, positive, humourous
    • confident
    • relaxed
    • approachable
    • respectful, humble, polite
    • patient, self-controlled, even-tempered
    • sincere
    • realistic
    • strong-charactered, perseverent, committed
    • clear-of-thought
    • reliable, competent
    • original, interesting, creative
    • empathetic
    • punctual
  • Negative personality traits
    • nervous, insecure
    • rude, sarcastic
    • egocentric
    • boring
    • intimidating, bullying
    • pedantic, cynical, blinkered
    • "detached"

  • Positive physical traits
    • well-dressed
    • has an expressive face
  • Negative physical traits
    • Ugly
    • Smelly

  • Inherent or natural skills
    • a 'natural' leader:
      • charismatic
      • authoritative
    • able to analyze and solve problems
    • good 'musicianship' - a somewhat elusive term, that includes
      • good rhythm
      • a good ear (i.e. able to hear mistakes, balance, intonation etc.)
      • choosing the 'right' tempi
      • phrasing well
  • Adapted or academic skills
    • Conducting'technicalities'
      • has good baton technique
      • has good repertoire knowledge
      • has good knowledge of style, interpretation
      • has good knowledge of string bowing
      • has a sense of musical structure (via analysis)
      • able to accompagny a soloist
      • has good rehearsal technique
        • includes structuring the rehearsal period to culminate in concert
      • adheres to the score 
    • Pedagogical
      • communicative
      • collaborative
      • explains why things are rehearsed
      • inspires, motivates, encourages people
      • empowers, trains people
      • stretches, challenges people
      • makes people listen (i.e. oratory skills)
      • is aware of all the musicians (i.e. acknowledges and distinguishes the individual player from the orchestra)

  • Various positives
    • has a command of the english language - lets clarify this, and say 'a language that is understood by the majority of members of the orchestra in question'.
    • is good mannered
    • is audible (i.e. orchestra members can hear what he says in rehearsal)
  • Various negatives
    • Under- or overrehearsing
    • talking too much
    • changing things 'for the sake of it' (i.e. without proper reason)
    • staring at musicians who make mistakes
    • hitting the stand with the baton

  • Circumstantial positives
    • popular with audience
  • Circumstantial negatives
    • over-familiar

It goes without saying, that no person in the world could possibly possess all the positive traits in this list and none of the negatives. Most of us have a useful mix, and a healthy part of a conductors education should go towards teahing him to build on his individual strenghts.
My personal 'fortes' lie mostly in the "positive personality traits" & "conducting technicalities" categories, and somewhat in the "inherent or natural skills" categories. I must also be completely honest at this point and say, that I really don't smell bad at all. I hope that also counts for something.
On the other hand, I do not consider myself very 'charismatic' or 'interesting', and have not yet found it a necessary part of my work to 'stretch' or 'challenge' people, at least not in that life-altering way that, for example, a Celibidache did.

Some qualities of a good conductor I consider core-qualities, without which you cannot (or I should say, ought not) qualify to actually conduct a professional orchestra, and in my opinion they include the following:
  • being sincere
  • having discipline
  • having a legible and conscious beat - not just a random large swaying of the arms.
  • being able to analyse a score
  • having a very good ear
  • being able to recognise and correct not just obvious mistakes, but even more so the relevant mistakes!*
* This is truly one of the most complicated disciplines of conducting. At a masterclass with Janos Fürst - then professor of conducting at the Paris conservatory - we were, as an exercise, allowed only one correction in an individual 10 minute rehearsal period. Several times he would let the orchestra members suggest what should be corrected, had the student not made the right choice. This was a great platform for getting wiser to this specific discipline.


And ultimately, I find there are certain qualities set the real maestros above the rest of us.
Here's my personal list: (which I retain the right to edit and expand as I myself grow wiser)


  • Having strong charisma and charm.
    • Being able to seduce people into doing what you demand, even if it exceeds standard personal limits, is a common trait among the legends of conducting. Being seduced - verführt - is often a part of a musicians vocabulary pertaining to the great conductors.
  • Understanding what a specific orchestra needs to make it play to its full potential
    • Can you spot an orchestra's strengths and weaknesses, and can you navigate through that? It takes alot of finesse in dealing with and developing the weaker players, choosing a suitable repertoire etc. - it's gardening work.
  • Always having a clarity of purpose
    • ...which comes from knowing exactly what to do with specific complicated problems that arise in rehearsal or from inherent weaknesses in a score. This simply requires a lot of experience from a lot of trial-and-error.
  • Being humble towards the music
    • This strikes me as being possibly the most common trait in all the really great conductors. They simply set the music before anything else, consider it worth more than any one person or institution, and will often offend or dismiss anyone who stand in the way of their noble pursuit. Carlos Kleiber put it to words, in a famous video of him rehearsing the 'Freischütz' ourverture (he is, coincidentally, leading the deserted-island-conductors vote at the bottom of my blog): 
"Forget the real world. It is useless."
Seems simple enough, doesn't it...
- Jesper


    Tuesday, August 23, 2011

    Conductor Semantics - how I mark my score

    I though I would share a few images from my score of the Tchaikovsky string serenade.
    I conducted this piece with the Royal Danish Ballet in march this year, in the Balanchine ballet aptly named "Serenade". I added explanations, so as to give you an idea of how I mark my scores.

    As you can see in these images, I have many different little symbols or techniques. What I've used in this specific score, is just a small sample of my private 'library' of symbols.

    (click on the images to enlarge)




    Each conductor has his own semantics, and looking through a colleague's score is very interesting for that reason. This act of marking a specific detail in the score, is both useful for directing my focus to specific elements during rehearsal or performance and also serves to somehow mark it in my brain.
    Once I write "B.Cl." with blue pencil at a Bassclarinet entry, it's there in my brain as well.

    The markings are always relatively big, making them easily visible from a distance (so I don't bend down over the score too much) and also includes changes in tempo and anything else I find interesting, important or unusual. For example:

    I usually write very large "Rit." or "Acc." sometimes followed by an appropriate dotted line for the multi-measure tempo-changes (ritardando/accelerando).
    Just like a lot of conductors and repetiteurs, I use the ubiqiutous    ~   for smaller, local stretches in tempo.

    For a sudden change in tempo, I use and for "uptempo" or "downtempo".
    For an  exact doubling of the tempo, I use ↑↑

    I mark local bar-structures in my scores a lot; 8-bar period, vertical line, 4-bar period, vertical line,  4-bar period and so on. Many conductors only mark the much larger structures that way, or not at all.
    Some even use a variety of colorful pencils for this purpose, but I don't know where that 'school' originated - to me it looks completely weird with green, orange, purple lines going down the score on every page, but...chacun son goût.

    Now, I also have a long list of abbreviations for the specific instruments/soloists/singers, and this is as varied among conductors as it is among publishers and composers. Over the years, I have boiled it down to this eclectic mix  - which is different from what I write in my compositions by the way.

    For voice: if there's just a single one, I simply write "V", but for specific parts in an opera, I invent my own abbreviations; "K'in" for Kaiserin or "Lep" for Leporello for example.

    For the orchestra instruments, I use the following:
    Fl. = flute / Picc. = Piccolo  /A.Fl. =Altoflute
    Ob. = Oboe / C.a. = Cor Anglais
    Cl. = clarinet / B.Cl = Bassclarinet
    Fg. = Bassoon (which is a 'fagot' in danish) / C.Fg. = Doublebassbassoon.

    Cor. = Horn
    Trp. or sometimes just Tp = Trumpet
    Tb. = Trombone  /B.Tb. = Basstrombone
    Tu. = Tuba


    Pk. = Timpani (pauke)

    Sometimes I frame a whole section at a time (or large portions) and use the following:
    W.W. = Woodwinds
    Brass = well...u can figure it out
    Perc. = Percussion
    Str. = Strings

    For the individual string sections, I write
    I = 1st violins
    II = 2nd violins
    Vla = Violas
    Vlc = Cellos
    Cb. = Basses

    Hp. = Harp
    Pno. = Piano
    Cel. = Celeste

    For certain standard percussion instruments, I have my own little drawings that I use all the time (aren't they cute?):


    I think that's it for now. When I have time, I'll try to scan a few more examples from my scores, so you can see how inconsistent I really am.

    Cheers
    -Jesper

    P.S.
    Todays little aperitif is from when I was a hornplayer in the Odense Symphony Orchestra. We were rehearsing the introduction of the Adagio of Bruckner's 7th  - in which the hornsection plays an amazing chorale on the socalled Wagnertubas, a slightly difficult instrument to master.
    Michail Jurowski was conducting, and he was not satisfied. He interrupted us with a frown saying;
    "You know, there are quartets of excellent wagnertuba-players who travel around in Germany specialising in just this!" - meaning, if we didn't improve, he would have those guys flown in to replace us all.
    Replied the oldest member of our section, the always drywitted Bruno:  "And there are also quite excellent conductors in Germany who can conduct this symphony!"
    We heard little more of complaints from Jurowski that week.



    Saturday, August 20, 2011

    On the tv: "Maestro"...oh, oh, oh

    Those three "oh, oh, oh's" in the headline are meant to illustrate an echo; meaning the vapid, emptiness a concept show like "Maestro" will leave behind.
    (Here's a link to a danish newspaper article about it...all hail Google translate!)

    At this point, of course, I am making harsh, irrational predictions, since the show has not yet aired on danish television. But based on the concept and the participants, I am so full of dread.

    I don't see any justification for this show, other than the participants, judges and presenters getting more television-time. Honestly.
    • Would you invite 6 random people to stand in front of an orchestra and play the Tschaikovsky violin-concerto?
    • Would you make a television program about 6 random people designing and constructing a 10 story building?
    • Would you film 6 random people with no knowledge of mathematics trying to write a mathematical solution?
    • Would you invite 6 monkeys to paint and exhibit at the National Gallery? YES, that would be GREAT and hopefully include a lot of pictures of bananas!!
    • As my brother who has just returned from Afghanistan wrote: would you make a program about 6 random people fighting a war?
    • Would it make sense to construct a television program, that seemingly combines the mysterious aura of the arcane, dark art of conducting with the allure of the celebrity world and project this onto the seemingly hilarious, slapstick shenanigans of working in a very costly, prestigious, cultural institute such as the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra?
    The sensible answers to the questions above are "No", "No", "No", "YES BANANAS", "No" and "No".
    Unless you are a television executive - or otherwise involved in this 'intriguing' program - then the answers are "Yes", "Yes", "Yes, "Yes and who can I pay a lot of money for this briliant idea", "Yes" and "Yes".

    The conducting 'fach' has now apparently no integrity, just like professional dancing and cooking. Hooray.

     "Oh, but Mr. Nordin, how can you be so negative?"
    Because, that's my gut reaction. I hope to have it reversed when I watch the first episode of "Maestro". Then I will write a blogpost about how wrong I was, I promise. Oh, wait! If I watch it, then I will just be another pawn in their evil masterplan! A puppet, dancing on a string! Help me, I'm caught in a paradox!

    P.S. When I say "random", I mean celebrities. Celebreties are people who have deviced a clever plan (possible including the collection of underpants) to be seen as much on television as possible.

    Friday, August 19, 2011

    Reviews and controversy

    Maybe I will finally be scandalous after all!! (box checked!)
    If all it takes is being honest, I'm so pissed noone told me that years ago.

    Now, I won't delve into this matter much further, but to say this: To be fair, I did enjoy several parts of this monday's concert. That doesn’t really shine through Norman LeBrecht's slighty sensationalist heading (my blog was quoted on Norman's "Slipped Disc" blog yesterday and that has caused a bit of hubbub!).

    Those that take offense to my critique of the “Vier Letzte Lieder” have every right to, but need to acknowledge that the blog I wrote on the subject is definetely not some sort of onesided attack on either Järvi or Fleming.

    I was very shocked that the one newspaper critic was so oblivious to what I percieved was going on, because critics are supposed to be sharp and cognizant and pick up on these things. Otherwise, why should they be critics and not every other Tom, Dick and Harry?

    Other reveiwers agreed with me completely I should stress – it’s not as if I’m just making things up. Here are all the reviews from the 4 major danish newspapers, you can Google translate as you wish:

    As an afterthought, I will now definitely think twice (or thrice!) before doing this type of “review” in the future – of a project that I was involved with. It will all too easily be percieved as being only an aggressive act of jealousy, and not as that which it was meant to be: a personal perspective on something essential to the industry of which I am a part.

    Anyone who needs to discuss this further can comment here or email me. I'll happy to reply.
    P.S. A random something else

    Sincerely
    Jesper Nordin

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011

    "I say toe-may-toe..." - Thoughts on hearing and watching another conductor

    This monday I heard Kristjan Järvi and Renée Fleming with the Copenhagen Philharmonic performing the "Vier Letzte Lieder", four additional Strauss songs ("Ständchen", "Traum durch die Dämmerung", "Gesang der Apollopriesterin" and "Morgen") plus the two suites from Grieg's music to 'Peer Gynt'.

    This was an extremely interesting experience, as I had prepared the orchestra for the concert with two rehearsals on friday and saturday. The Järvi/Fleming chimera arrived sunday for a somewhat truncated Strauss rehearsal, and on the morning of the concert, Järvi simply ran through the 35 minutes of music that makes up the Peer Gynt suites before giving the orchestra an early afternoon.
    Apparently I had done my job so well there was nothing left to rehearse, or? :::Insert ironic smiley here:::

    Hearing the Grieg suites was mostly a pleasure; the orchestra sounded fabulous and Järvi's way of conducting suited the short, simplistic style of the music. Each movement had a sharply defined character and you felt entertained throughout.

    But now that you are here, let me give you an idea of some of the emotions that went through my head for the Grieg: (Nerd Alert!)
    • I had chosen to rehearse the famous "In the Hall of the Mountain King" by starting it in the actual printed tempo (quarternote = 132), but Järvi opted to begin in the 'traditional' much slower tempo. This allows for a bigger span in the tempi from beginning to end, which can be exhilarating, but is - objectively - far from what Grieg wrote. Consequently, the gradual acceleration of the tempo was forced to begin after only a few bars, and not - as pr. Grieg - after the first complete iteration of the theme. Fair enough, it was entertaining. I've often been told I'm "too faithful to the composer" and I think it is meant as a sort of hidden insult...but to be honest I always take it as a compliment. This time, I had spent a few minutes in the rehearsal getting the bassoons and cello/bass to start 'in tempo' and not 'the usual way', so hearing Järvi do it exactly in 'the usual way' made me cringe just a little bit. This battle of [composer vs. tradition] is a recurring theme in my professional life.
    • The Peer Gynt returns home movement is a real gem. The depiction of Gynt's ship battling the storm on the coast of Norway - at the same time as Peer battles a "strange passenger" onboard the ship who more or less wants to cut him to pieces - has a true 'Sturm und Drang' character, and belongs in the same box as the sweeping winds of Rossini's "William Tell" ouverture (go to 5 minutes 20 seconds if you click the link), the crashing waves of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" and the wild "Ride of the Valkyries" from Wagner's "Die Walküre". While I had stuck to beating it in two (fast) beats, Järvi did it quite a lot faster and in one beat, which I found was a much better solution! It rendered the piece in a constant 'alarm' state, that I had sought for, but not been able to achieve. I will steal that carry that with me for the next time I conduct the 2nd Peer Gynt suite, with the additional note, that when you do it like that, I feel you really need to slow down substantially for the woodwind transition into the last movement (which Järvi didn't). So far so good...
    • The charming "Solveig's song" also sounded very good, even if I would have wished for a more articulate string section for the first part of the song. This was something I had tried to achieve in rehearsal, but apparently I should have been more persistent! In conducting, I find it is often like that; you fool yourself into thinking you have solved whatever problem you wanted to solve, when in reality you were only halfway there. You have to keep at it until the musicians cannot play it any other way or you might as well leave it to fate. Note to self: I must adhere to this, or I will never be a great conductor. Now, back to "Solveig's song": The waltz-like second part of the song had the perfect mix of fragility and vulnerability, but also a subtle sexual nuance which was surprisingly pleasant, but is honestly not really consistent with Solveig singing a lullaby at Gynt's deathbed (unless she's a necrofiliac of some sorts). Then for some reason it started gradually slowing down an awful lot the second time around, and I found that move very peculiar and completely offputting. I wondered if it was a conscious choice, or just a result of Järvi's very large and floating beat at that point.
    • I say "toe-may-toe"
    • You say "toe-maaah-toe"
    • etc. etc.
    To summ it up, Grieg and Järvi was a very good match that evening, and the performance entertaining and descriptive, just as it was meant to be.

    The  problem for me was the "Vier Letzte Lieder". I was surprised to find Mrs. Fleming unfocused, the orchestra too loud and Järvi extremely nonchalant.
    By some, his casual body language when conducting - when it looks the best, it's somewhat akin to a Bernstein or Charles Munch - is interpreted as 'charming' and as being extremely 'on top of everything'.
    As in: "Oh look, his beats are so random he must not care how it looks - simply because he's so good it doesn't matter!!" I didn't quite mean that as sarcastic as it may seem, but to those who believe it doesn't matter how a conductor beats or 'carries himself on the podium', I can't begin to tell you how wrong you are.

    A good friend in the orchestra remarked: "Some of us consider this piece almost holy. You expect a conductor to take it more seriously than this." and for this particular reliquary of music, I couldn't agree more.
    You can't 'improvise' your way through the "Vier Letzte Lieder", (click for comic relief) dolloping a phrasing here and a there, prancing about in the holy halls like an elephant in a porcelain-shop. Not if you expect any kind of profound result anyway, and this night it certainly was not profound. It was rushed and sloppy...and dull.
    That constant searching for something interesting in every bar completely compromised the essential melos* that this piece is so rich in: every phrase is connected to the one before it and to the next one coming up.
    To be honest; had the orchestra played it exactly as Järvi conducted, it would have been a horrendous dynamic rollercoaster from one barline to the next. They were caught somewhere in between, and consequently there was a lot of 'spontaneous musicmaking' but no long lines, and for that very same reason Fleming could not produce the richness in tone and phrasing that she is capable of.
    Any singer will tell you; you can't sing a phrase well if you don't know where it's going.
    At least 10 times during the piece, her eyes desperately sought the conductor (her professional smile not giving away anything) for clues as to where this phrase was going, and every time they ended up in different places. It might not have been obvious to a 'layman', but having worked literally thousands of hours with singers, I found it really disturbing to say the least.

    Looking back to my own preparatory rehearsals, could I have done anything to predict this? No.
    I should have put more emphasis on the balancing issues, that's one problem that always comes back to bite you in concerts with singers. And based on the very brief meeting I had with Järvi before the rehearsals (I wont tell you the details) I should perhaps have have realised what type of conductor he is, and worked more in that direction. That is another "note to self".

    Interestingly, one review in a major newspaper couldn't seem to find anything amiss with the "Vier Letzte Lieder". If I didn't already know it, I am now absolutely positive that guy hears something completely different from what I hear, concerns himself more with concert-program resumes than the actual performance and continues to insist on always writing about what the soloist was wearing, as if it actually mattered.
    In the meantime, another groundbreaking revolution took place in the life of another reviewer, who confessed to having tried that rare and exotic 'trick' of closing his eyes to actually listen to what was going on. Goddammit man, are you serious?!! If I was your employer, I'd have you instantly pay me back your fees for all the reviews you wrote in the past where you obviously didn't listen!? Or, let me put it another way: IF YOU CAN'T LISTEN WITH YOUR EYES OPEN - DON'T WRITE MUSIC CRITISCISM!!! Hrmph!!

    *Melos = Wagner's word for melody in it's ideal and total sense. I.e. something not 'local' or transient, but an unwavering, unending line that you can tap into.

    Here's something that never fails to cheer me up: " Leopold!" Talk about a conductor in control...

    Now, back to the scores!
    - Jesper

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    If I can make it here...

    So, here I am, working as a professional conductor in Denmark, a country of roughly 5½ million inhabitants, 2½ operahouses and 7½ orchestras (+ some ensembles, 2 military bands, an Opera Academy, 3 Conservatories and miscellaneous project-based orchestras/summeroperas).
    My work has so far been limited to between 10-15 different employers, and I am slowly awakening to the fact, that I might very soon run out of potential work, if I don't expand my market very soon. The well might run dry.
    A lot of my work in the last 6+ years has been as assistant conductor at the Royal Danish Opera, but I have chosen to end that with our KeithWarner/HartmutHaenchen 'Parsifal' that premieres next March.
    Although I'm quite certain I could continue to do a lot more of  that kind of work if I wanted to, I have made a conscious choice to end it now, politely saying 'thanks but no thanks' to offers of that nature. The (invaluable) learning process is long over, and I simply need performances to develop. I think I have earned my due.
    Should I end up with not enough work to support me, I will look for another line of work. Simple as that.
    Check back in a year or two to see how that has worked out for me! You might find me a very happy taxidriver or coffee-shop owner.


    Consequently, I need to expand. But how? Agents, you say?
    Yes, I would welcome a serious agent with open arms, but so far it's been rather sporadic (pointless) what agencies have been able to do for me. Putting on my 'introspectacles', I imagine the reason is that I just don't have an attractive enough profile or an interesting story to sell, since...
    • I've yet to have the elusive, powerful step-in-with-short-notice-to-save-the-day concert. At the 25+ opera productions of which I have been assistant conductor, none of the conductors were suddenly ill. The list of conductors who recieved sudden and allimportant international attention from taking over from an older colleague is really very long.
    • I didn't participate in any competitions. The two teachers I have respected the most were unanimous in their critique of competitions, and that factored into my decision. As one professor told me: "Competitions are for horses". I'm starting to doubt the value of their advice, but I'll give them this:  what you demonstrate at a competition is a lot different from the daily work in an opera production for example, and there's a certain amount of mass-suggestion/hype/hysteria in play at competitions. Had I started conducting earlier in my life, and ended up at this junction 10 years ago (at which time I was an orchestra frenchhornplayer and hadn't really considered becoming a conductor yet) I think I might have gone down the competition-road anyway. Now it's too late for me, since competitions only allow for under-35 participants (and I am -alas- turning 36 this September).
    • I'm from Denmark, which traditionally have close to zero reputation/tradition for great conductors. I'm not saying we don't have good conductors, but we're not exactly famous for it. Had I been Finnish though...
    • I didn't go abroad to study (related to the point above). At a very crucial moment of my life, I had the choice between taking a year as an exchange-student at the Vienna Hochschule, or a year as assistant conductor on the complete Wagner 'Ring' cycle in Copenhagen. I chose the Ring, but sometimes I think I would have been better off with the "Studied in Vienna" line on my curriculum.
    • I have no network of wealthy patrons or friends in high places etc. to artificially inflate my career.
    • I'm not related to an already famous conductor.
    • I'm not scandalous. (Yet!)
    • I didn't have an international career as an instrumental soloist, which I can use to convince managers to hire me as a (terrible) conductor, simply by virtue of being a recognisable name, and not because I have a clue about the extremely intricate and specialised art of conducting. I think will be the subject of a future blog, in which I will see how rude I can be to very famous people without being sued or just alienated by the very agents and managers I need to hire me.




    If I can't land a good agent, how do I it, then? Good question.
    In my naïve world, once I manage to crack that code, tons of work will come pouring in from abroad, while in reality, it will continue to be a constant battle for attention, even if my potential market expands tenfold. There are fewer and fewer orchestras around, there's less money and everyone wants to be a conductor. But, I have no choice, this is what I do.


    Here's another thought; Why would a manager in a british orchestra for example, choose me over a young british conductor? Well, I tell myself, danish managers hire plenty of young foreign conductors, so surely that process is reversible? I really don't know.

    Actually, I do have a plan. And here it is:


    Except that instead of collecting underpants, I'm mailing my curriculum along with a nice letter to gmd's, intendants, agents etc. all over Europe, offering to stop by their neck of the woods for a trial-conducting, but mostly hoping they just might find me interesting based on my actual experience and the many nice words people have said about my conducting over the years. 

    I have done Scandinavia so far, and have recieved a few encouraging and positive responses, but mostly no reply's at all, which I find very baffling. I do have some good, solid experience in the business. What's missing? A gimmick? A 'flavor'? I spend a lot of time thinking about this when I have one of those larger gaps in my calendar.
    I might catch a break from the wonderful Bolero flashmob I did with the Cph:Phil?`It already has more than 150.000 views, which is not bad for anything related to classical music. It can't compete with "the dude" though, props to the marketing department there, and props to that singlemost famous young conductor of our time. He must have collected a helluva lot of underpants.

    Here's am unrelated quote from one of my alltime favorite - very oldfashioned - conductors, Arturo Toscanini (allegedly spoken to a member of the orchestra during a rehearsal...):

    “God tells me how the music should sound, but you stand in the way.”

    Imagine being able to say that with a straight face! Fascinating.

    - Jesper



    Saturday, August 06, 2011

    I'm the fluffer + disturbing bonus info

    This morning, as I was preparing for a meeting with Kristian Järvi, I remembered someone once explaining the concept of a 'fluffer' to me. You might think it's some sort of cute disney character, but you are wrong. Basically, a 'fluffer' is a person who gets adult movie stars ready for 'action' before the camera starts rolling for real.
    Why did I think of this? 
    Because, next week I'm preparing the Cph:Phil for a concert with Renée Fleming (conducted by said Kristjan Järvi) by rehearsing the program for two days before the main protagonists themselves show up. The comparison might be a bit...stretched...but it struck me that I was very much in the same...position...as the 'fluffer'. 
    Ok, enough with the cheesy double-entendres.

    The program consists of several Richard Strauss songs to be sung by Mrs. Fleming (including the mindblowingly gorgeous "Vier Letzte Lieder") and the two 'Peer Gynt' suites by Grieg. I have to two 4-hour rehearsals to walk the orcestra through the pieces, smooth out the kinks and check the material for incosistencies. 
    This is pretty standard practice, and I've had quite a few gigs like this in the last couple of years; the orchestra needs to be well prepared (that is, by modern standards) and the stars of the classical world don't have much time for rehearsing. 
    Last summer, I prepared the same orchestra for a concert series with the San Frasisco Ballet for example, earlier this year I ran the Danish Radio Sinfonietta through Beethovens 3rd and 5th symphony in preparation for Adam Fischer, and I frequently rehearse operas at the Royal Danish Opera before the 'real' conductor shows up.
    We weed out the misprints, check the string section bowings (if prescribed by the arriving maestro - otherwise I will keep it as neutral as possible), give the general tempi and simply let the musicians get more familiar with the pieces.
    Now, if I can also awaken the orchestra's interest in the piece, inspire them, I'm an even better fluffer, but that is very tricky, since I can't really start to superimpose my own interpretations on that empty - if prepared - canvas that the concert's conductor is coming to work on. 

     !! This art of being a neutral conductor is near-impossible, but I'm getting the feeling that there's something in my phlegmatic nature that makes me suitable for the work. If I want to develop further, perhaps I need start to worry less about the technical aspects of conducting, and more about the art of conducting - it's food for thought anyway. I certainly don't wanna spend my life being that guy who everyone thinks is good enough for rehearsals but too boring for concerts. This is my personal nightmare. Who want's to be a neutral artist anyway?

    On the other hand, I don't mind this kind of work, as long as it's resonably payed and the repertoire is worth investing the time in. Realistically, the 'Vier Letzte Lieder' is probably not a piece I will get to conduct anytime soon (in a professional context) if not for this type of work, so I'm grateful for the opportunity to get my hands dirty and get some experience with this masterpiece. In January/february next year, I will work as assistant conductor on 'Parsifal' for the same reason; to conduct the opera in rehearsals is invaluable experience that you just can't get in any other way. 
    Of course, one thing is even better than that, and that's conducting the actual performance...patience my young padewan, patience.


    The worst aspects of OrchestraFluffing© is when you prepare diligently, only for the 'star' to show up absurdly unprepared and not give a sh*t. Yes, it happens. Perhaps they thought this specific production wasn't really worth their talent, perhaps their agent booked it for them (he most likely did), perhaps they have personal problems, who's to say. Just don't reap the benefits of my work if you're not a better conductor than I am, is all I'm saying. And it doesn't take that much effort really, I can't even figure out how to conduct the beginning to that goddamn famous 5th symphony.

    I really don't think that will happen this time around. I've heard only good things about Kristjan Järvi and look forward to meeting him in just a few hours.

    Now for the disturbing bonus info:
    I have what is probably one of the most specialised educations in the world. I have over 5 years of professional conducting experience + another 10 years in the professional music business . Yet, when I go to work on Parsifal next year, I will be paid what is effectively under the minimum wage. To me that suggests I'm either:
    • in the wrong business 
    • an idiot
    • really underpaid
    The answer is probably a combination of all three options. Feel free to comment.

    As usual, here's a quote to end things:
    "All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind".
    -Aristotle
    - Jesper

    Monday, August 01, 2011

    The Touring Test #2

    Here's a scathing review from the NY Times of our performance friday night of Ruder's "Selma Jezkova": NY Times. This wasn't what I expected, but I guess there's a grain of truth in all he wrote, although I definitely do not agree that Ylva Kihlberg's only quality was "some vulnerability".
    The review is more or less congruent with the danish reviews after the premiere last year, so the opera must be said to have had a rather rough birth.

    As hinted in my former post (The Touring Test #1), I thought the performance was both a success and a failure. A success because of the audience reception, which was warm (and actually favored Ruder's in particular), and a failure for one particular reason: On stage, the production suffered the worst possible technical breakdown.
    The crux of the opera is the hanging of Selma, a tricky technical affair with a ton of safety procedures, all to ensure that Selma, who is literaly walking the plank 5 meters in the air, doesn't fall or get caugt in anything nasty. On a musical cue the plank dissapears beneath her, and she is left dangling from what looks like the noose, but is in fact a body harness with the noose only attached by a very thin thread. The effect is stunning and powerful, and even if she only falls about 15 cm and is in no actual danger, the build up of tension at that point, her screams and leg spasms etc. all create a strong illusion.
    So, what went wrong? Something (perhaps some misguided gaffer-tape) prevented the plank from falling when it was released, so after an intense 30 seconds of our stagemanager shouting "Jump! Jump!" from the wings, and panicky cartoon effects being almost physically visible from the performers on stage...


    ...Ylva decided to simply jump off the plank, helped along by a cautious push from Gert Henning Jensen (who plays the District Attorney), now on the plank next to her searching for a way to resolve the problem.
    In hindsight, Gert should never have gone out on the plank to push her off, because had the mechanism suddenly worked, he would have fallen with nothing to save him. Gives me the creeps to think about...
    I imagine Ylva must have been momentarily traumatised by having to jump to her death, and I swear I heard a very honest (and very swedish) "Neeeej!" escape her throat as she jumped. I spent the remaining couple of minutes of the opera with my head buried in my hands, repeating the same four-letter word in my mind over and over again. (Not the one that rhymes with 'duck', the one that rhymes with 'pit').

    Just your standard run-of-the-mill Newyorker.

    That moment makes or breaks the opera. The 70 minutes that precede it are meaningless without it, and the intensity of the effect leaves a longlasting impression. That night, it failed.
    I don't know exactly how many working hours and how much money have gone into preparing for this tour and for this performance, but at that moment it felt like it was all for nothing. It was heartbreaking, and incredibly frustrating.
    As always, it's hard to say how many people even recognised that something was wrong, but the shouts from the stagemanager should have alerted them to the fact. Nonetheless, the audience applauded heartedly, and the initial responses were really quite positive.

    I have enjoyed working on "Selma" immensely, growing attached to it from early on, proofreading the score for Edition Wilhelm Hansen, conducting rehearsals in Copenhagen and now following it on tour to the Big Apple. I enjoy the compositional stile of the piece, especially in the duets between Selma/Bill and Selma/Kathy and never grew tired of working on it, which is more than I can say for some of the more established pieces I've worked on.

    Hopefully another opportunity will arise for me to personally conquer New York. This was a great and interesting trip, but it certainly left me hungry for more.
    P.S. did I mention that one of our pianists got bit in the foot by an angry rat? Well, that's New York for you I guess.
    “If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative.” - Woody Allen
    - Jesper

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