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


orfej said...

If the music has nothing with exploring, searching the frases, looking for emotional involvement, than take one rehearsal and concert! Very sad musical life today...
About critics: who is brave to say the trought about great names? PR, money, aplauses, acting, ideal for a low criteria of audiences who payed expencive tickets...Except in the opera, critics like to folow scandals and bad roles...

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