Sunday, December 16, 2012

Poll #2

I put up a new poll, which you should find if you scroll a bit down to the bottom of the page.
(It appears that the poll doesn't work on some mobile devices. You can chose the "go to web version" option to help with that).

The poll is related to this article about which qualities make up a great conductor.
As with any survey; the more data I collect, the less variance there will be. So please clicke-ty-click with your vote, and ask your friends or colleagues to do the same.

I've shortened the list of choices, so if there's a specific quality not on the list that you would like to vote for, leave a message and I will add it to the poll.   Unfortunately I can't add choices to the list once someone has voted. So I can't add your suggestions, but will remember to include them in a future conclusion.

( P.S. The first poll I put up yielded some interesting results. )

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Deserted Island Conductors, it's a wrap.

Just a quick wrap-up of a poll I put up on the website a long time ago. About 50 people voted, most of whom I assume are classical music professionals (or afficionados). The results are very clear, and just confirm what I already knew. Carlos Kleiber is the man.

Here's what I find disturbing: only one person voted for Karl Böhm. Has he dissaperead into obscurity at this point?
Another remarcable tendency is that two of the most expensive and high-earning conductors in the world (Dudamel and Gilbert) get only one vote each. Also, no one voted for Lorin Maazel who used to top that list. To go with that surprise, the supposedly busiest conductor in the world (Gergiev) also gets only 2 votes. What gives?

Other results that surprise me:
- Leopold Stokowski apparently still has a fan base, despite being possibly the most out-of-fashion of all these candidates.
- Levine beats both Karajan and Toscanini. Is this because I have a lot of american readers?
- Munch should be higher up. Just sayin'

I'd love to know who you think was unjustly omitted. Or, if you have suggestions for another poll.

The complete list:
Since everyone was free to choose several candidates, the percentages are not of the total number of votes, but rather a percentage how many people included that conductor on their list.

Kleiber, Carlos 23 (46%)
Bernstein, Leonard 16 (32%)
Furtwängler, Wilhelm 9 (18%)
Celibidache, Sergiu 8 (16%)
Levine, James 8 (16%)
Karajan, Herbert von 7 (14%)
Abbado, Claudio 6 (12%)
Toscanini, Arturo 6 (12%)
Stokowski, Leopold 6 (12%)
Muti, Riccardo 5 (10%)
Metha, Zubin 5 (10%)
Rattle, Simon 5 (10%)
Munch, Charles 4 (8%)
Thielemann, Christian 3 (6%)
Strauss, Richard 3 (6%)
Gergiev, Valery 2 (4%)
Dudamel, Gustavo 1 (2%)
Ozawa, Seiji 1 (2%)
Böhm, Karl 1 (2%)
Gilbert, Alan 1 (2%)
Maazel, Lorin 0 (0%)

other... (unspecified) 18 (36%)

A circling of 5th's - comparing Beethoven interpretations

This is not some silly attempt to locate the holy grail of Beethoven's 5th interpretations on youtube.
It was initially meant to be a comparison of beginnings of Beethoven 5th's, because it is a legendary challenge for any conductor to start this symphony, and a constant subject of masterclass anxiety and monday morning hardships in orchestras worldwide.
There's something about the nature of the music at that very spot that just makes is perpetually challenging and interesting. If you are interested in an illustration of that, just watch each clip until the orchestra have played 20-30 bars, then move on the next video. You should learn a lot from it.
Needless to say, these are all great professional orchestras, and unfortunately there are no videos available to illustrate the very first attempts at starting the symphony at the very first rehearsals of any of these constellations. That would have been marvellous for someone like me, and probably right boring to someone not interested in conducting technique.

Let's begin with this fascinating character:

Leonard Bernstein - Wiener Philharmoniker
Look closely at the two first films here, and you'll see how Bernstein - by some considered a spur-of-the-moment unpredictable dandy - knows exactly what he's doing. With a tiny flick of the wrist, he illustrateshis choice of tempo to the orchestra (although it's the smallest of signals, it is easily interpreted by musicians of this caliber) and then gets on the case with his usual expressive personality. He does the exact same thing with both orchestras, years apart.
I never feel like Bernstein is trying to prove something - unlike other colleagues in some of the following examples - but only that he's trying his best to experience the music. That is very sympathetic.

And here is Lenny again, this time with the Bayerische Rundfunk Orchester

And now for something completely different:

Nicolaus Harnoncourt - The Chamber Orchestra of Europe
The only quasi period-instrument recording on this list. The trumpets and timpani are not modern, and that makes a huge impact on the sound along with Harnoncourt's short phrasing style and tight, sharp attacks. It has it's flaws and imprecisions, and the emotional impact on my 'modern' heart is nothing like the Muti or Klemperers, but on the other hand, I'm never bored and I find this version to be a credible attempt at reproducing Beethoven's contemporary reality.

Paavo Järvi - Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie
Another fast interpretation, just to compare with Harnoncourt. This one is played on modern instruments. Järvi looks so businesslike in comparison to for example Bernstein. The delivery is cool and strong, and leaves little respite or room for alternative interpretation on the part of the players. Among the faster interpretations, I much prefer the Harnoncourt.
It's hard to put a finger on, but in Järvi's case, I feel robbed of a certain kind of acceptance of the human condition. Everything is there, but I'm just not sure why it's there.

Kurt Masur - New York Philharmonic
Masur's style of conducting always seemed more intuitive than technical to me. This interpretation is among the heaviest, and to my ears doesn't compare in pure orchestral quality to the Philadelphia/Muti constellation. I do like how Masur seems to breathe in the whole world before the very first note, and that first iteration of the famous three-note motif is very powerful, but then I immediately get dissapointed by the abruptness of the second fermata. Why so short!? Beethoven wrote two full bars with a fermata on the second bar - but apparently Masur was not a big fan of that fact. 

Christian Thielemann - Wiener Philharmoniker
According to people who work closely with Thielemann, he can be a beast most cruel and inhuman. And yet, it is always in an never compromising search for musical truths. He's the current equivalent to the great german giants of yore (like Klemperer, Karajan, Böhm etc.), and having heard him several times in concert, my feeling is that of immense respect but not necessary of any kind of emotional consonance or sympathy.

Riccardo Muti - Philadelphia Orchestra

I do love this. The orchestra playing is so strong, and Muti is so balanced in all aspects of his physicality. I feel the interpretation is coherent and congruent, and always powerful. It's not forced down my throat, it's just there for me to admire. I have just one small problem; similar to Thielemann, Muti decides to interrupt the audience with a 'surprise beginning'. I think it's tacky and unnecessary, and in my mind is doesn't relate to the emotional content of the music.

!! Bonus link: Same conductor, different orchestra: Muti + La Scala Philharmonic

Louis Langrée - Detroit Symphony Orchestra

I have included this to illustrate how some conductors interpret Beethoven's use of fermatas in the beginning of the symphony as if it was only a form of shorthand notation of a simple four bar phrase. To that, the response must be; if Beethoven wanted the sounding result of his notation to be two simple four-bar phrases with upbeats, why didn't he write that? He was a composer in complete and utter control of his creations. Nothing in the notation is random, nothing is approximated. As if to prove my point; at the recapitulation '(at 4 minutes and 17 seconds in) Langrée betrays his own inital thought construct by adding time to the second fermata. Thank you Mr. Langrée, now it sounds the way Beethoven notated it!

Herbert von Karajan - Berliner Philharmoniker

This video is very characteristic of Karajan: Overproduced and artificial. The doubling of wind parts and lining players up with metal neck-braces to make the orchestra look like a military platoon are just some of his gimmicks. More than anyone, he understood the meaning of multimedia, long before the advent of the internet and home entertainment. By shaping, molding, manipulating the visual aspect of the performance, he was a deciding player in a development that steered classical music towards being a) a much more visual artform and b) a much more removed artform, where the importance of the live performance is greatly reduced. In some respects, this has caused us a great trouble.
With that all said, Karajan's mysterious appeal is undeniable, his skillset is insurmountable, and his hands just seem to force the sound to go deeper and deeper into the earth.

Otto Klemperer - New Philharmonia Orchestra

Klemperer is here at the end of his life and at the end of his health, and the tempo is excruciatingly slow.
But, at the same time, it is so undeniably tied to Klemperer's physicality, that it for me transcends my reservations about the interpretation, and becomes a fascinating study of conductor/orchestra interaction. You can almost smell the respect that the musicians grant this ageing giant.
With any other person conducting the symphony like that, there would be uproar and coffee stains all over the cantina tables from heated discussions in the lunch break, but here I suspect there would have been a quiet hush and a respectful willingness to go whereever the old man wanted to go.

The Dude (Gustavo Dudamel) - Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
I'm not a big fan of Dudamel's style of conducting, but i feel obliged to include it. It seems so forced, which is probably why some audiences love him. He 'looks' so interesting, with his bobbing hair and spirited personally. And then, the amazing success story of his "Il Sistema" upbringing make him the biggest it's-not-about-the-music conductors of our time. If you listen and compare it to several of the interpretations above, it suddenly becomes bland, and then you find yourself staring at him, searching for something...honest. I can't explain it in any other way.


I've gathered all these videos, and many more Beethoven 5th's (some weird ones too) in this youtube playlist:  

A shocking idea?

Gauging Live Audience Interest

Here's an idea. If you intend to apply this idea to an actual event, please get in touch with me, as I'd love to be a part of it. There are so many interesting things that might happen in this context, and I would die to see it happen.

It's a standard saying in the classical music industry, that you can't measure emotions, but can.
Relatively simple devices can be applied to the human skin to measure conductance (a.k.a. galvanic skin response), which is a measurement of a persons arousal, excitement or tension.
The same technique is used in lie detectors (...and b.t.w. also in an bizarre instrument deviced by the founder of a certain international cult.)

Here's how to do it: Advertise for volunteers among your audience. Before the show starts, you hook them up to a device each. Then, connect the devices to a piece of software that translates and averages the measurements and then outpouts to gauge in form of a a large graphic display, similar to perhaps a gameshow scoreboard.
Alternatively, one could use a programmable lighting setup, in which the light gravitates from blue to orange as the tension rises. Or maybe, you could administer an mild electric shock to the conductor whenever the result fall below a certain threshold. (hehe)

"That! Using Ludwig van like that!
He did no harm to anyone. Beethoven just wrote music"

To be completely serious: with a live measurement and graphic display of the audience's realtime interest in what an orchestra is performing, the bar is immediately raised. Orchestra members and conductors cannot ignore the results (unless they are creationists and used to ignoring scientific facts), and we will be forced to deal the results, much in the same way that professional athletes have been dealing with scientific measurement for decades now.

I want so badly to try this. Even if I might be setting myself up for horrible failure ("Am I really that boring??"), I would most certainly learn something.
As a bonus, we will also learn a lot about the pieces we perform, and how the audience responds the a certain type of programming. It might be very different from what we expect.

It is imperative that as many listeners are hooked up as possible. There will be a natural variance, and to even out the variables, at least 10-20 subjects would be needed. At the moment, I have no realistic idea of what the costs are for this type of experiment, but I bet it's not cheap. Perhaps it would be suitable for a university program?

Any thoughts?

Pros: Percieved innovation beneficial in interaction with legislators and in attracting new audiences, increased performer awareness, focus on the 'payoff' aspect, measurability.

Cons: Performers' inherent fear of scientific measurement of music, dealing with possibly uncomfortable results, unfamiliar logistics, expenses.

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