The Maestro as Teacher

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The Maestro as Teacher

Post by Ralph » Sat May 19, 2007 8:56 pm

From The New York Times:

May 20, 2007
Making the Maestro Collaborator in Chief

MANY musicians of high school age have devoted teachers whom they respect and depend on. But only at a conservatory or a university music school do young hot-shot musicians typically encounter teachers of awesome stature like the cellist Janos Starker and the pianist Leon Fleisher. Music students develop transformational relationships with these inspiring, sometimes intimidating masters, more so, in my experience, than students in the visual arts, acting, writing and other creative fields.

So when you ask the players of a major orchestra what they want in a conductor, they answer almost as one: a great musician steeped in the heritage and repertory, an interpreter of insight and depth with the technical skill to convey ideas and elicit results. In other words, they want someone who reminds them of the master teachers they revered in music school.

Naturally, others in the orchestral circle have their own ideas of what to look for in a music director. Managers want a conductor with the star power to pull in audiences. Board members insist on a smooth-talking charmer who can entice donors. Critics and adventurous music lovers campaign for an innovative thinker and programmer, someone willing to invigorate the repertory and build ties to living composers.

But the players want a great maestro, a teacher. Look at it this way: If a gifted violinist who aspired to a solo career is going to have to be content with a good job in the second violin section of a highly regarded orchestra, then at least he or she wants to learn something.

Yet the conservatory tradition offers another model of music making that orchestra players could consider in recruiting a music director. Call it the collegial model. I was reminded of this alternative approach recently while listening to “The Tristan Project,” the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s concert performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall.

For all the competitiveness and jealousies that build up among ambitious young musicians, conservatory students tend genuinely to support one another. This comes through for me whenever I hear a gifted young pianist play a daunting work like Prokofiev’s Third Concerto with a student orchestra as a reward for winning a school’s concerto competition. Every instrumentalist onstage and every student in the hall seems to be rooting for the soloist to nail the piece. If the performance is a triumph and a frenzied ovation results, you can almost hear the proud students proclaiming: “Listen to us. Who needs Vladimir Ashkenazy? Who needs the Cleveland Orchestra?”

It is always rewarding for student musicians to work with a veteran maestro, as when James Levine conducts the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, a prestigious training ensemble at the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts. During his blazing concert performance of Strauss’s “Elektra” last summer with that orchestra, the young musicians seemed palpably thrilled to be performing with Mr. Levine and a cast of major opera singers.

In music schools, however, another kind of excitement occurs when a student conductor takes the podium to lead a chamber ensemble or an orchestra of fellow students. The players know that their colleague’s success as a conductor depends on their good will and complete involvement. Concertgoers can get a sense of what such performances are like when a boyish conductor like Paul Haas leads the gifted and eager musicians of the New York Youth Symphony in a performance of a repertory staple: Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, for example, which Mr. Haas will conduct May 27 at Carnegie Hall in his last concert as music director of this admirable orchestra.

Many professional musicians seem to forget these collegial student experiences after settling into orchestra jobs. When a brilliant young conductor takes the podium of a major orchestra, it is easy for a veteran player to think, “He’s good and all, but what can he teach me?” A fair question. If you are going to hold down a full-time position with a major orchestra, you want to work with a towering maestro: a Wolfgang Sawallisch, a Christoph von Dohnanyi, a Riccardo Muti.

There are notable examples, though, of orchestras that have thrived under younger conductors who were able to emulate the experience of collegial conservatory music making. When Leonard Bernstein arrived at the New York Philharmonic, not yet 40, he was admired for his dynamism, charisma and versatile musicianship. Still, at the time few considered him a formidable maestro or a probing interpreter of Beethoven and Brahms. Though exciting, he was no Bruno Walter. At least that was the first impression.

Yet he galvanized the musicians. Today we listen to Bernstein’s recordings of Beethoven symphonies with the Philharmonic from the 1960s, and the performances sound not just electrifying but rich, searching and important.

Much the same energy attended Mr. Salonen when, in his early 30s, he took charge of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Over the years his accounts of the Beethoven symphonies were admired not for their rectitude and profundity but for their freshness. Like Bernstein, Mr. Salonen approached the scores with the respect and sense of entitlement of a fellow composer. He paired them with contemporary pieces: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example, with Ligeti’s Requiem. In that case he wanted his audience to hear resonances between two path-breaking, volatile and mystical scores.

But as his recent work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic has demonstrated, Mr. Salonen, soon to be 49, has retained the ability to foster a sense of eager collegial music-making among the players. This was especially true of the recent “Tristan.”

Audiences and critics on both coasts had diverse reactions to the theatrical trappings of “The Tristan Project,” especially the videos created by Bill Viola. But the musical performance I heard in New York rightly received an ecstatic ovation.

Here were an orchestra that seldom gets a chance to play complete operas and a conductor with minimal experience in Wagner. But what came through was the communal commitment and excitement of Mr. Salonen and his musicians. There was a wonderful brashness about the playing. Forget Wilhelm Furtwängler and Georg Solti. Forget the Bayreuth Festival and the Metropolitan Opera. The dynamic Los Angeles musicians were like eager students saying, “Give us a crack at this piece.” The performance was bracing, lucid and unjaded. Mr. Salonen conducted the score as if he had composed it.

The excellent cast was headed by the soprano Christine Brewer, who has emerged in recent years as a major Isolde. Onstage were two unlikely Wagnerians, fine singers who were branching out here: the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter as Brangäne and the bass-baritone John Relyea as King Mark. Their participation reinforced the sense of risk and hubris in this performance.

Right now several major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, are searching for music directors. It is essential for an orchestra to work regularly with leading international maestros. But these maestros can develop productive relationships with orchestras as guests. Day-to-day operations can be entrusted to an empowering younger conductor.

Orchestra musicians should think back to their conservatory days and remember that after giving themselves over completely to their master teachers for several years, they eventually graduated and went off on their own, to learn on the job and from one another. That too is part of the great tradition.

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."

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Post by jbuck919 » Sat May 19, 2007 9:10 pm

Bach was made fun of by his sons and hated by many of the boys under his direction for his uncompromising demands. In spite of an absence in the record of evidence, I have to think he was also deeply revered and even loved by the most capable musicians under his direction (including some of the boys), who would have immediately realized that he was offering them an opportunity for artistic performance that does not ordinarily occur in the space of ten lifetimes. In plainer English, and from personal experience, all good performers perform best to the greatest demands.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Post by Heck148 » Sun May 20, 2007 9:31 am

essentially, the conductor is a tracher for the "orchestra".

in its most basic form, the conductor should "teach" the orchestra to play the work as he hears it...he must know every individual part, correct rhythm, pitch, dynamic level, balance, etc, etc...and he must be able to inspire the orchestra to play each part properly, and to accurately correct errors when they occur.

in these days of jet-set guest conductors, and short term music directors, this function is severely abridged or eliminated...often the orchestra "teaches" the conductor -
<<this is how we play it, you can change a few things if you address them specifically, otherwise, this is how we do it>>

in the days when a conductor devoted full-time effort to a primary orchestra, the teaching went on over many years, many rehearsala and concerts...that's a big reason why orchestras developed certain sounds or styles of playing...the conductor developed these characteristics, and hired musicians who produced that sort of result.

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Post by Gregg » Mon May 21, 2007 11:39 am

Heck148 wrote:
in these days of jet-set guest conductors, and short term music directors, this function is severely abridged or eliminated...often the orchestra "teaches" the conductor -
<<this is how we play it, you can change a few things if you address them specifically, otherwise, this is how we do it>>

Very true. Add to that the "workman-like" attitude of many orchestras, and the routine attitude (or attitude of the routine) by "drop-in" conductors, it seems inevitable?

On the other hand the chamber world seems to be getting richer and richer in variety of interpretation and level of commitment.


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