Monthly Archives: December 2011

Great, now I’m a cult member

Every once in a while you find an article like this; they pop up like purslane between patio bricks, only less useful and nourishing.

And they really, really annoy me.

“The Cult of the Conductor” by Peter Philips of the Tallis Scholars is one of these offerings, and although it’s not new by any stretch, I hadn’t read it before.  It’s one of those screeds about how all conductors wrongly want to impose their own uncompromising (and often wrong) interpretations onto an ensemble’s music-making and how the musicians would do better to just not have a conductor there at all. Best of all, he takes on Robert Shaw, patron saint of large ensemble choral clarity in the U.S., as the exemplar of this outmoded, unhealthy, overly controlling method. (Why he feels the need to start the article saying he knows very little about Shaw’s methods, and then to continue by eviscerating them, I have no idea. Nor do I know why he would say Shaw didn’t write much about his methods–the man couldn’t shut up on paper or in rehearsal, from what I can tell. And the Robert Shaw Reader had been in publication for two years before this article was written.)

He then waxes eloquent about how polyphony demands that every member of the ensemble know his or her own line well enough, and listen well enough, that no conductor would be necessary or helpful in performances at least of Renaissance music.  And how the very term and concept of “choir” simply “will not do” for those who wish to perform Renaissance music, and that choral organizations are “disinclined to give their choirs the necessary responsibility for their lines.”

To which I can only reply, succintly and with hopefully solid imagery and clarity of expression:  Bullshit.

Any conductor who can find an ensemble made up of people willing to take responsibility, or willing to be shaped into people willing to take responsibility, for their own parts and their interaction with every single other member of the group, would think she’d died and gone to heaven. Most conductors I know, if a piece of music is going well enough that he’s not needed, will get the hell out of the way and let the music happen, and will spend every other moment of their professional careers trying to get their groups to that very point.

Yes, it’s a bit of a vicious circle, a system where the expectation is that the conductor will lead and the choir will follow, and thus no one feels invited to the responsibility of mutual ownership of the music.

Mr. Philips also doesn’t like long rehearsals. He is a crack reader, and of course knowing his own line well enough and knowing polyphony means it’s a big old waste of time to do anything in rehearsals other than make sure all the notes are right.

This sounds supremely boring.

In any case, he should learn a little more about his subject before devoting a whole article to dissing St. Robert.

Bravo, Maestro Davidson!

In one of the best articles or essays about conducting I think I’ve ever read, New York Times Magazine music critic Justin Davidson describes his process of trying to figure out exactly what it is the conductor does–by DOING IT.

This is a wonderful piece–beginning to end, full of really good stuff, and I suspect equally edifying for conductors and non-conductors alike. (There may be some cynical brass players or 5th desk second violins who still put up their noses, but oh well.) Excellent.  Some of my favorite quotes:

“I’m standing on a podium, with an enameled wand cocked between my fingers and sweat dampening the small of my back. Ranks of young musicians eye me skeptically. They know I don’t belong here, but they’re waiting for me to pretend I do. ..”

or this: ” ‘Knowing the score’—the expression implies mastery, but it doesn’t suggest the sustained and solitary study that’s required to achieve it. There are a few miles of roadway that I have driven often enough to navigate them faultlessly in my mind: I know every pothole, every deer crossing. A conductor needs similarly detailed recall of an enormous musical terrain. ..” (yes!!!)

About Gilbert: “A conductor has to be simultaneously ahead of the music and with it, experiencing and expecting at the same time—manufacturing an extended déjà vu. When Gilbert works, you can see the pulse thrumming through his body, diggadiggadiggadigga, yet he also projects a commanding serenity. ” (I want someone to say of that of me someday; it so perfectly encapsulates everything I’m working for…)

My favorite: “Staring at my hands like a toddler who’s just discovered his thumbs…” (That was me in October. Or whenever I try to get a grip on the end of the 2nd mvt. of the Brahms Requiem.)

“The modern maestro tries to at least simulate humility. Mine is totally unfeigned.”

And quotes from his teachers in this process, Alan Gilbert and James Ross–

(Ross) “A lot of great conductors are shy, even though you wouldn’t know that from how they handle large groups of people. That shyness can actually help in intimate music. You have to let people see what’s inside you, even if you don’t do that in the rest of your life.”

(Gilbert) “Your hand shouldn’t make the tempo; it should revealthe tempo.”

(Ross) “We feel guilty if we don’t bring all this energy…But we have to realize the emotional life of the music is going to be there, no matter what’s going on inside us.”

(Gilbert) “Assume good will. The orchestra wants to play wonderfully for you. If you hear the perfect performance in your head, then you can just conduct along, and you’re creating the conditions for that to happen.”

And from Davidson again, the crux of it all, stated in a way I have never heard before but instantly resonate with: “In Italian, the word maestro also means teacher. As we power toward the final cadence and I exchange glance after glance with the young musicians, it occurs to me that they are bombarding me with unspoken questions and it’s my job to convey answers. That’s what a conductor does: mold an interpretation by filtering the thousands of decisions packed into every minute of symphonic music. The clarinetist inclined to add a little gleam to a brief solo by slowing down slightly, the tuba player preparing for a fortissimo blast after twenty minutes of nothing—each will look to the podium for a split-second shot of guidance, and the conductor who meets those fleeting inquiries with clarity and assurance will get a more nuanced performance.”

Yes. He’s got it. If I can someday conduct as well as he writes about conducting, I’ll be happy.

Once in Royal David’s City…

I don’t know why, but this is the first year I have ever gotten off my butt to figure out when and where I might be able to hear the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College in Cambridge…

WFMT lost the feed for a few minutes, but they got it back somewhere in Peter Cornelius’s lovely “The Three Kings.” (I love that…once I got to sing the solo part with my women’s quartet in the SSAA arrangement, although the other 3 didn’t love it the way I did, and it’s far superior with a nice rich baritone on the solo, my mezzo pride will even let me admit.) I miss the old not-as-exciting Willcocks descant for Once In Royal David’s City, the one I learned when I was about 8, but I do love that they use the chestnut descants for O Come and Hark the Herald.

This Christmas, especially musically, I’m thinking a lot about my grandmother, who died three Christmases ago sometime in the small hours of the morning. I returned from Midnight Mass and moments later got a phone call from my mom saying that she’d just quietly gone. I still hold in my heart the thought that she wanted to hear Silent Night sung at church one more time and slipped her spirit over to my sleepy parish church on her way home, because the timing was perfect.

My grandmother was where my love for Christmas music was born and grew. Silent Night. Once in Royal David’s City–she had the LP of Lessons and Carols and we listened to it every year. (I can to this day recite the first lesson, complete with sweet chorister Queen’s English accent, from memory.) The Boston Camerata–she loved the baritone’s rendition of the Gloucestershire Wassail…

I find I’m missing her more this year than any other Christmas since she died,  and weeping more when I hear particular pieces of music. She loved Christmas so much–the music more than anything.

Murder Your Darlings

I love to read books on writing by writers. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Stephen King’s On Writing.

Anne Lamott talks about the “Shitty First Draft.” It is she who got me through the first blathery draft of my manuscript, now ready to be gone over and reorganized into something that can go to the copy editor.

Stephen King, when talking about that very process of self-editing one’s shitty first draft into an actual piece of writing, tells us “you must murder your darlings.” (Leave it to King to find such a picturesque way to put it.) No matter how much you like a particular sentence or paragraph or image, if it doesn’t serve the larger work, out it goes. Kill it. Murder your darlings.

I just cut my favorite 3 pages of the introduction, because it works better without them.  I hate it, but it had to be done.


[UPDATE: My editor has since asked me to put them back, because he liked them too. So there.  At least this darling gets to survive…]

Review: “The Acting Principles of Constantin Stanislavski and Their Relevance to Choral Conducting”

Okay, I confess–as good as the Choral Journal is, I rarely read it all the way through or even necessarily give the articles more than a good skim. Most of the time they are Very Interesting Articles That Have Nothing To Do With My Choral Life, so I give them a look, pass by them, and move on.

This month, however, I ran across this article: “The Acting Principles of Constantin Stanislavski and Their Relevance to Choral Conducting” by Ryan Hebert of the University of Tampa. And this one I did read all the way through. And will bookmark it for my research. Very, very interesting.

The article looks at the Stanislavski method and its relationship to all prior modes of acting instruction–basically, in Stanislavski one does not seek to copy or imitate the emotion/state of being called for in the text but to actually feel or be whatever is being asked for, to re-create rather than re-present the sense of the theatrical moment. And it looks at choral conducting, and wonders if the same principles could be applied there.

Brilliant question.  Revolutionary and really, really smart idea. And it’s a very solid article, though I’m not sure the author goes far enough to really embrace what seems to me to be the real premise of the article, i.e. that conducting is about more than gesture and communication but touches on something deeper (though admittedly that very premise is by its nature something all but impossible to access by accepted scholarly discourse; I still think Garnett has gone miles further than anyone before or since in that direction).

(Okay, and now I’m cracking up–when I went over to her blog to link here, what’s her latest entry but her processing of Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. No mention there whether she saw the CJ article, but it’s a very fun synchronicity…and she brings up an interesting correlation between Stanislavski and Schenker, which I will have to think about further…but I love synchronicity.)

Hebert also brings up, early in the article, the idea that extraneous gesture and non-verbal communication becomes a barrier to the ensemble’s apprehension of what the conductor is trying to get across, a great point and an undeniable reality which he then IMO fails to really connect to the Stanislavski information. (It makes me wonder if this article may be picked out of a larger document like a dissertation or something, and whether it’s pursued more in the larger version, like watching an otherwise really good movie and wondering if some minor plot points are connected in material that’s left on the cutting-room floor.)  And when he speaks of the three models of acting (mechanical, representative, and belief), he doesn’t quite say–or say whether Stanislavski says–that all three are of great importance, that acting from “belief” without the basics of well-thought-out mechanics and representation will be sloppy and not quite successful. And that a poor or imbalanced synthesis of the three is exactly what will result in those extraneous gestures. (To be fair, it’s possible he doesn’t say this because he doesn’t believe it’s true. It’s what I totally believe, though.)

He also, IMO, gets a little too attached to applying these principles to the text of the music–the idea that the reason this connection applies to choral music and perhaps not orchestral music is because choral music is set to text.  But that’s way too small a connection.  Look, for example, at the 573 bajillion Mass settings and 94.634 Requiem settings in the rep; they are all set to the same texts, but to analyze the text without looking at the content of the music–which is essentially the composers‘ processing of that text set against what is inside his or her experience/emotion/belief, is obviously not going to cut it.

However, all my nitpicking aside–to me, the hallmark of a good article, and an important one, is that it presents a perspective that makes one go, “Wow, I never thought of it that way!”–and better still, to make one go, “Yeah, that’s interesting, but you didn’t go to this and this and this and this” and get other people pushing and questioning your ideas, taking them even further. By that measure, this is a superb article. It’s rare that something comes along that makes me want to make room in my musical cosmology for additional furniture, but this has me redoing the interior design. Just a little. There’s a nice spot over under the window there…

I wonder if I’ll have room in my program to take an acting class?

An Introvert Relaxes.

Now that the last paper is PDF’d and sent to the prof, the last presentation is given, the last concert sung, and the books returned to the library, I’m done.

And wiped out. Wow.

In the meantime, I found this awesome article:

10 Myths about Introverts

This guy hits it on the nose. I wish more people knew about this. (Although, have you noticed, extroverts really don’t care what introverts are like.  But it’s nice for introverts to understand that the stuff many extroverts say about them are really off base, and the problem is them, not us.)

I think for the next seven days or so I will not listen to music, I will not crack a score or any printed matter that isn’t a crime thriller or foodie magazine. I will watch movies only if they have no redeeming social value. Or possibly if they contain Muppets. I may even try to stay off the computer for a few days.