A selective guide to arts commentaries in print and websites elsewhere.
Introduction to Broad Street Review, plus biographies and contact points for our editors and contributors.
See a list of coming appearances by BSR's writers.
‘Music As Alchemy’: Inside the great conductorsBY: Tom Purdom 07.24.2012
How do conductors elicit great sounds from their musicians? In Music As Alchemy, Tom Service follows six prominent conductors as they pursue their arcane trade. Who knew that Claudio Abbado steadfastly avoids unionized orchestras?
Music As Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras. By Tom Service. Faber & Faber, 2012. 304 pages; cloth, $17; ebook, $12.24. www.amazon.com.
The work behind the wand
Most of us vaguely understand that conductors coordinate the orchestra and mold the overall shape of a piece of music. We know that they set tempos, determine volumes and balance the different sections.
But how do they do it? What do their interactions with the musicians actually look like?
In Music as Alchemy, the Guardian’s former chief classical music critic follows six prominent conductors as they pursue their arcane trade. Unlike most writers who have profiled conductors, Tom Service examines music-making from both sides of the podium and examines conductors’ relationship with the talented individualists they’re supposed to sway with their magic wands.
If you’re interested in the technical aspects of conducting, you’ll find plenty of good examples here. In his chapter on Jonathan Nott and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Service relates how Nott rehearses, bar by bar, a single phrase in Debussy’s La Mer.
In the chapter on Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, he explains the importance of a passage in which the first violins must descend two octaves in a single bar. The violinists make six unsatisfactory tries before Jansons moves the rehearsal on to something else.
(Jansons later resolves the problem by adding support from the second violins— something that Dvorak neglected to include in the score.)
That type of detail is always interesting, but this book’s major strength lies in its emphasis on the social and economic arrangements that influence the interaction between the conductor and the orchestra.
Abbado on unions
In the last chapter, Claudio Abbado notes that he has never taken a position in the U.S., because the major orchestras are all staffed by long-term, unionized musicians. Abbado understands that people who have devoted their lives to a demanding occupation deserve the benefits of job security and good salaries. But he also feels that the lack of competition reduces the drive that produces inspired performances.
Most of the orchestras Service discusses operate under other systems. In the London Symphony Orchestra (led by Valery Gergiev), all the musicians work on free-lance contracts, like most of the musicians who play for major British orchestras. Gergiev’s other orchestra, the World Orchestra for Peace, is a high-level pickup band— a collection of major orchestral players from all over the world, who come together for special occasions.
The Royal Concertgebouw under Mariss Jansons reflects the egalitarianism of Dutch culture. Auditions are conducted by a committee of 25 musicians, from every section of the orchestra, and the winning candidate must receive 60% of the vote. The conductor is chosen by the same process.
The chapter on Claudio Abbado concludes the book with a glowing picture of Abbado’s work with another leading pickup band: the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Its rank-and-file members are almost all first-chair musicians in other orchestras. They assemble in Lucerne— during a time when they could be on vacation— because they want to play with Abbado and the musicians he has personally selected.
Service obviously prefers the edgier performances delivered by the pickup orchestras. But he recognizes that good conductors can overcome the salaried orchestra’s tendency to produce polished but uninspired performances.
In his epilogue, he presents a roster of youngish conductors who are energizing major orchestras and exciting audiences all over the world. The list includes two names that will be familiar to Philadelphia audiences—Vladimir Jurowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Contemporary conductors may not wield the authority of legendary tyrants like Toscanini, but they can still galvanize their orchestras if they take the right approach. They must win respect for their musicianship, and they must communicate their vision without agitating the sensitivities of highly skilled specialists. Like their contemporaries in many other fields, they must cultivate the art of leadership in an egalitarian, individualistic society.
You may feel this book tells you more about its subject than you want to know. But if you’re willing to persevere, it could have a permanent effect on the way you listen to orchestral concerts.♦
Respond to this Article