Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Making Music with Friends

Howell, Wirth, Diaz, Marilynn Kanenson, Thomas, Pereira & Malina
Last night’s performance at Stuart & Friends may go a long way to explain the working relationship between a conductor and his orchestra.

I’ve always marveled how Stuart Malina can turn orchestral playing into chamber music playing which is a whole different mind-set for the performers: instead of following the conductor visually, the musician listens to fellow players in a smaller ensemble. It also provides a certain give-and-take in the interpretation of the piece and accepts a level of spontaneity in both the interpretation and playing that usually make a live performance more exciting than a studio recording done without a live audience.

One of the reasons (some musicians would say “excuses”) for the existence of the conductor is to create a unified interpretation, keep everybody together with a baton and cue players who may be sitting there counting 125 measures’ rest waiting to come in, next. In a group of three, four or five players, it’s easier to listen to each other (or even to hear each other) and you’re not counting such long periods of rest.

A few seasons ago, when Stuart played the Mendelssohn G Minor Piano Concerto and conducted from the piano, it was like he was playing a piano quintet but with the whole orchestra (granted, a smaller orchestra than might be used for Mahler or Strauss) as an extension of the chamber ensemble. Given the fact a pianist’s hands are often busy, orchestra players were given more responsibility and found other ways to interact if the conductor’s baton was not always there.

In the old days, it wasn’t unusual for conductors to also be performers and very often the conductor might be involved as an accompanist for a guest singer in a set of songs or play a movement of a chamber piece with members of the orchestra.

These days, schedules and career specializing being what they’ve become in almost every field – think the family doctor versus the oncologist – few conductors have the time and ability to maintain both areas. It takes more than just talent and discipline.

Watching the musicians interact last night was as much fun as listening to them. Why did clarinetist Janine Thomas point her clarinet at Stuart and laugh as they stood up to bow at the end of the Mozart “Kegelstatt”? What made violist Julius Wirth smile as he looked over at violinist Nicole Diaz during a passage in the last movement of the “Trout” Quintet before bassist Devin Howell smiled and it didn’t even look like he had been watching either of them?

For people who are not musicians, it just looks like they’re enjoying themselves, but part of that enjoyment is the flexibility of turning a phrase (shaping a line) in such a way that, when it’s played by another musician, they pick up on that and do the same. “What?” we think, “it wasn’t rehearsed that way?”

Heh heh.

That’s also part of being “friends.” If you respect each other, it becomes another element of this game we call “playing music.”

The other element that was fun to watch was the conductor’s interaction as “just another player.” They’re all on equal footing, here, but you also realize, as you’re thinking about how to spontaneously turn that phrase, let’s say, “hey, he’s also my boss.”

Many performers – either orchestra musicians or conductors – find playing chamber music a different and refreshing, even exhilarating world, and Stuart has said repeatedly how he looks forward to it, thrives on it as a way of expanding his focus.

That’s one of the reasons the orchestra’s players enjoy working with him – and vice versa (as Stuart has often said in those post-concert chats, “I’ve got the greatest job in the world”) – because the level of mutual respect, this give-and-take, this almost telepathic comprehension, permeates through the orchestra from first stand through the entire string section and down the rows of wind and brass players.

I love this clip from that 1969 documentary about a performance of Schubert’s “Trout” (you can see the whole performance of the piece on this previous post – the entire film contains more moments caught off stage in rehearsal, in preparation, in just hanging around backstage: for example, at the very end of the performance clip, there’s a bit of banter backstage before they go back out for their bows). There’s a problem getting the scherzo started: they’re not together.

Now, keep in mind the pianist, Daniel Barenboim, is already a world-famous conductor and bassist Zubin Mehta is the conductor of the Montreal Symphony recently appointed conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (the New York Philharmonic was in his future). Pinchas Zukerman, the violist, was a violinist just beginning his solo career who would also soon become well-known as a conductor. Though it would happen much later in his career, Itzhak Perlman also got bitten by the conductor bug. So you have at least three conductor-minded players trying to work out something a baton would have fixed easily.

But that’s the wonder of chamber music: everybody works together for the benefit of the music, a very different concept from the conductor-dominated orchestra (especially those with the old-fashioned tyrannical maestros) where the players’ job is to realize the conductor’s interpretation for the (one hopes) benefit of the music. 

The joy of music making is all part of being able to make music with friends and that doesn't matter how many players are on the program.

The program, incidentally, was made possible with generous support from Marilynn Kanenson (center, photograph above) in memory of her husband, former Symphony Board President Dr. William Kanenson, another important example of making music-making possible with support from friends.

- Dick Strawser 

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P.S. If you didn't read them before the concert, it doesn't matter: you can still find out more about the background behind the music you heard and since these posts also include clips of each piece, you can also listen to the music again.
Mozart's "Kegelstatt" Trio
Debussy's Piano Trio
Schubert's "Trout" Quintet
The photograph was taken after the concert by the Symphony's marketing director, Kim Isenhour.

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