Conducting Words 2: Power vs. Authority

Another excerpt from The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters.

Power often works through fear and can force people to act against their will, through status or physical strength. But authority functions through respect and persuades others to respond voluntarily simply through personal influence. If conductors ever have to ask musicians to watch or listen to them it is normally too late to have any effect. The cliché of tapping the stand with the baton in order to attract attention has long since become outdated, and an orchestra will never deeply engage with you purely because of a conventional hierarchy that some might assume exists. In as creative and human field as music, it is authority–not power–that is more successful in creating a genuine performance of quality. In the long run, even if it looks less impressive, control without oppression accomplishes far more. Power damages relationships, and its trappings rarely last for ever. Natural authority, one that stops short of being authoritarian, empowers others and lasts a lifetime. Those blessed with it stay in charge for longer than those whose leadership is circumstantial.

Mark Wigglesworth
Thomas Beecham–a conductor whose charm and humor endured over a long career full of wonderful performances.

Conducting Words: The Impossible Job

Just finished Mark Wigglesworth’s The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters, which is a sort of apologia for that sometimes maligned profession (‘the phoniest job in music’ in the words of one mid-century British critic). Conducting, as anybody who has played in an orchestra, sung in a chorus or performed in a musical or opera, emphatically does matter–something paradoxically proven when things go off the rails.

Cover of Why Conducting Matters

Wigglesworth’s personal account is candid about the job’s pleasures and difficulties, insightful and personal (rare that, as many conductors don’t disclose much, preferring perhaps to preserve the mystery). It’s a fun read for any fan of orchestral concerts and budding conductors. Many quotable bits, but I liked this from the final chapter entitled “Conducting Yourself.”

I once asked some players to write down what they looked for in a conductor. There collated response revealed a daunting job description.

Conductors need good baton technique, rehearsal technique, musicianship, knowledge, interpretive conviction, an ability to communicate, to stretch and challenge people, to make the performance better than the rehearsals, to be inspirational, have a good ear, clear thoughts, reliability, competence, rhythm, an expressive face, sense of structure, ability to accompany, style, suitability for the repertoire, originality, knowledge string bowing, an ability to collaborate, analyze and solve difficulties, explain why things need to be repeated, empower people, train people, make people listen. They must not talk, over-rehearse, under-rehearse, or be musically detached. They must have good manners, humor, respect, approachability, enthusiasm, encouragement, humility, positive spirit, patients, leadership, sincerity, audibility, creativity, and an awareness of everyone, strength, self-control, and strength, of character. They must be relaxed, self-confident, empathetic, punctual, motivating, polite, authoritative, realistic, interesting, charismatic, persevering, committed, well-dressed, and even-tempered. They must be popular with audiences, and show chastity, poverty, and obedience to the score. They must not be egocentric, intimidating, sarcastic, rude, boring, nervous, bullying, ugly, smelly, over-familiar, detached, pedantic, cynical, insecure, or blinkered. They must not change things for the sake of it, glare at mistakes, or hit the stand.

Wigglesworth closes this passage with “I am glad I have never hit the stand.”

I’ve certainly not met a conductor who checked all those boxes (although many were fun to sing for). Judging by this enjoyable intro to an English National Opera Magic Flute a few years back Wigglesworth probably meets many of these requirements. He certainly is a fine conductor and a modest one.

Ian Sansom on Auden

Recently finished September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem, writer and teacher Ian Sansom (of the delightful Mobile Library mystery series) giving a quirky, personal and finally quite illuminating take on the famous Auden poem (perhaps infamous, as Auden himself more or less disowned it). Lots of bits for commonplacing, but I particularly liked this passage, riffing on how Auden is addressing the average man in the street:

“…Of course, things could be even worse for the ‘average.’ A recent paper published in the Journal of Positive Psychology analysing the appearance and frequency of words related to moral excellence and virtue in American books published between 1901 and 2000 found a decline in the use of general moral terms such as ‘virtue’ and ‘conscience’. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that we no longer have a shared moral framework, but it may mean that we’re beginning to lack the vocabulary to describe it.)

Our changing understanding of what it might mean to be ‘average’ perhaps indicates a crisis in how we think and talk about the social contract, about how we think and talk about each other–what makes us similar, what binds us together, and what constitutes a culture, a democracy and a commonweal.

And that crisis, I think, is already apparent in Auden’s use of ‘average’.

It is both the glory and the shame of poetry that its medium is not its private property, that a poet cannot invent his words and that words are products, not of nature, but of a human society which uses them for a thousand different purposes.'  (Auden, 'Writing')

(Now, I am perfectly aware that all this might sound like just so much hogwash and hooey, an example of what the late great Gilbert Adair liked to refer to as ‘the Tardis doctrine of criticism’, the ludicrous idea that ‘within a single detail, a detail as humble and as measurable as a telephone booth, there may be contained a whole world’, but I suppose I am a bit of a critical Whovian and I happen to think that ‘average’ is one of those telephone booth-type words, or a trapdoor, or a portal; I think it leads to all sorts of strange and dark places.)

Matters Musical

There is such a wealth of music online now, but I’ve been taking in Igor Levit’s daily house concert, a graduate course in Beethoven, and marvelous pianism despite less than ideal recording circumstances.

And among many collaborative bits I’ve heard online recently, this performance of the opening of the CPE Bach Magnificat from Salzburg is particular hoot. (As the friend who sent it suggested, PDQ Bach’s spirit was clearly involved as well).

A Voyage Around My Room

I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought, just now, of the small genre of stories of being cooped up. There are several I have encountered over the years, including “Voyage Around My Room” of Xavier de Maistre, written in 1790, while he was house arrest in Turin. Nice Guardian article here, and the opening of the book below. You can read the whole thing on various public domain sites.

What is more glorious than to open for one’s self a new career, — to appear suddenly before the learned world with a book of discoveries in one’s hand, like an unlooked for comet blazing in the  empyrean! No longer will I keep my book in obscurity. Behold it, gentlemen; read it! I have undertaken and performed a forty- two days’ journey round my room. The interesting observations I have made, and the constant pleasure I have experienced all along the road, made me wish to publish my travels; the certainty of being useful decided the matter. And when I think of the number of unhappy ones to whom I offer a never-failing resource for weary moments, and a balm for the ills they suffer, my heart is filled with inexpressible satisfaction. The pleasure to be found in travelling round one’s room is sheltered from the restless jealousy of men, and is independent of Fortune.

The opening of Voyage autour de ma chambre
A rather fancier room than I am traveling around. “Drawing Room of the Plas. Spa” by Julien Muère, and in the Met collection.

James Schuyler On Things Left Undone

A short poem from the least known of the “New York School” poets, James Schuyler. He’s the one I have connected with most recently; his personal, inward looking poems are like journal jottings (a trait Frank O’Hara had as well).

Salute by James Schuyler

Past is past, and if one
remembers what one
meant to do and never did, is
not to have thought to do
enough? Like that gather-
ing of one of each I
planned, to gather one
of each kind of clover,
daisy, paintbrush that
grew in that field
the cabin stood in and
study them one afternoon
before they wilted. Past
is past. I salute
that various field.



Free Concerts for this Moment of Social Distancing

With live performances shut down in many places (Boston and DC, where I go to shows are basically shuttered through at least the end of the month), live presenters and producers are going online.

A few I know about and the list will grow I’m sure.

The Berlin Philharmonic is performing to an empty hall today at 1 p.m. EDT, Berio and Barkok. This will be streamed live in their Digital Concert Hall, for free. https://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/news. The site also notes that anyone can get access to the complete archive (generally a subscription or per concert fee) for free through the end of the month. The perfect time to build your own Beethoven Festival.

The Met is closed but has is streaming archived Live in HD performances on their web site starting Monday. Here’s the list:

Monday, March 16 – Bizet’s Carmen

Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, starring Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna. Transmitted live on January 16, 2010.

Tuesday, March 17 – Puccini’s La Bohème

Conducted by Nicola Luisotti, starring Angela Gheorghiu and Ramón Vargas. Transmitted live on April 5, 2008.

Wednesday, March 18 – Verdi’s Il Trovatore

Conducted by Marco Armiliato, starring Anna Netrebko, Dolora Zajick, Yonghoon Lee, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Transmitted live on October 3, 2015.

Thursday, March 19 – Verdi’s La Traviata

Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, starring Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, and Quinn Kelsey. Transmitted live on December 15, 2018.

Friday, March 20 – Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment

Conducted by Marco Armiliato, starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez. Transmitted live on April 26, 2008.

Saturday, March 21 – Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor

Conducted by Marco Armiliato, starring Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczała, and Mariusz Kwiecien. Transmitted live on February 7, 2009.

Sunday, March 22 – Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Conducted by Valery Gergiev, starring Renée Fleming, Ramón Vargas, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Transmitted live on February 24, 2007.

I saw a number of these, and Dessay’s Fille was a particular delight if you need a few laughs.

And of course Eugene Onegin is one of the most beautiful operas every written, although would be sad to watch it with the late great Hvorostovsky.

Other free streaming efforts: Bayerische Staatsoper (pretty hard to resist a Kaufmann/Harteros Trovatore).

Haven’t seen any theater or ballet notices yet, but will keep an eye out. Maybe Broadway in HD could remove the subscription for a couple of weeks?

Poetic Words: James Schuyler

A love poem by the least known of the New York Poets (John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara).

Copenhagen Harbor by Moonlight 1846
Johan Christian Dahl

Letter Poem #3

The night is quiet
as a kettle drum
the bull frog basses
tuning up. After
swimming, after sup-
per, a Tarzan movie,
dishes, a smoke. One
planet and I
wish. No need
of words. Just
you, or rather,
us. The stars tonight
in pale dark space
are clover flowers
in a lawn the expanding
Universe in which
we love it is
our home. So many
galaxies and you my
bright particular,
my star, my sun, my
other self, my bet-
ter half, my one

–Jame Schuyler

DC’s Darlington Fountain

Found out about an elegant fountain and statue tucked away in Washington’s Judiciary Square through the Katzen Art Museum at American University.

It’s a memorial to DC jurist and civic leader Joseph J. Darlington (and interesting that it portrays a nymph and faun rather than D.C.’s often more staid subjects).

Darlington Statue
The Darlington Fountain in Washington, DC. (2/19/2020)

There is a wonderful photo of the statue by Volkmar Kurt Wentzel from the 1930s collected in a book called Washington by Night. Here’s just a corner of it, which gives a sense of the vistas in Washington of yore. You can see all the way to the Capitol.

Judiciary Square as it was in the 1930s.