Eliminating musical pollution

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Reflections on our 18th International Masterclass

Our 18th International Masterclass, which took place earlier this month in Budapest, marked the tenth birthday of Conductor’s Academy and one of the lessons we have learned over the years is the enormous importance of the orchestra: this is not only a matter of objective quality but concerns the attitude and approach of the musicians to the class process. We have therefore become extremely cautious about the groups we choose to work with – and preferred a two-year interregnum to rushing into a programme which might not work.

In our view this patient approach has borne real fruit: the Solti Chamber Orchestra proved a perfect partner in every way and we have already planned the next class with them. We also feel that the change in overall focus to developing advanced skills in working with sound and gesture, combined with the change in emphasis from every participant experiencing a wide range of repertoire to each conductor working in far more detail with a unique piece or pieces was highly effective. It was noticeable that everyone improved every day and this evident development was significant in providing a rewarding experience for the musicians and, finally, for the audience who attended what was a very enjoyable final concert.

Although many hands make the process somewhat more complicated than would normally be the case for a lone conductor, the general consistency of approach from the class helped expose a most important and misunderstood fact about rehearsal for conductors: that with capable musicians the vast majority of problems can be solved by better conducting and better motivated musicians (two elements which are most certainly related). Therefore, if something is not working, resist the desire to stop immediately and, most especially, to talk about it; in most circumstances, doing so will only plaster over the cracks of a problem which is most likely of far wider significance. Rather, move onto something else which does work and go and figure out what is the real cause of the problem encountered – and solve it.

What I very much hope that all our participants understood is that if an orchestra is capable and calibrated to react effectively, and if conductors are also calibrated properly, then they are able to make music with the group easily and without any need for verbal discussion of anything more than small points which – however much they may add in beautiful detail – are not fundamentally necessary in order for everyone (both musicians and audience) to have a good time. In fact, provided the right understanding exists between conductors and musicians, it should be entirely possible for one conductor to undertake rehearsals and a different conductor to subsequently produce a convincing performance with substantial differences of approach to both details and substance.

Reaching such a point of understanding, though, is a delicate process which can be entirely destroyed by an ineffective approach to rehearsal. Most specifically, a conductor asking anything which does not truly need to be asked is absolutely the equivalent of openly saying “my gestures cannot be trusted so instead please follow my verbal instructions.” In this case, all possibility for this conductor – or any other conductor for that matter – to influence anything under the stress of a live performance situation will be at best compromised; the only way to influence sound will be through over-exaggerated movements which are then (hopefully) filtered in impact. The result of such interaction between musicians and conductor can only be a distorted narrative, never an exquisitely unfolding musical line, and the sensibilities of anyone with any grasp of the lost potential of the music will inevitably be offended. In practice, therefore, the widely accepted method of making verbal requests concerning anything which might be managed by gesture alone does not only provide a jarring dissonance in respect of effective process for those in-the-know, it is positively counter-productive and hence incredibly inefficient in terms of use of resources.

It may seem extreme, but I would go so far as to say that the wastage of musical energy involved globally in this inefficiency is beyond all contemplation, as are the financial implications and impact on the health and well-being of countless sensitive people – those very people whose contribution is probably the most valuable to the music profession. Ineffective conducting is therefore a form of pollution and, arguably, the damage to our art form caused by such wastage could be compared to the damage our society’s reliance on plastic and other toxic substances causes to our planet: from an ethical point of view, in a world of ever-diminishing resources it is my view that musical resources (and associated finances) should – or even must – be consumed only with enormous respect for their true value and the potential effect in making the world a better place.

More and more this class demonstrated my belief that the auftakt either provides for success or gives away the possibility: if we fail to set the right energy and musical colour in motion at the start, nothing interesting can be achieved because conducting becomes merely a stressful process involving fighting – however politely – with sound to realise effects which, without the right starting point to provide context, are actually meaningless because they do not fall within a credible overall narrative. If, on the other hand, we succeed in creating an effective launch for musical energy and open a convincing musical proposition, then this is seductive to an incredible degree, one which inevitably changes the level of engagement of everyone present.

As was demonstrated many times over the week, however, this just moves the problems forwards in a positive manner: to maintain the initial success it is crucial to be able to keep the “game” in constant development by stimulating high-quality sound, phrasing, balance, articulation, dynamics, implications of colour, connections or disconnections of musical ideas and so forth, through gentle calibrations made using a defined system of gestures which is intuitively comprehensible. If all these things are managed easily and comfortably by the conductor then engagement – and hence the quality of sound – will develop steadily with any capable group.

Once this is happening then, and only then, there can possibly be value in adding some comments, either concerning a matter which cannot really be shown by hands (such as string players starting from the string rather than dropping onto it) or some other point of detail. Remember though, that if we really build the right understanding of our movements, such comments can mostly be dispensed with other than with respect to matters of real intricacy.

Thanks to the orchestra director, Franciska Ispán, we were happy to be able to offer some additional cultural events, which I think were a great inspiration for everyone. We had a film about the Hungarian composer Erkel, which included substantial clips of amazing opera performances, a performance from three folk singers (click here for a video extract) and a visit from Márta Sebestyén and Béla Szerényi (pictured), who sang and danced for us as well as demonstrating a variety of traditional folk instruments. Not often you get to see the inside of a hurdy-gurdy!

Added to this were visits to the Liszt Museum and, after the closing concert, the Kovács Margit ceramics museum in Szentendre before our final dinner on the bank of the Danube.

Our next class in Budapest will be 27 June – 4 July 2020 and the details will be posted soon.

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© Jonathan Brett 2019

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