Original sinners

Jonathan Brett Information, Study, Tips Leave a Comment

One of the fascinating elements of working as a musician over a long period of time is reaching the point where one can start to see the interrelationships between what might be thought to be disparate areas of life. At the moment my thoughts are mostly engaged with four projects: three musical ones – preparing scores and orchestra materials for the Andermatt Winter Festival Beethoven celebration, planning my teaching for a Conductors’ Academy masterclass in Budapest in early July and deciding my approach to scoring for the Makris Conducting Competition, plus one unrelated to music – reviewing the financial affairs of a small company in which my wife and I hold a significant financial interest but where the directors, amongst numerous other misdemeanors, appear to have, at the very least, substantially overlooked their duties concerning a six-figure sum.

What is fascinating about the last of these is that I realise my approach is the same as to the Beethoven works: my tolerance for shoddy workmanship decreases steadily and, as I worked my way through Beethoven’s Violin Concerto this morning, I was very aware how elements of thinking about (a) accounting procedures, (b) the most significant concepts to convey in classes and (c) the difficulties of objectively comparing conductors all were informing my thinking and approach to this music.

Recent work on this concerto and other works by Beethoven had already given me some idea as to the extent of the development of my thinking about his music in recent years but this morning was special: I realised that somehow the combination of having my brain occupied with thoughts about interpretation, teaching, conductor assessment and accountancy had produced a further new leap in understanding. Possibly I am merely deluded due to lack of sleep but my own view is that, after thirty years of navigating through some form of impenetrable intellectual fog towards a goal I could not fully identify, slowly I am approaching some form of clarity of understanding.

Of course the universe must retain its balance so what the Lord giveth is also taken away, in this case immediately, for at the exact same moment I realised how deeply ashamed I am concerning the last two occasions I performed this violin concerto. Most especially the last time – which actually was the better of the two in objective terms. Why so much the last? Because whereas with the earlier performance I understood that the issues were of my own making, concerning the second one it was – and has been since – my inclination to blame both the musicians and the circumstances for a performance which fell too far short of my own objectives.

The circumstances were far from ideal: a difficult programme with only one rehearsal and an orchestra I did not know, plus musicians not so much accustomed to the pressures that this creates and significant divergences of opinion between us as to how this music should be interpreted. Added to these issues, I felt that a live broadcast situation necessitated a more conservative approach to risk in a piece which opened a concert with musicians I never performed with than one can take with a non-recorded concert, or with an orchestra with which one has had some prior relationship.

I am acutely aware that if only I had been able to approach either concert, but especially the last, with the degree of technical and musical knowledge and understanding I now have, then for sure the performance would have been better – even if it were not aligned exactly with my own musical objectives. This is not a reason to be ashamed though; obviously, if we are searching for knowledge and some form of ultimate truth within music then our thinking about every piece we perform must change over time and 20:20 hindsight will invariably lead to some form of embarrassment about our previous efforts. This reality is simply a question of natural, personal, human development which must be embraced by anyone whose life is dedicated to pursuit of knowledge.

So why ashamed? Because I realised that I have been guilty of breaking one of my own rules about conducting: I have always proposed that, irrespective of whose fault it may outwardly appear to be, conductors should assume responsibility for every issue and that failure to do so is a cardinal sin. By extension, so is blaming others and given the realisation this morning of the huge development of my understanding of this music since that last performance, I understood that, rather than looking back with disappointment about what was achieved, I should look back with gratitude to those musicians. The right analysis of the circumstances would say that the degree to which they tried to accommodate me was extremely generous and that I have simply no right to allocate any tiny percentage of blame to anyone else for any element of failure. I must rather acknowledge that I should have conducted better: if I had done so then the results would have been more pleasing for me and most likely for others as well. If anything at all was in any way disappointing for anyone – musicians, audience, soloist or myself – then I am the person wholly responsible and therefore guilty of any sin which was committed in the name of music.

The simple fact is that however brilliant the other musicians, they cannot get past the conductor; anything negative will be heard, even if the impact is so minimal that it is not actually noticed by anyone. Consequently we are guilty, and doubly so because, unlike the musicians we direct, we always have a choice. Yes, that engagement was in difficult circumstances but I was aware of these at the time I accepted. Therefore, if any form of musical “fraud” was committed then the responsibility must be wholly mine; after all, unlike the musicians, I had a free choice to refuse the engagement and thus pass this responsibility to somebody else.

Consequently, I conclude that as far as conducting is concerned, we all need to embrace a concept of original sin: whatever happens, we were responsible. If the results fail to meet our expectations, we are always guilty and never have the right to blame anyone else. Rather than trying to identify fault in others for any misunderstanding or mistake of any kind, we must ourselves embrace responsibility for any and every problem.

We must also understand that taking truly responsibility also involves taking action; penitence is of no interest or value to our colleagues, to our audiences or to the higher obligation to serve art. Therefore, if something is not as we might wish, then we should search everywhere around and within us for solutions. Only by doing so can we have any chance to find the knowledge which will provide the keys to ensuring that we simply do not create circumstances where such mistakes or misunderstandings can happen.

More from Jonathan Brett:

© Jonathan Brett 2019

Share this Post