A Summer in Ohio (and a Thank You to Akron)

"Why, oh why, oh why, oh - why did I ever leave Ohio?" So goes Bernstein's Broadway hit. In moments of discouragement in Berlin over the last year my thoughts drifted to that tune. This summer brought me back to Ohio for my third season at Cincinnati Opera, where I worked on the Barrie Kosky production of The Magic Flute on loan from the Komische Oper Berlin. Spending a summer in my beloved Ohio has given me cause to reflect on my time there.

I first traveled to Ohio assisting Benjamin Zander when he was conducting Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the Akron Symphony. I had never heard of this orchestra, let alone of the city of Akron, and I was unaware of the musical riches of Northeast Ohio, extending back to industrialization and the two world-class orchestras in the region (the Cleveland Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony.) Many musicians in the area started their orchestral careers in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, run with iron will by Lorin Maazel's mother. During that week in Akron with Ben I fell in love with the orchestra, its community and its music director, and I was shortly thereafter fortunate to get hired as its assistant (and later associate) conductor.

I conducted the Akron Symphony in over 100 concerts, and I prepared all of its theatrical and operatic productions. It was a personal and artistic journey for which I will always be thankful. I had been in and in front of orchestras my whole life, but it was in Akron that I learned how an orchestra really works. Scores are a conductor's holy books, but the conductor is mute, and it is the musicians of the orchestra who actually make the music. The Akron Symphony is full of proud orchestral citizens like bassoonist Renee Dee, who taught me the intricacies of the musician union agreement, and oboist Terry Orcutt, who commands the respect of all his colleagues. (Once, when playing the Poulenc Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano, Terry sternly informed me that I was rushing. Needless to say, I went home and practiced with a metronome.)

I worked closely with the staff, board and education committee. President of the board Renee Pipitone guided me in designing concerts for young children with her knowledge of early childhood education. Staff member Brenda Justice inspired me with her wholehearted willingness to help anyone at any time. Veteran Akron Public Schools arts administrator Sally Childs always made me laugh while we sifted through education committee documents, and Cory Smith - Akron Symphony violinist and librarian, and devoted educator - never failed to share his insight into working with a young string section.

Community outreach was an integral part of my job. Our education committee designed a program for elementary school teachers to prepare their classes for our children's concerts, and I conducted (I use that term loosely) these teachers in little compositions of their own invention, using self-made instruments that would demonstrate how an orchestra makes sounds - drawing a bow across or plucking a string, hitting a drum, or blowing into an approximation of a double reed made out of a drinking straw. For our production of Porgy and Bess, we gave presentations about the opera at many schools and libraries. (This was such a hit that iconic local educator and community activist Ann Lane Gates pronounced me an honorary member of the African American community, which makes me very proud.) And in my role as the music director of our affiliated youth orchestra, I visited area schools, frequently conducting their school orchestras, and I was a regular guest at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts.

The Akron Symphony also tolerated the inevitable rookie mistakes that we young conductors make. As embarrassing as it sometimes was, I'm thankful for the lessons learned from generous colleagues. Like when, during the intermission of an outdoor summer concert that I was conducting, horn player Cindy Wulff observed that I was uptight with the orchestra and in my audience interactions, and asked if I ever felt that with my youth orchestra. I was taken aback. "Of course not! With a youth orchestra I just chill out and have fun...they're just kids passionate about music and having a good time." Cindy's response was a life lesson: she said that adults feel exactly the same way. "We're just a youth orchestra plus a couple of decades!"

Akron Symphony Music Director Christopher Wilkins was (and still is) a mentor who encouraged me, challenged me, and wasn't afraid to tell me a hard truth just because it was hard. He's the ideal music director in his artistry and his balancing all the constituencies in an organization and community. His musicianship is vast; he conducts the entire core repertoire from memory. And like Zinman and Spano, he's an encyclopedic authority on American music. He has exceptionally masterly hearing. I was once preparing to play a Mozart piano concerto for which I had invented what I thought was a very clever cadenza. Thinking he would be impressed, I played it for Christopher. He regretfully broke the news to me that I had written several blatant parallel fifths, which in traditional counterpoint is like walking into a swank cocktail party with your fly open. And despite his intellectual brilliance (belying his New England heritage, he can even quote the existentialists,) he's a super great companion for a martini or two.

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It was Christopher Wilkins who gave me a new lease on my pianistic life. Good pianists are a dime a dozen, and I had begun to doubt my worth because of all the pianists who can play faster and louder than me. Christopher liked my playing enough to engage me for a series of concertos, and I played loads of chamber music with Ohio musicians. I even challenged myself to play some solo recitals. I maintain that a conductor should keep a connection to an instrument, both to play with orchestral musicians or singers, and as a physical reminder of how humbling it can be to play an instrument well.

The University of Akron was an important part of my life in Ohio. I had a small roster of talented student singers with whom I worked on art song literature, their aria repertoire, and the operatic languages - Italian, French and German. And when the Department of Modern Languages had a faculty vacancy for a semester, I took over teaching Italian 101, which was immensely satisfying. But the bulk of my work there was with the youth orchestra, which is a collaboration between the Akron Symphony, Akron Public Schools and the University of Akron. I had taught in some capacity or another since I was a kid, but it was with the Akron Youth Symphony that my teaching spirit matured.

A youth orchestra is a powerful but delicate thing. The musicians in it have both unbridled enthusiasm and sometimes crippling insecurity. I gradually developed a demanding but encouraging approach. And if ever I was harsh or impatient, I immediately regretted it because it was destructive to our work. There's nothing more powerful than saying (and meaning,) "That was good, but it can be better, and this is how," or "I know that can be more beautiful, and here is how to do it..." Above all I insisted that hard work should go hand in hand with expressive freedom and joy and fun.

If I was able to share just one point about orchestral playing with them, I hope it was the Chamber Music Concept. I don't know if I coined that term, but I referred to it so frequently that I hope it is seared into the souls of those musicians. The Chamber Music Concept states that orchestral music is just large scale chamber music, and orchestral playing employs the same skills as in a string quartet or other chamber group. Of course a conductor should facilitate orchestral technique, but without self-sufficient players using their artistry to play autonomously, the conductor is rendered worthless, an impotent figure, furiously beating upstream but nevertheless drifting away. The Chamber Music Concept is a vast skill set (and the sense of sight - to watch both one's colleagues and the conductor - is crucial,) but its main component is listening: listening to one's colleagues across the orchestra, listening and reacting, taking and giving cues as the music demands, listening for when one plays a main tune or an accompaniment and reacting accordingly. The conductor is a silent partner in the Chamber Music Concept, and indeed the best conducting isn't flashy choreography, but intense, directed listening.

Conducting is an elusive craft, and there are basically two ways to learn how to do it. You can conduct an illustrious orchestra (James Gaffigan said he only really learned how to conduct by driving the Ferrari that is the Cleveland Orchestra,) or you can conduct a youth orchestra and learn orchestral technique from scratch. I have the Akron Youth Symphony to thank for helping me learn skills that are transferable to any ensemble that I work with. We traversed a lot of repertoire together, including complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Haydn, Mozart, Shostakovich, Schubert and Tchaikovsky, and we even played a rock concert with Todd Rundgren. The artistic standards were amazingly high, and we strove to capture the core spirit of the music, so that the passion of our performances sometimes even exceeded that of our adult professional counterparts. I marvel that these musicians, most of whom won't continue professionally, have known the profundity, camaraderie and discipline of the orchestral experience.

Concerts for Kids

As the music director of a youth orchestra, I often spoke at community events, and my central message was that the purpose of music education is not to breed future professional musicians; nor is it - as the thinking sometimes goes - supposed to cultivate the highest GPA and get you into the "best" college, and land you the highest earning job, et cetera ad nauseam. Rather, it is to experience beauty, to express ideas that are inexpressible through mere words, to feel more deeply than we can in our everyday existence, to communicate with others in a way that's not possible outside of the realm of music. In this way, the Chamber Music Concept isn't only a way of making music; it's a way to live. How much better off would we be as a community, a society, a species, if we looked deeply into each other's eyes and listened? This is why music education is imperative to humanity.

This summer in Ohio has been a gratifying reminder that living there afforded me unprecedented personal growth and ample opportunity to share my love of music. So it was fitting that my final performance with the Akron Symphony was a concert for young children and their parents. That final audience was my idea of an ideal audience because there was such unrestrained reaction to the music that some of those diminutive listeners were literally dancing on their feet.

And now the summer's drawing to a close, as are these thoughts. Now back to work, and back to Germany.

A Year in Berlin

The life of a professional musician is a juggling act: rehearsing and performing the repertoire of the moment and gauging how much time to devote to upcoming projects. Just how much time do I need to devote to this Brahms symphony or that Wagner opera? (The answer: a lot, and no matter how much time I allot, it's never enough; there's always more work to do, and one can always know a piece better.) There's often the question of what to do next; where will I live 3, 6, 12 months from now? The profession can be precarious, and I've been fortunate to work as a full-time musician since I was a teenager, but last year for the first time I faced the prospect of a dry spell.  So when Marcus Küchle of Cincinnati Opera recommended me for an audition at the Komische Oper Berlin, I hit the practice room and got on a plane for Germany.

For an audition at a German opera house a conductor-pianist is expected to "mark" the vocal line; that is, sing all the vocal parts while playing an orchestral reduction on the piano. When there's more than one vocal part, you sing the most important entrances and what would most logically help the singers in an ensemble or staging rehearsal. For this audition I prepared all of La Boheme (the first opera I ever learned,) the 2nd Act Finale from Le Nozze di Figaro (well over a hundred pages long,) the Jew Quintet from Salome (which sounds a lot more beastly than it is, so long as you play it - counterintuitively - like it's Mozart,) and for a solo piano selection, the Wagner-Liszt Liebestod. Added to that roughly three hours of music was sight-reading the opening of Moses und Aron, which fortunately is an idiom I feel comfortable in. The audition must have gone well, because I got the job, and after a few beers, I flew back to the States for Fellow Travelers with Cincinnati Opera.

At the Brandenburg Gate

At the Brandenburg Gate

It was trial by fire to learn the German opera house system. So many aspects of the job were foreign to my experience: a repertory house (instead of the stagione system,) a fest ensemble of singers, the dramaturges, a frequently rotating orchestra, the KBB (the Künstlerisches Betriebsbüro, the brain of the house,) a fest opera chorus, the ubiquitous Regietheater (often dismissed as "eurotrash" by Americans, it can expand the imagination in a way we rarely see in the States,) the language -- my German was already pretty good, but rehearsing Wagner in German, as I did on my first day on the job, was humbling.

Germany has eighty (80!) full-time opera houses and the Komische Oper is the hottest house in the country. Barrie Kosky, the Komische's famed intendant, has infused his vision and glamorous flair into every aspect of the company. My initiation was a test of courage: Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg consists of almost five hours of glorious and demanding music. My assignments included nine other operas, including Barbiere, My Fair Lady, Don Giovanni, Carmen, and ending with the modernist masterpiece Medea by Aribert Reimann. I also played orchestral keyboard parts in Petrushka and L'enfant et les Sortilège and accompanied singers auditioning for the house. Dryly listing these activities in retrospect is somehow gratifying, but it doesn't convey the sense of fun (and terror) that I usually felt.

As is always the case, the people with whom you make music are at least as important as the art itself, and my colleagues at the Komische were marvelous. The supportive atmosphere even extended to our production of Medea, the score of which was 500 pages of dastardly, complex music. The Studienleiters Henning Kussel and Christoph Breidler are masters of the modernist style, and they shared their expertise with gentle and authoritative leadership. Thanks to them I'll never again fear a piece of music, no matter how daunting. I shared this sentiment with my pal, assistant chorus master Andrew Crooks, who responded, "You're a proud son of a bitch, aren't you?!" Andrew, always a mensch, knows when I need a reality check.

But my year in Berlin wasn't limited to the Komische Oper. I conducted a new production of Boheme with Puccini's Toaster, a cool new company. I reconnected with my college buddy Moky Gibson-Lane to play chamber music with Berlin Philharmonic principals. My hands appeared in a film on Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, playing the piano. I played two lieder recitals. I accompanied five separate programs for Opera On Tap, a gig in which opera singers jam (and drink) at a bar in Neukölln. I twice played with the Konzerthaus Orchestra. And the city! I soaked up as much of Berlin and its environs as possible. The city has more music than anywhere in the world. Nowhere else can you see Barenboim, Runnicles and Fischer three nights in a row.  The music-making you can experience is inspiring like nowhere else in the world. (Pace New York, Paris and Vienna.)

But as much as I'm in love with Berlin and the Komische Oper, I knew from the beginning that it would be a short-lived affair. The next stop on my journey is still in Germany, this time farther south, in Wiesbaden. But before that next step, a glorious summer in my beloved why-oh-why-Ohio.

Arnold Schoenberg, My Gateway Drug

I’ve always found it difficult to share my passion for the music of Arnold Schoenberg. I get defensive if my enthusiasm is rejected, as if someone were attacking a cantankerous but beloved uncle. But my eagerness to share Schoenberg’s hyper-expressive music remains undaunted. I once served as host when the stellar new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird gave a presentation on new music. I described Schoenberg as a gateway drug: difficult to take at first, but the key to the marvelous psychedelia of twentieth century music. In retrospect, such a description was unwise, and several audience members were concerned that I was encouraging drug use. Far from it! Music is the only drug I advocate, and my inner ear has long been intoxicated with the euphoria of Schoenberg’s art.

Reciting an excerpt from Pierrot Lunaire with Eighth Blackbird.

I asked Eighth Blackbird if they would play one of their party pieces, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire for five instrumentalists and a vocalist half speaking/half singing in a technique called “Sprechgesang,” a dark imitation of a German cabaret singer from the era.[1] I told Eighth Blackbird that I had conducted Pierrot, played the piano part, memorized the twenty-one poems, and was dying to recite the vocal part myself. They generously consented and a resourceful cellist in the audience surreptitiously caught a short clip, of which I am unashamedly proud.

My introduction to Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School wasn’t until college in a sophomore music theory class, where we learned strict set theory and the twelve-tone technique. The language used for analysis was torturous. An example best illustrates: “Multiple presentation of set forms does not rely on combinatorial relations, but in some instances set choice can be traced to particular degrees of relatedness of the forms, depending on the compositional intent.”[2] That painful sentence doesn’t describe the composer’s intentions, except in the most superficial terms. No wonder my classmates despised this “mathematical,” “intellectual,” “heartless” noise. I shared my friend’s disdain, but I sensed a depth of expression that couldn’t be uncovered with artificial analysis.

My curiosity led me to the library, where I perused dozens of jargon-filled books not worth the paper they were printed on, but I hit the jackpot with Charles Rosen’s slim monograph, which opened my mind to the dark riches of Viennese expressionism: the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, the architecture of Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner, the painting of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, and the whole milieu of Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg. I already loved Mahler because of my teenage idol Leonard Bernstein’s gratuitous recordings, but I began to hear beyond the surface bombast and appreciate how avant-garde the music really is. Mahler was Schoenberg’s god, and as my understanding of fin de siècle Vienna deepened, so grew my obsession with Schoenberg.

But it took the infectious enthusiasm of American composer and author David Schiff for me to learn how truly expressive Schoenberg’s music can be. David has dedicated much of his life to the stalwarts of modernism: Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Varèse, Boulez and especially Carter. I always think of David’s talon-like hands going through the slithering harmonies in Schoenberg’s first Chamber Symphony. Getting to know Schoenberg’s oeuvre at the piano – very challenging for the eye and ear and mind – revealed to me the expressive depths of this challenging music.

Gershwin and the Great Tradition

Schoenberg naturally led me to his partners in crime, Berg and Webern, and I’ve often played Berg’s Piano Sonata and songs and conducted Webern’s small ensemble pieces like his Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24. (Making light of Webern’s tragic death in 1945 when he stepped out of his house to smoke a cigarette and a deranged American soldier shot him, I once told a youth orchestra that smoking is doubly dangerous because you might get shot.) I’ve also explored the surprising relationship between Schoenberg and Gershwin. The musical styles of these friends and tennis partners aren’t as dissimilar as you might suspect, and Schoenberg’s moving eulogy at his younger friend’s tragic death is a monument to artistic brotherhood. To highlight this, I once juxtaposed the piano music of Gershwin with that of Schoenberg, Berg and Brahms.

Sometimes an individual piece becomes central to all of one’s musical experiences, and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and first Chamber Symphony are certainly central for me. I’m dying to conduct Verklärte Nacht and Pelleas und Melisande from Schoenberg’s Romantic early period, as well as the Suite, Op. 29 from his later, serial period. But it’s the freely atonal music of his middle period that most excites me, and I think this was the time when Schoenberg’s wild imagination was at its wildest. Without the tonal system to anchor him, or the serial system to restrict him, each piece had to invent an organizing principle of its own. He was avoiding tonality, but you can’t avoid tonality for long without obliquely making reference to it, which is why David Schiff jokes that every atonal piece of Schoenberg’s is in d-minor. Not exactly true, but you do find a lot of d-minor!

Schoenberg: Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11

My favorite pieces from his hot middle period are the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11 and the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16. The first two piano pieces almost could have been written by Brahms or Mahler, but the third piece is the most radical. It’s the only piece that Schoenberg himself actually described as expressionist, and it has to be memorized because you have to look at your hands the whole time. Incidentally, these piano pieces are integral to Schoenberg’s relationship with Wassily Kandinsky, who made them the subject of his Impression III – Concert.

Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16

The Five Pieces for Orchestra are to my mind the culmination of Schoenberg’s atonal freedom. Each expresses an extreme: of canon, d-minor, color, calm, nature, longing, terror, premonition, anger and torturous angst. They’re beautiful, but they’re certainly not pretty. In the first four pieces, I recognize the specific compositional principles used to achieve his fierce expression. The fifth piece, like the last of the piano pieces, is heatedly inspired, and I find myself wholly convinced by the music without being able to explain how or why.

All music can be understood in terms of how it builds upon and breaks from that which came before it, and with Schoenberg it’s tempting to think that he abandoned the entire musical tradition from which he sprang. It’s easy to hear why one would hear this, but Schoenberg was in fact deeply committed to the entire central European heritage, especially Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and in the generation directly preceding his, Wagner, Brahms and Mahler. He thought of his music as the next step in a logical evolution.

 
I think that if you’ve gotten far enough inside a composer’s head, mutiny is forgivable - even desirable.
 

The misunderstanding of Schoenberg’s musical roots extends to the actual interpretation of his music. Pierre Boulez bravely championed and disseminated Schoenberg for much of the 20th century and beyond, but he performed Schoenberg through the lens of his own 1950s modernist perspective, which emphasizes that which is most avant-garde. I prefer greater weight given to the music’s romantic roots, so my favorite conductors of this music are Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle, who bring the music, as it was intended, to the doorstep of Mahler.

Schoenberg wasn’t very helpful to interpreters. Occasionally his tempo and performance instructions are absurdly unrealistic, and I believe that you often have to disregard elements of his notation, or do the complete opposite of what he says. So if he writes senza ritardando sometimes you go slower anyway. I think that if you’ve gotten far enough inside a composer’s head, mutiny is forgivable - even desirable. There are certainly reasons to criticize Schoenberg’s music: sometimes the expression is limited to shades of angst; some of the later music loses its expressive integrity to the serial language; the complexity of texture frequently obscures his intentions and makes balance difficult for performers, like in his insistence that all instruments play all the time in the first Chamber Symphony.

Schoenberg: Blue Self Portrait (1910)

Schoenberg: Blue Self Portrait (1910)

But with Schoenberg, there’s an endless supply of tantalizing material surrounding his music. He was an inventor, an author, a (bad) conductor, a polemicist, a demanding but committed teacher, and a very good amateur painter. While at Rice University, I had his Blue Self Portrait portrait enlarged to mount in my apartment, and during parties Schoenberg’s massive blue skull would dominate the festivities. It wasn’t until I saw the original at the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna that I realized that the dimensions of this painting are much closer to a miniature. And while in Vienna, I also paid tribute to the remains of the man himself.

So at the risk of once again pushing musical drugs, let me encourage my fellow musicians and music lovers to try a little Schoenberg. He is, along with Stravinsky, the key to all subsequent music. Perhaps listen to the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, directly followed by Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. If it makes you frightened, or nervous, or startled, or if you shudder at the sustained dissonance, that’s the point. Find and enjoy the sometimes-uncomfortable beauty of the human existence. I find it exhilarating to plunge into these depths, and when I emerge, my mind and ear and heart are cleansed by the fire that Schoenberg stokes.

 

1. On my first foray into this fiendishly difficult piece, I had twenty-five rehearsals with my old chamber music buddy Cristi Macelaru on violin. (Don’t miss Cristi’s later performance when he stepped in for an indisposed Boulez with the Chicago Symphony.)

2. Bailey, Kathryn. The Twelve-Note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms in a New Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 8.

Where Musicians Come From

I once had an argument (punctuated by uproarious laughter) with a great musician who, in a particularly outrageous mood, lambasted me for my pronunciation of Götterdämmerung.  I pronounce it as any Hochdeutsch speaker would, but he insisted that it sounded pretentious, like pronouncing the capital of France Paree, with a snooty emphasis on the second syllable.

I maintained that Götterdämmerung was nothing like Paree, but his response was contemptuous.  "What do you know?  You're from Iowa!  Musicians don't come from Iowa; they come from London and Amsterdam and Vienna and Florence, not Iowa!"  I let the matter drop.

I thought back to this argument – the one about where musicians come from, not about pronunciation – when I came across this childhood essay, a biography I wrote of my maternal grandfather, Charles Herbert Parman, known to his grandchildren as “Papa Charlie."  I'm including a scan of the original because the font is so charmingly dated.

1990 Biography of Charles "Papa" Parman

1990 Biography of Charles "Papa" Parman

Though just two generations ago, Papa Charlie’s life seems like that of a wild west frontiersman with certain resemblances to Twain and Kerouac.  He’s typical of the Greatest Generation – the salt of the earth, the depression-era mentality – who served in World War II and raised a family while farming.

So as the grandson of a farmer from Missouri and on my father’s side a carpenter from Iowa, I don’t descend from artistic royalty.  Though I’m proud that Glenn Miller – who, like my grandparents, came from humble circumstances – is the only other musical fruit on my family tree.

I’m reminded of conductor and musical diplomat Charles Ansbacher, with whom I formed a fond friendship in the last year of his life, and whose fellowship with the Vienna Philharmonic I later received.  In response to a positive review I received in Boston, Charles asked me who my press agent was.  Incredulous, I laughed and told him that I don’t have a press agent.

“Well where did you do your prep school work?”

“Charles, I’m from Iowa and went to the same public schools where my mom taught!”

Charles was astonished and delighted that a solidly middle class kid from Iowa who grew up in the suburbs was conducting Mahler and Schoenberg in Boston.

So where do musicians come from?  From the exalted cultural capitals of the world?  From pedigreed genealogies?  From the upper crust of high society?  Yes, they come from these places, and they also come everywhere in the world where curiosity and creativity are fostered.  This musician, for one, lives for the proper pronunciation of Götterdämmerung and a Beethovenian brotherhood and a Mahlerian Resurrection; and I also revel in the bawdy humor of The Marriage of Figaro, or a lascivious musical setting of a Verlaine poem, or the uncouth antics of a Haydn symphony.

Our personalities are as varied as the places from which we hail.  Musicians come from everywhere – even from Iowa.

Furtwängler's Bach

On August 31, 1950 Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Vienna Philharmonic performed at the Salzburg Festival.  The program included the Third and Fifth Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach.  To the gratitude of some and the chagrin of others, this live performance was captured on record.

THE RECORDING

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050: Wiener Philharmoniker; Wilhelm Furtwängler, piano/conductor; Josef Niedermayr, flute; Willi Boskovsky, violin.  31.VIII.1950

This recording was once passed underground by connoisseurs, but it’s now posted on YouTube for the whole world to love or hate.  And in Furtwängler’s Bach there’s plenty for a 21st century musician to hate!  It’s like the French Ortolan, a tiny songbird that is captured alive, force-fed in complete darkness for a month, drowned in a liqueur, roasted and eaten whole by a diner who wraps a linen above his head to preserve the aroma and hide his shameful sin from God.  Furtwängler’s Brandenburgs are similarly sinful: Bach’s 10 strings of the Third and the 4 of the Fifth are augmented to roughly 60, and these are modern instruments with steel strings and tight bows played in a Brucknerian manner; the solo flute is also modern, and Furtwängler himself plays the Fifth on a 9-foot concert grand piano, well over a thousand pounds heavier than the harpsichord for which it was intended; by conventional present-day tastes, the tempi are lugubrious: the running time of both concertos is a full 50% longer than one of my favorite period recordings (by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.)  So like the criminal consumers of the Ortolan, why do so many music lovers return to Furtwängler?

In the 60 years since his death, Furtwängler has been either worshiped for deep profundity, or sneered at as an obsolete conductor whose musicianship was fundamentally flawed.  Although he lived until 1954, Furtwängler was essentially a 19th century musician, and to some listeners, these Bach recordings demonstrate his era’s profound lack of stylistic understanding, not unlike Pierre Monteux, who claimed that the figured bass notation in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto was not to be realized at the keyboard: “If Bach wanted chords he would have written chords.  This is to be an authentic performance.  We shall play only what Bach wrote!”[1]  (Though other musicians of the time – like Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot – did indeed have a better sense of historical styles.)  For us historically informed performers, it’s easy to dismiss Furtwängler as a relic of the overblown past, but the great pianist Andras Schiff reminds us that “it is still possible to be historically inauthentic yet musically valid.”  So with Furtwängler it’s perhaps not so much a lack of understanding as a different set of interpretive values.

Furtwängler had no interest – and likely not even the vaguest awareness of – historical performing styles.  He was part of a long line of “personal interpreters” extending back to Wagner via Arthur Nikisch, Hans von Bülow and Felix Mottl – and carried on to this day most notably through Daniel Barenboim, who calls Furtwängler "a subjectivist who philosophizes."  And though he bemoaned both “literal” and “creative” interpretation,[2] Furtwängler's recorded legacy belies a subjective, romantic approach, as if he’s asking, “How can I express myself and my times through the music of the past?”  For Furtwängler, music was above all a spiritually transcending experience – spiritual as defined by Nietzsche, Wagner and the “Holy German Art,” and therefore weighty and lengthy; Bach’s was not music to which the gods danced, but rather music by which they prayed.

THE FIFTH CONCERTO

Just listen to the famous cadenza in the Fifth Brandenburg.  Furtwängler plays it even slower than the already-leisurely main body of the piece, and his tempo is about one quarter of my own.  But the architecture of this extended solo is magnificent!  Keyboardists often blaze through this cadenza without acknowledging or demarcating structurally important moments in the music – I could plead the (Brandenburg) Fifth to this crime.  Furtwängler “stirs up the pot” in the blistering fantasia section toward the end, and his arrival on the subdominant (4 ½ bars before the final tutti) signals the home stretch of a fulfilling but exhausting journey.  The grace with which he weaves the long line is a lesson to modern and historical performers.

With his tempo and multiple octave doublings, Furtwängler's second movement is likely the hardest to stomach for post-Harnoncourt musicians.  (Incidentally, I find Harnoncourt’s Brandenburgs very “correct,” but rather stodgy, though the ideas he presents in conversation and print are phenomenally intriguing.)  Most performers play it as a moderato processional in 4.  Furtwängler plays in a languid 8, and just when I think he can’t go any slower, he takes extra time at a cadence.  But if we judge this performance by Bach’s special character indication, Affettuoso, meaning with affect or loving or tender, Furtwängler surely captures the expressive elegance of that poignant adjective.

In the third movement there’s not a lot for a period performer to take issue with.  The dotted eighth-sixteenth is appropriately “triplicized,” a choice no historically informed performer could quibble with.  The tempo is lively, and if Furtwängler takes a slightly slower tempo for the middle section, I credit him with good Bachian taste.

THE THIRD CONCERTO

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 Adagio (manuscript in Bach's hand)

Predictably, the outer movements of Furtwängler’s Third Brandenburg are infused with a heavy dose of Wagnerian style.  But what to do with the second movement (if it is in fact a separate movement) is always a vexing question.  This Adagio consists of only two fully scored chords: a Phrygian half cadence in e-minor.  I’ve performed it by inserting the Largo movement from the Violin Sonata in G-major BWV 1021, as well as playing the chords unembellished (“authentically” as Monteux would say.)  Another solution is to have a member of the ensemble – usually the concertmaster – improvise a cadenza or embellishment above the two chords, as can be heard in this recording by Tafelmusik, which I find immoderate and excessive.  I prefer the tasteful ornamentation of Harnoncourt’s performance.  And the unadorned cadence in an alluring historical approach can be heard by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.  This treatment is my personal preference: a calm amidst the storm of the outer movements, a serene inhalation, a musical semicolon.  Furtwängler’s treatment on the other hand is a colossal exclamation point, a Kubrikian monolith, a girding of the loins in preparation for the last movement. 

THE CIRCUMSTANCES

It’s hard for me to hear this recording without my imagination wandering back to its circumstances in 1950.  It had been only 5 years since the defeat of Germany, and the tears of war still moistened many eyes.  The Austrians and Germans in the audience (and most definitely in the orchestra) could not escape their collective guilt.  But bitterness, defiance, humiliation, regret, grief, remorse, misery – all of those open wounds – yielded to the music.  For us today, Bach’s music is for dancing, but that was not a time for dancing.  Furtwängler prayed through Bach.

 

  1. Canarina, John. Pierre Monteux, Maître. Cambridge: Amadeus, 2003. 200.
  2. Furtwängler, Wilhelm, and Ronald Taylor. Furtwängler on Music: Essays and Addresses. Aldershot, Hants, England: Scolar, 1991. 8.

A BENediction - Benjamin Zander turns 75

On his 75th birthday, I'm reminded that Ben always likened the Zander Fellowship to a marriage, and one of my fondest memories of him remains our amicable separation. It followed an enlightening year with Ben, a devastating life loss (a crushingly broken heart) and a soaring summer of glory, which culminated in one of those decadent nights that can't be conveyed among polite company. The lonely eight-hour drive (in Ben's little roller skate BPO car) back to Boston should have been followed by a brief night's sleep and an international flight, but waiting up until well past midnight on Brattle Street — with a glass of fine merlot, a lit cigar, that world-encompassing embrace and those eyes that shine like no others — was Ben. In his garden, we stayed up all night discussing the sacred and profane in our lives and in our art. The balmy Cambridge summer provided a benediction as our lives parted ways.

A Salute to Maazel

Dietlinde ran to me with elegant urgency.  “My husband must see you immediately.”  My corn fed, Iowan face must have betrayed my panic.  How had my greatest efforts disappointed the man whose powers on the podium were superhuman?

It was 2010.  Tim Myers – one of my closest confidants – had vouched for my comprehensive training although my resume was meager.  On Tim’s recommendation I found myself working as Lorin Maazel’s associate conductor: preparing a new production of Puccini’s Il Trittico at the Castleton Festival, a nascent undertaking inventing itself day by day.

So when he inquired simply, “Levi, do you know the texts to these operas?,” all I could mutter in reply was, “I do, Maestro.”

“Good, then come back this afternoon for the extra orchestra rehearsal I’ve just scheduled.”

“Yes, Maestro.”

He hadn’t minced words with the young orchestra that morning when he barked, “My stubbornness is greater than your incompetence!”  After this, and to the chagrin of the musicians, he had scheduled an extra orchestra rehearsal on the afternoon of the premiere.  Now all conductors sing – mostly badly, and I sing with gusto at the privacy of my own desk, but I am in no way an actual singer.  So it was for the orchestra’s sake that I stood center stage singing – all parts! – of the Trittico led by that magic stick of Lorin Maazel.  I sang Luigi from my loins, Gianni Schicchi with bravado, and I also sang the female roles – Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro,” with daughterly manipulation, and Suor Angelica’s “Senza Mamma” as if I were Renata Scotto, with whom Maazel actually recorded it.  At the conclusion of Suor Angelica (yes, it should be the last of the triptych, so as to send the audience home in spiritual transcendence,) the orchestra acknowledged my croaking as if I were Pavarotti reincarnated.  Maestro’s handshake and curt “Well done” were higher praise than I had ever received.  Thus began the three extraordinary summers I spent at the Castleton Festival, during which time Maazel poured into our eager ears and minds his 70-plus years on the greatest podiums of the world.

Any two or more members of the Castleton family who happen to meet away from “the farm,” as the Maazel estate is affectionately dubbed, are instantly bonded by the “Castleton Spirit.”  I imagine this idiom was coined by some enthusiastic intern trying to foster a sense of community in the burgeoning festival.  But whether originally contrived or organically conceived, the Castleton Spirit is as real as a golden Rappahannock sunset.  It is the spirit of instrumentalists, singers, conductors, stage directors, stagehands, interns and administrators working together to create something from nothing: Mahler and Puccini performed by “the undisputed best” where only a few years ago cows grazed, all under the aegis of the Maestro who for over seven decades was revered by most, respected by all, worshipped by some, and feared by not a few.

Maazel had achieved perhaps everything possible for a single musician to achieve in life, but he had never done what most do their entire lives in some form or another: teach.  He wasn’t a natural teacher, and he often couldn’t explain his legendary stick technique, at least not in terms of mere mechanics.  Instead he taught “the craft,” the innumerable individual skills that go into “the profession,” (both terms he used regularly).  He lamented the decline of the profession: that modern conductors no longer know the languages of the operas they conduct, that the fundamental skill of fluently reading a score is a rarity, that the basic study of harmony and counterpoint is neglected, that the exacting standards of the giants of his youth (especially de Sabata and Toscanini, whom he always called “Arturo”) have declined.  And despite my probing for him to name names, he gentlemanly remained silent, though he didn’t hide his approval of Gustavo Dudamel.  The single skill of the craft that he enigmatically taught was “projection.”  This was certainly in the stick technique, but it was more in the mind.  It is the telepathic capacity to “project” an impulse that compels musicians to follow.  Projection – more than any other skill in the craft – is what he constantly pushed me to hone.

Those who had known Maazel for decades always said that Castleton brought out the best in him.  Once, in the interest of getting a job done with insufficient rehearsal time, I spoke to some talented but raw singers with unmerited harshness.  On my way into the orchestra pit the next morning, Maazel pulled me aside to advise me to release my impatience and lead with encouragement.  His generosity of spirit was evident on the podium as well.  The sound of palpable, youthful love is emblazoned in my mind’s ear because of his inimitable rubato in Mascagni’s Intermezzo.  And when the Castleton Festival Orchestra inspired him, the blue-hot joy of An American in Paris had never been as Gershwinesque.

With Maestro Maazel and good friends Maestri Matthieu Mantanus and Blake Richardson at the Castleton Festival.

With Maestro Maazel and good friends Maestri Matthieu Mantanus and Blake Richardson at the Castleton Festival.

Over those three summers I shared orchestral and operatic programs with the grand old man, and he invited me to conduct the lighter repertoire.  So in counterpart to his L’Enfant et les Sortilèges and Carmen, I was given productions of Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins and Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.  But possibly more enriching than sharing the podium were the countless hours spent in conversation.  For an artist sometimes lambasted by the press for seeming aloof, he relished the company of us young conductors eager to learn the craft, especially my colleagues Blake Richardson, Matthieu Mantanus, Tim Myers, Brett Mitchell, Rafael Payare and Ha-Na Chang.  Our revelry felt like a secret society with complete access to the master.

So we were only amused when, in a moment of frustration with the young orchestra, he shouted, “You’re going to bring about what my colleagues have long desired: my early demise!”  We guffawed at the bon mot, because we knew with complete certainty that he would work for a few more decades.  And today – this morning – as news of his tragic passing rippled through our secret society and the whole world, our shock is tempered only by the undiminished flame of his (Castleton) Spirit.  We salute you, our beloved master, our Maestro.

- Levi Hammer

July 13, 2014