My ruminations about viola playing have elicited several long and very interesting comments, by C. Rossi and James Camien McGuiggan. I turned these over in my mind this morning as I took my daily walk, huddled inside my sweater and hoodie against the 27 degree cold. What follows is a rather unstructured series of thoughts provoked by those two comments, and by some memories from long ago.
C. Rossi raises a number of questions about the role of the conductor in a musical performance, keyed to a lovely story about Yitzhak Perlman [I accept his emendation of my spelling of Perlman's first name.] To save space, I am going to assume that you have all taken the time to read the two comments. He is quite right that we must include trios, quintets, and even sextets with the more familiar quartets as instances of cooperative music making without a conductor. In a quartet [the genre with which I am most familiar], the first violinist starts them off by raising the violin a bit, or by a nod of the head or some other signal, but thereafter, the four musicians interact with one another constantly rather than following one leader. The only exceptions to this convention of the first violinist cuing the group are those cases in which one or more of the other players begin a movement and the first violin is silent for a bit. [For obvious reasons, my favorite example of this is the last movement of the third Rasumowsky -- Beethoven Opus 59, #3 -- a blindingly fast fugue in which the viola !! states the subject -- a rare moment for a violist.]
There are some modern examples of chamber orchestras that play without a conductor, but the modern full scale symphony orchestra is always led by a conductor who stands on a podium, facing the musicians rather than the audience, and like as not reading from a full orchestra score set on a stand in front of him or her [although even now it is almost always a man.] I should say that my last personal experience of playing in an orchestra was sixty-three years ago, when I was a student at Forest Hills High School in Queens, New York. The conductor of the school orchestra was a music teacher named Max Pollock, who was rumored to play jazz in his off hours. We were not much of an orchestra if the truth be known. Our signature pieces were Leroy Anderson's "The Syncopated Clock" and Borodin's In The Steppes of Central Asia, but Mr. Pollock's principal task was getting us to play the National Anthem sufficiently in tune to allow the students to sing it at school assemblies. This is the reason why, to this day, I have an imperfect grasp of the words of The Star Spangled Banner. I never actually got to sing it in high school.
We are all familiar with the theatrical bobbing and weaving and exaggerated arm movements that pass for orchestra conducting these days. Modern conductors remind me of nothing so much as Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, mimicking the extremely dramatic style of Leopold Stokowski as he conducts an army of brooms carrying pails of water. All of that modern dance on the podium has virtually nothing to do with the actual music making of the instrumentalists, of course. Now, I am sympathetic with the conductors. After all, they never get to actually make music. The lowliest second violinist in the last chair is contributing more sound than the conductor.
This is not to say that the conductor is superfluous. Far from it. It falls to the conductor to choose, and then to elicit, an interpretation of the music, which, as James McGuiggan quite correctly reminds us, is very much more indeed than just playing the notes in time and in tune. A real big league orchestra conductor will have a deep knowledge of the entire score, right down to the last note of every line, and he or she will make a large number of choices, not only about tempo and dynamics [loud or soft, etc.] but about such things as the balance among the several string sections at each point in the piece and even where exactly the wind players will take their breaths. The conductor may decide that there is a place in the music where a passage played by the cellists needs to be heard above the violins and violas, or that a phrase played by the oboist should be unbroken by a breath. Those tiny choices, folded into a professional performance by musicians who can be counted on to play the notes correctly, can dramatically alter the aesthetic quality of the final performance. It is no small thing to master the score of, say, a Beethoven symphony so completely that you can make those choices and communicate them to the musicians. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the legendary conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Arturo Toscanini. As the orchestra was about to begin working on a new piece, the second oboist raised his hand and said "Excuse, me, Maestro, but I am not certain I can play today. The B-flat key on my oboe is broken." Toscanini paused for a moment, looked off into the middle distance, and replied, "It is all right. You do not have a B-flat."
When I was a boy, my parents were very friendly with Joe and Vera Vieland, who, it was said, had escaped from Russia after the revolution by walking all the way across Asian Russia to Vladivostok and then taking a boat to America. Joe was a violist with the Philharmonic. Fifty years later, when I was studying the viola seriously, I was thrilled to find myself working on a number of compositions adapted from the violin or cello literature for the viola that read in small letters over the right-hand end of the first line "arranged by Joseph Vieland." Toscanini was a tyrant and Joe was a rebel, and apparently he would laboriously work his way up to first desk in the viola section, only to have a fight with the Maestro about something that would land him back at the last desk again. It was Joe who pointed my parents toward Mrs. Zacharias when I decided as a boy to study the violin.
But all the real work of the conductor of a big league orchestra is completed during rehearsal. If that work has been productive, and if the conductor's musical vision is compelling, the result will be a truly memorable performance that can rightly be described as an "interpretation," not just as a performance. The hand waving and bobbing and weaving is for the audience, many of whom probably are as capable of distinguishing a great from a merely competent performance as they are of telling a great Cabernet from two buck chuck.