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Wednesday, December 11, 2013


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.


David Auerbach said...

Just to support the numerical hypothesis about maximum size of self-regulating musical units I'll mention jazz ensembles. Unscored improvisational groups seem to max out at 6. (There are octets, but they are rare.) The bands (as in "big bands") have scores, conducted rehearsals and and, in all the cases I can think of, a conductor (often from the piano (think Basie or Elllingston)) in performance. Of course, small group jazz presents that other wondrous phenonmenon, improvisation. I was once at a event that featured 2 classical quartets and a jazz quartet that had a violinist, a bassist, a clarinetist and a violist. The classical groups played (these were first-class professionals) from their repertoire, then the jazz group played theirs. Then one of classical violinists came over to sit in with the jazz group. He had, of course, all the technical skills in the world. Probably more than the jazz players. But he couldn't keep up, either with the swing feel or the improvisational moments. I knew the jazz group and at drinks with them all later (after the obligatory recitation of viola jokes) he was quite aware of all that. Amusingly, it has taken Perlman years to get the hang of Klezmer playing.
While I'm thinking about it, I'll mention that the very great jazz guitarist Jim Hall just died. Perhaps only Coltrane has given me as much listening pleasure. His duets with Ron Carter are quite delicious, as his collaboration with Art Farmer. The list could go on.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You have now ventured into a realm -- jazz -- that is forever closed to me. I understand what you are saying, but I absolutely cannot feel it.

Viola jokes, unfortunately, are everywhere. [What is the difference between a viola and a lawnmower? Answer. You can tune a lawnmower. And so forth. They rival lawyer jokes.]

Chris said...

If I wanted to start reading Freud and taking psychoanalysis seriously, what would you recommend I read, and in what order?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Start with Richard Wollheim's short book, FREUD, and then plow through Freud's THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS. Those two together will give you a good deal of insight into Freud. You could also read The thought of Freud by me, archived on

LFC said...

I'd like to comment on the conductor question.

From about age 8 or 9 or so through my early 20s, I was a pretty serious and, eventually, good (if I may be immodest) flutist. (I didn't want to go to a conservatory or be a professional musician, though if I'd had a different temperament and was willing to practice for hours on end, I might have thought about it. Don't know for certain whether I cd have 'made' it or not.)

Anyway, I spent a fair amt of time playing in orchestras, school and and some summers and college, as well as chamber music. (I went to your alma mater as an undergrad and played in the Bach Soc. Orch., among other things.)

It's been a long time since I played at all, let alone in an orchestra, but my view is that what the conductor does on the podium during a performance is not always just for the audience. An orchestral player is supposed to glance continually at the conductor during a performance, though many probably fail to do so as often as they should. Occasionally, however, if the musicians are looking at the conductor during the performance -- as they should, even if they have rehearsed the piece ad nauseum -- and if the conductor is able to
communicate effectively w the orchestra -- which not all are able to do -- something will happen and the conductor's emotions and/or energy will get translated to the orchestra and the musicians will play w more energy, drive, conviction etc. than they otherwise would. They'll rise to the occasion of the performance, inspired or transported by the conductor's own energy. I've experienced this prob. only a couple of times. The phenomenon is probably rare, even in professional orchestras, but it does suggest, I think, that what the conductor does on the podium (beyond essential things like cueing, I mean) is occasionally more than simply a display for the benefit of the audience.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

LFC, thank you for bringing some actual experience to the discussion. As you can imagine, back in high school, Max Pollock was just trying to get us all to start and end more or less at the same time. I completely accept your revision of my rather snarky comments about conductors. I would imagine, for example, that professional musicians can become rather jaded after years of playing the same standards, and a conductor with charismatic energy probably can jolt them into making the effort to play really well, with some fire and sensitivity. I remain under-impressed by the dramatic show put on by some conductors. But nothing you said disagrees with that.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

p.s. Don't sell the flute! Maybe you will return to it, as I did to playing, after forty years away from it.

LFC said...

I still have the flute and I might return to it some day. (One excuse for not having done so is that my sheet music is in storage. Have to get it out of there. [The details would make a long, boring story... Sigh.])