MUSIC AS ALCHEMY: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras.
By Tom Service. London: Faber & Faber, 2012. 292 pp. Cloth. $12.02
The title is misleading, the subtitle’s reference to “journeys” is irrelevant, and the promotional blurb on the dust jacket comes nowhere close to answering the question it poses, “How do the great conductors do it?” But if you can overlook all this, then Tom Service’s book contains a true wealth of insight and enlightenment into the arcane art of conducting. The author is music critic for London’s
, does broadcasts for BBC Radio 3, and is a self-acknowledged amateur conductor. This is not a book telling “how” conductors get the results they seek, but rather “what” they do—not the technical training they undergo, but rather the way they interact with the musicians they lead, their human qualities, and the intuitive psychological wisdom they require to obtain the results they seek.
Service has selected six conductors and their orchestras, to examine in detail just what produces the chemistry that makes for a searing performance. They are Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Nott and the Bamberg Symphony, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and Gergiev with two orchestras, the London Symphony and the World Orchestra for Peace. Service freely admits that “all the conductors in this book are musicians I deeply respect and admire.” That’s putting it mildly. The author’s attitude to these six conductors borders on shameless idolatry. In addition, Service’s attitude can be condescending, the prose he employs is couched in a deep vein of purple: “The forensic detail that Nott finds [in
] is fastidious, relentless, and extraordinary. … Debussy’s quicksilver music moves with all the fluid unpredictability of a cluster of cumulus or a shoal of fish in the tide.” Or this: The bassoonist’s “solo halfway through the first movement is suspended above an undulating texture of string sound, like the outlines of a forest glimpsed through a thick morning mist.” It all gets to be a bit much. On the other hand, Service does have a knack for describing visual phenomena in words: “A drawing of Gergiev’s path through even the most mundane of 4/4 bars would resemble a spider’s web more than a neat diagrammatic representation.”
The book is full of digressions large and small that have little to do with conducting but which actually provide much of the book’s value. We learn about the acoustic vagaries and idiosyncrasies of the Concertgebouw, the Barbican, and the Royal Festival Hall; how the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s egalitarian structure works; how the two main orchestras in Rattle’s career, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, respond so differently to Rattle; the audition process and long road to tenure in the Berlin Philharmonic; and what makes the Lucerne Festival Orchestra a virtually unique throwback to the days of conductorial tyranny. (The musicians have no rights, no unions, no limits on rehearsal length, no job security—but what an orchestra!) Surprising facts abound: The Berlin Philharmonic had never played Sibelius’s Third Symphony in its 128-year history until Rattle conducted it with them; 10 percent of the population of Bamberg subscribes to its orchestra’s concerts; the differences between American and European orchestras; and why Abbado will try again and again to get his musicians to begin
) together while refusing to give them a clear downbeat.
Equally valuable are the extensive quotes Service has included from each conductor and from many of the orchestra members. There is much wisdom in words like these from Berlin Philharmonic violist Wolfram Christ regarding Abbado: “Most other conductors try to beat time. And this is the last thing Claudio wants. He doesn’t want to beat the music. He wants to be there, to be leading it with gestures that are sensitive to the atmosphere of the music … it’s like he creates a thousand different shades of colors that melt into each other.” Nott’s goal is to “stop an audience from [thinking], ‘Yeah, we know this, we’ve heard it a thousand times before;’ or in New York, stop them thinking, ‘We know how this goes with Maazel.’” Nott doesn’t name names, but we all know examples of whom he’s referring to when he says, “It’s absolutely unforgivable not to be absolutely committed to the moment. And I see a lot of conductors and orchestras who aren’t.” Fischer’s approach to conducting is a refreshing antidote to those of Leinsdorf or Reiner: “In no way do I come with a complete idea and simply try to realize it with the orchestra. The whole thing grows throughout the rehearsal. The main idea of the rehearsal is … about developing together.”
As noted above, this book is not about the “how” of conducting. For that, one really needs to eavesdrop on rehearsals. Highly recommended videos of maestros at work in very different manners include Leinsdorf rehearsing Schumann’s Fourth (Arthaus 101 153) and Celibidache rehearsing the Bruckner Seventh (Euroarts 2011408; see
36:3). Combined with Service’s book, much of the mystery surrounding the art of conducting will dissolve for most readers and listeners. Highly recommended.