Paris. Bored? Blame the conductor!

We are well into the new concert season in Paris and I’ve been thinking about what makes a concert good or bad. There have been concerts when, instead of thinking about the music, my thoughts have wandered, or I just got bored. And I see that other people in the audience feel the same way. We often blame ourselves if we are bored, but is it really our fault?

For me the answer is no. If it is boring, or even just simply bad, the responsibility lies with the conductor. And more than this, from experience I can tell you that it is never the fault of the orchestra.

thumb_p1050368_1024How can this be? To explain: over the past three seasons I have had the chance to hear the second symphony of Gustav Mahler three times. At only one of those concerts was the audience really interested – and this is music that is not at all short on entertainment!

So what was the difference? Well, we are once again with Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestre Philharmonique of Radio France, this time in a concert at the Salle Pleyel. Chung had clearly decided what the music should say to us, and he led the orchestra so that they brought this across – they told us the story of the music, if you like.

For example, in the first movement, which is like a funeral or a requiem, he gave the music a powerful sense of inevitability. Right from the start he held the music strictly in time, and brought out the fateful bass line so that it trapped us in its sombre steps. Everyone was spellbound, and completely silent.

By comparison, in the other concerts, the conductors seemed to have no idea what the music was about. They simply did loud bits and soft bits, faster bits and slower bits, but without a coherent conception of what the music was trying to ‘say’ – no wonder everyone lost interest!

Sometimes we do need to work a little to concentrate – if we are tired for example. And for each of us there are pieces of music which require us to put in an effort (more on this in a later post).

However, when I think about my experience at these concerts, it is clear to me that if you do put in some effort, and yet you are still bored, ­it is definitely not your fault – blame the conductor!

[Posted on https://rhenleyinparis.wordpress.com/ ]

Morocco, Vienna. Naturalness – a lesson from the desert

A few months ago I found myself singing Waltzing Matilda with an accordion player in a Vienna heurige (a wine tavern). I was glad to find that I had improved since my last performance in the desert in Morocco.

Sometimes music just seems to come out so naturally that it’s like it is not even there. That may seem strange, but I mean that the ideas just jump straight from the musician to us, and we forget that there is something in-between. For me this is a sign of a good performance – that we are carried away by the ideas, and we stop listening to the ‘sound’.

How does this happen? This is where Morocco comes in.

P1070353When we were there last year we took the chance to see the sand dunes of the Sahara (they are extraordinary). At night the guides made a campfire and sang Berber songs to us. All the tourist operators do this, but luckily several of our guides were highly accomplished musicians. I still remember their remarkably flexible-sounding vocal lines, gliding over drum rhythms that were ‘felt’, not calculated.

I admired them even more after they invited me to try out Waltzing Matilda. Compared to the Berbers I sounded formal and stiff, and whereas their vocal lines flowed over the drumming, mine seemed to get hitched up.

So I found myself thinking: this flowing of ideas is the reason why music communicates directly with us. It is why music captures us, and why we are drawn along, transported, rather than simply being observers. And so we must be sure that we do this in classical music as well.

Unfortunately, this can be difficult because in classical music we have to start from notes written on paper. They don’t show us how it flows and so it can be hard not to simply focus on playing the notes well. But this only means that we have work to do – it is our job to figure out a sense of flow that works with the notes, and that carries the ideas out to the audience.

In short, our performances should be just as natural, free and expressive as the songs I heard that night in the desert.

Paris. Attacks, Mahler, collaboration

I started writing this only a few days after the attacks here on 13 November. Until now I hesitated to put it on my blog because for me what happened is far too serious for that.

However, it seems that not one of us who is fortunate enough to live here can really go on with life, as we must, without pausing to reflect, and to register what has happened. And so even this little blog will be touched by these events — though this small contribution will only be based on my little corner of life, classical music.

P1080483Like many people here, I am still really at a loss as to what to say about the attacks. However, I keep finding myself reflecting on the way that musicians are able to identify a greater good, and can put their differences to one side in order to try to achieve it. The more I think about it, the more I think that there might be advantages in this for everyone, and in all aspects of our lives.

This thought came to me because exactly a week before the attacks, even to the hour, I was listening to a remarkable performance of the sixth symphony of Mahler given by the Orchestre Philharmonique of Radio France conducted by Myung-Whun Chung.

The performance was exceptional because it was an extraordinary collaboration, not only between the members of the orchestra, but between the orchestra and the conductor. In fact, I have rarely seen anything like it. Here I saw a conductor who was leading the orchestra in such a way that the conception of the music was genuinely created together.

It was clear that although he was guiding the progress of the music, he was also listening carefully to the musicians and subtly adjusting the interpretation to incorporate the particular way in which they played each part, whether it was the tone colour of a melody given by the violins, or simply the sense of an accompaniment figure in the lower woodwinds.

As a result it was clear that the musicians had real trust in him, and so they were able to play extremely well. In this, I mean their individual playing, but also the effectiveness of their work together as a group. They knew that he would take account of what they contributed, and they knew they could rely on him. The sense of mutual respect was evident and exceptional. And it enabled the group to give us in the audience an experience of great value.

Now, outside of a performance, an orchestra can have as many disagreements as any group of people — between themselves, and even with the conductor. However, during a performance, the orchestra and the conductor put those disagreements to one side, and they do their best to collaborate in order to create something worthwhile. This performance was a stunning example of what can be achieved.

What we saw that night is that it is possible for people to work together for something better, and we also saw that, when we do that, what we achieve is actually better for everyone.

I think it might be helpful if things were more like that, more often, for all of us.

[Photo at https://rhenleyinparis.wordpress.com/ ]

Paris. Winter makes all the notes short.

How do conductors make decisions about how to play a piece of music?

I had an experience recently which gives me the chance to explain what happens – at least for me, and at least partially.

In Paris spring has now arrived, but I am thinking back to the extraordinary winter that we had. There were many days when the sky was incredibly blue – all day. It would be cold – very crisp – but the skies were so brilliant that it seemed like they were painted.

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And these days were so exceptional that I found that my whole idea of a piece of music would change after just a few minutes outside.

To explain… often I work on a piece by playing it on the keyboard. I start thinking about various options – such as how fast, how to play the rhythms, or whether the tone should be full or light. Then I find that my ideas gradually come together over the next few hours and days and weeks.

However, on these crisp blue days I found that I would leave the apartment with one set of ideas, take a short walk – down the street, past the cafés, the printing shops, and the boulangerie – and by the time I got back, all the sounds in my imagination would have changed.

For example, for the Serenade by the Czech composer Josef Suk all the notes of the accompanying instruments became shorter – crisp and sharp, just like the air and the light outside.

And for Beethoven’s ninth symphony, the sound became tight and clear, and all the melodies from the first and second movements became clear-cut and sharply chiselled – like the edges of the buildings or the leafless branches of the trees against the sky.

On the other hand, it did make studying the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) by Debussy much more difficult. Those long, languid, melodies are too summery for crisp days!

It truly is a curious and complex process, how our lives interact with music (even though this is only a very simple example).

For now however, I am happy to think that even though the winter has passed, in some way those brilliant days will always be preserved for me in my ideas for these pieces of music. It is just like having a photo album – for me these pieces will forever have a little part of the bright blue of this winter in Paris. (And maybe even the Prélude – with a clear outline those melodies do sound very poignant!)

[Photo at https://rhenleyinparis.wordpress.com/ ]

Stuttgart. Captivation – a lesson from a busker

Good music attracts people by itself. Good music brings people together.

This was brought home to me late one evening last month when I was walking down Königstrasse in Stuttgart (I had come to hear rehearsals of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra with Sir Roger Norrington).

To my surprise, although it was very cold and the street was all but deserted, I came across a busker sitting in the light of a display window, a classical guitarist playing his own compositions.

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They were lovely. Lovely melodies, sensitively played. I retied my scarf against the cold and sat down on a bench. I was captivated. Soon, a small group of people had gathered – among them a roller-skater with dreadlocks, and a tired waitress who had stopped to put out her cigarette on her way home.

We stayed together, just listening, for more than twenty minutes. Then when we parted we shook hands with the busker, and we gave each other little nods of recognition. And I think we all felt that the evening was better for our time together.

I want the same thing to happen for all my performances. Music should captivate people. This may seem like an obvious point – but it is easy to forget among all the other details of making music with an orchestra.

And I will judge the concerts I see by the same standard. Of course, in a concert hall we have bought a ticket, it is warm and dry and we have cushioned seats – so we have plenty of incentive to stay! But we should be no less fascinated by the music than I was on that night in Stuttgart.

It seems to me that if a busker can draw together a group of strangers on a cold night, and can keep us all listening by the quality of his playing, then a conductor should achieve no less in a performance with orchestra.

(Sorry about the delay between posts – I have been travelling. I will make it up to you in the months to come.)

[Photo at https://rhenleyinparis.wordpress.com/ ]

Paris. Architectural music

I like living in Paris but I am afraid that all the tightly-packed white buildings often make me think of being in a maze – despite the occasional view over to the Panthéon or up towards Sacré-Coeur.

Usually one can see only as far as the next corner (probably a café!), plus a narrow segment of sky. I found it stressful at first – in the winter. But then spring arrived.

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And I realised something new about listening to music.

In the spring the facades shine whiter, the sky is a brilliant blue and the leaves on the horse-chestnut trees are bright green (with fabulous white candles). All those vivid contrasts make the maze into an adventure of brilliant corners, virtuoso turns and occasional unexpected vistas.

Suddenly it seemed to me that music could also be like being immersed in a fascinating city. I found that I was hearing Stravinsky’s music as I walked (for example, The Symphonies of Wind Instruments and the Concerto in D).

Those rhythm changes are a turn into a narrow lane, or they lead onto a broad avenue. We might find an unexpected square, or a corner of green with a fountain.

Writers often describe the structures in Stravinsky’s music but this is the first time that the feeling of it just came to me naturally.

Music appeals to me when it’s about our lives, about the experience of being human. To tell you the truth, I still don’t know if Stravinsky’s music does this – maybe it doesn’t. However, at least now I think I may be a bit closer to understanding how he speaks.

Robert

[Photo at https://rhenleyinparis.wordpress.com/ ]