Better seen than heard

Norman Lebrecht thinks conductors should STFU:

By some intuitive affinity or massive failure of imagination, both Gramophone and BBC Music magazine asked ’10 leading Mahler conductors’ to explain in their current issues what his symphonies mean to them.

Three maestros – Zinman, Jansons, Tilson Thomas – took part in both features. The rest included most of the usual Mahler suspects with the exceptions of Abbado, Boulez and Barenboim, who must have had better things to do with their down time.

The banality of what these conductors write, or recite into a reporter’s machine, is mind-boggling: ‘The final movement (of the Fifth) is colossal,’ declares one interpreter. ‘Mahler finds a way of making a very basic idea appear in many new guises, so we get a constant spiral of uplifting energy until a glorious climax.’ So tell us something we didn’t already know.

…You have only to listen to Wilhelm Furtw√§ngler’s archived radio attempts to explain Beethoven to realise that interpretation was something he performed without words. It may have been necessary for the music industry to invent the conductor as hero in order to satisfy public cravings for celebrity leaders. But when the publicity machine attempts to make an Aristotle out of an Achilles heel the results are about as edifying as asking Tiger Woods to explain the geometrics of his downswing.

And this from someone who’s probably never spent any time being forced to listen to what conductors say in rehearsal. If I could have all the hours back spent listening to conductors say stuff that was either completely unhelpful or completely redundant, I’d probably still have a full head of hair.

My ideal conductor would have a vocabulary consisting entirely of the following: letters, numbers, “before,” “after,” “loud,” “soft,” “not together,” “late,” “early,” “too,” “not enough,” names of instruments, the standard Italian terms, and “sorry – my fault.” Anything else would lead to a trap door opening beneath the podium.

Whether or not the trap door ever opened, rehearsals would be much more productive.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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