The art of the conductor

James Levine is one of the great American conductors.

James Levine is one of the great American conductors.

Last night, Carl and I spent a rare night at home and were fortunate to watch the PBS program “James Levine: America’s Maestro,” the long-time director of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and Boston Symphony. I’m glad that PBS has posted the entire video on their website, which you can watch in case you missed the show. I was particularly interested in how Levine brings music alive in his conducting. You may recall from an earlier post that I said that conducting is much more than “hand-waving” or merely beating patterns. The conductor uses gestures and body language to “paint a picture” of the music — just BEFORE it happens.

Another part of the interview which hit home was the amount of singing Levine does in rehearsal, because in fact, singing is the basis of all music-making. Yes — this is true even when you are playing the organ and the “breath” of the organ is supplied by a motorized blower. The fact of mentally singing every phrase was pounded into our heads constantly when I was in graduate school. Every student had to sing in the choir, and all undergraduates had to take voice lessons, even if they were instrumental majors. And playing the organ (or any other instrument), is not just a matter of pushing one’s fingers into a key — it’s much more involved in that.

On FaceBook yesterday, a friend posted a blog quoting violinist Nathan Milstein asking his teacher Leopold Auer how many hours a day he should be practicing. “If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough,” was Auer’s response. “If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.”

I also had written a posting about Carl calling himself a “terrible conductor” when he first started, and that if anyone had told him nearly 40 years ago that he would be conducting the B-Minor Mass, he would have told them “NO WAY!” Yup, he’s come a long way, baby! Last night Carl said he had a revelation about himself and his conducting. As a keyboard player, he always had a clear concept about the musical ideas he wanted to communicate, but frequently the “spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.” He played reasonably well, but his fingers and technique did not always execute to his high standards.

As a conductor, though, he has learned how to communicate these musical ideas to others without having to play and/or sing himself. He’s found more success sharing and bringing these musical ideas to life through the virtuosity and technique of others.

It’s the same thinking behind the fact that music-making in a group can be more satisfying than playing a solo instrument.

Here’s the latest accolade to Carl for his conducting of the “Mass in B Minor”:

The B minor was superb, and has set the bar for Honolulu for a long
time! Among the many felicities, I loved the way you melded the final
cut offs with the gesture to stand or seat the chorus….so elegant
and kept the flow of the piece. (T.C.)

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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