I’ve got a story for you. Tonight I went to hear the Boston Symphony perform the Mozart Symphonie Concertante for violin and viola. The soloists were Malcolm Lowe, the BSO concertmaster and Steve Ansell, its principal viola. Music Director Andris Nelsons conducted. The performance was terrific: full-bodied, energetic, and expressive. If it leaned a bit toward 19th Romanticism, so much the better as far as I’m concerned. That sound is one of the things that makes the Boston Symphony great, and from what I’ve read about Mozart, he would have loved it, too.
That’s not the story, though.
Back in the late 70s or early 80s, we performed the Symphonie Concertante on tour with no lesser luminaries than the late Joseph Silverstein, who was then concertmaster of the BSO, and Pinchas Zukerman. Both were equally adept on violin and viola, but for this occasion Joey played violin and Pinky viola. Music Director Seiji Ozawa conducted. The performances had been going well, but when we got to DC, Seiji came down with a stomach bug and couldn’t conduct the Kennedy Center concert.
No problem. Though both Joey (who was BSO assistant conductor) and Pinky were perfectly comfortable on the podium, it was decided that for the Mozart, there would be no conductor. Again, no problem. It was a piece everyone in the orchestra knew thoroughly and following the two soloists was a piece of cake.
At this point I need to explain one of the ingenious idiosyncrasies of the Symphonie Concertante. For much of the piece one or the other solo instrument plays while the other rests. It gives the listener the sense that instead of two instruments there is a single soloist whose instrument has a wider register than either the violin or the viola.
I should also mention that as consummate musicians, both Joey and Pinky had correspondingly large egos. I don’t say this as a detraction. In fact, I think that’s almost a prerequisite for being a great musician–without it, it’s hard to have that strength of conviction that’s required to get the orchestra and audience to totally buy into your interpretation. And though they had different styles–Joey more nuanced, Pinky more on-the-sleeve–when they played together they blended beautifully.
Be that as it may, as we got into the meat of the concerto, Joey couldn’t resist but to subtly conduct with his bow when Pinky was playing. Pinky followed suit when Joey was playing. As the piece proceeded, each maestro became more assertive with the bow waving. The BSO being a great orchestra, this presented no problem. It can play for anyone, or no one. It was only when neither one of them was playing that we had a problem, because, you see, both of them were conducting at the same time. It was the only time in my life that I played for two conductors at once. One colleague referred to it as the Dueling Conductors. Another, paraphrased the old barber shop motto: Two Conductors, No Wait.
That’s the end of the story, but I also want to tell you a little bit about good conducting.
The reason I was in the audience tonight and not on stage is that the BSO has had a curious tradition of scheduling its four-performance programs. They take place on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and the next Tuesday. So tonight’s concert, which also included the massive Bruckner Symphony No.3, was actually last week’s program.
This morning we rehearsed Mahler Symphony No.9, as monumental a work as the Bruckner, for performances this weekend and for our European tour. Maestro Nelsons finished the rehearsal an hour early. A cop-out? Just the opposite. He knows what he’s doing. Here are three things every young conductor (and many old ones, too) should know about rehearsing with a good orchestra:
- Let the orchestra play at least 90% of the time. Talk less than 10%.
- Trust the musicians. They know the piece as well as you do. If it’s not right the first time, you can be pretty certain it will be corrected the second time through. Don’t waste time debating it. Browbeating gets old, fast.
- See the big picture. By not exhausting the musicians physically and mentally at the rehearsal, the performance of the Mozart and Bruckner was better.
Finally, let me say that I’m thrilled at the response I’ve gotten so far to this blog! More people are already following it than I ever expected. And if you care to, please check out the other pages as well. You might find something interesting.