Okay, I admit it. I made a mistake. On the very first page of “Metaboles” by Henri Dutilleux I played a B-flat pizzicato a beat too soon. Maybe you noticed it. It was a stupid blunder and I kicked myself for not being focused. I promise I’ll never do it again.
Fortunately for me, thirty seconds later Maestro Nelsons relieved the burden of guilt from my slumping shoulders by making a rare mistake of his own, reversing the beat pattern for a 3/2 measure followed by a 2/2 measure. Once he realized his blunder (which was almost immediately) he looked around to see who in the orchestra might have noticed. Of course, we all did, but stayed the course. No harm done. One nice thing about Nelsons, he makes no bones about being human. When he made the mistake he smiled and shrugged an apology without skipping a beat (this time). Other conductors might have pretended not to have erred at all, but when a player in the band (like myself) screws up, gives them the hairy eyeball.
When a player makes a mistake, everyone might hear it, but usually it’s inconsequential and life goes on because (s)he is outnumbered 99 to 1. With a conductor, no one can hear a mistake, but one little mistake on their part has the potential to drive an entire performance off the cliff. I guess that’s why they get the big bucks, but as far as the critics are concerned guess who usually gets the blame?
I remember back in the days of the former Soviet Union one of the BSO’s renowned guest conductors from behind the Iron Curtain was Kurt Sanderling, who was a master with Bruckner. No one could get a Bruckner brass sound like Sanderling. One day during a rehearsal he made a silly mistake, and the orchestra fell apart and had to stop. With a very serious demeanor but tongue firmly in cheek, Sanderling said: “You know, in the Soviet Union we have a saying: ‘Only conductors and KGB never make mistakes.’ Of course, that is not true. Sometimes KGB make mistakes.” Everyone got a good laugh and the performances were tremendous.
In my murder mystery, “Death and Transfiguration,” one of the characters is the personnel manager of a great orchestra. He has come up with a scale for conductors he calls the TAC. (You’ll have to read the book to discover the off-color term that TAC stands for. I can at least tell you the T stands for Talent and the C for Continuum). But what it basically means is that the greater the conductor, the nastier (s)he can be and get away with it. Some of the greatest conductors I’ve worked with were also the most unpleasant and were not averse on occasion to insulting or demeaning the musicians, even during concerts (those would be 10/10s). But I’ve got pretty thick skin and as long as the music-making was on a high enough level I didn’t mind the personality stuff so much. I’d go home glowing over the performance. Unfortunately, there have been some pretty bad conductors who tragically misunderstand the TAC and seem to think being unpleasant is actually a prerequisite to be great. (Those would be your 1/10s.) Not much better are those who think that being nice is an adequate substitute for being good (your 1/1s). The best conductors of all are the handful that are elite musicians and wonderful people to work with (your rare 10/1s).
I would say that BSO’s Music Director, Andris Nelsons, still a young guy in his mid-30s, has the potential to be in that last category. Some great conductors don’t fully ripen until they’re in their late 60s or 70s, so he’s got plenty of time. Nelsons is not only one of the most good-natured conductors I’ve ever worked with, he’s one of the most good-natured individuals I’ve ever met, period. It’s rare to see him not smiling during a rehearsal or concert; I’ve yet to hear him say one negative word to any of the musicians; and he doesn’t rehearse the orchestra into the ground. Let’s hope success doesn’t change any of that. He’s extraordinarily gifted as far as the physical requirements of conducting are concerned; musically he’s very creative, imaginative and “in the moment,” which makes life exciting but can at times be a little nerve-wracking. I haven’t done enough of the core repertoire–Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms–with him to know how far his potential will carry him toward being one of the great Maestros (the coveted 10/1), but he’s definitely off to a flying start. All I can say is that for the moment I’ve got one pleasant gig and I’m looking forward to two weeks of music-making on our European tour.
(PS The conductor in “Death and Transfiguration” is a 10/10.)