Magnificent Maestros: The Right and Left Hand of God

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Regular readers of my blog posts know by now that I often invoke the role(s) of the conductor in shaping the musical, dramatic and emotional elements of an operatic performance. Needless to say, these same functions happen in concerts as well, with the obvious difference that there are fewer theatrical values for the conductor to think of.

Maestro means both master and teacher. The best maestri do a great deal of preparation and thought before joining with instrumentalists and singers for what is called a sitzprobe (a seated rehearsal). In rehearsals the conductor guides, coaxes, and teaches to bring forth what he (and, let it be assumed in my posts about conductors, also she) sees and hears while studying the score.

It is fascinating to watch a conductor communicate, by facial and manual gestures, what he wants the instrumentalists and singers to do. The best conductors sort out almost all of the stylistic and musical issues in rehearsal, leaving themselves and musicians free to just play and breathe spontaneously during performance. And that is what I watch. 

A commenter on one of my posts assumed I customarily sit in posh seats. I am fortunate on occasion to do so, but my Met subscription is on an upper level and I often get a Family Circle (or the highest tier) ticket not only to hear sound at its best but also to be with some of the most passionate operagoers. And I often like to sit on the far side (and somewhat above) in an opera house to watch conductors at work.

It is still mysterious what some gestures mean and I try to decipher them. The right hand is used, by most, as a means of indicating beats. The conductor typically keeps a baton in the right hand and the white point is a visual extension of the beat-keeping. The left hand flutters, swivels or stabs to convey wishes for certain expressive points. Put another way, it is as if the right hand is the heart and the left hand the soul.

Many musicians I know agree that Lorin Maazel has the clearest and most precise beat. The most eloquent left hand I ever saw was on Sir Georg Solti, who seemed to directly elicit every sound, note and emotional feeling with that hand, all the while churning the right to stimulate the ongoing beat. Nowadays, Valery Gergiev’s left hand is quite expressive and specific. With some conductors, I often wonder if the left hand is leading the music or the other way around.

A conductor whose work I often enjoyed was Klaus Tennstedt (1926-1998). He was confined to East Germany for so long that when he got out and performed in Western musical capitals, he was hailed as a new visionary. Reviewing Tennstedt's New York Philharmonic debut in February 1977, Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The New York Times that the conductor’s approach was “Romantic, with a good deal of warmth, tension and an exploitation of the full dynamic register of the symphony orchestra.'' Schonberg said of that concert that ''This was not mere virtuoso conducting. There was logic behind everything he did. There also was crackling rhythm.''

He added: "At the end of the first movement of the Prokofiev, there was an involuntary whoop from one excited customer upstairs.''

Schonberg described Tennstedt as "a croucher and dancer, a stabber and jabber." Other observers said his conducting was athletic and angular. Allan Kozinn in the Times wrote “By the time Tennstedt reached his 60's, his podium manner had grown more spare and restrained, yet he continued to elicit performances that offered both visceral power and vivid emotion.”

Here is a fascinating performance from 1988, six years before he retired, of the overture to Wagner’s Rienzi.

In this performance, I think Tennstedt communicates well with his players and makes no excessive gestures or movement. There are some conductors (famously Leonard Bernstein) who move, enact, and emote the music. Such behavior creates a lot to focus on as an audience member. But often to the detriment of the music. James Levine often tells Met musicians that the audience should not see him physically enact famous music such as the end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It is his job to achieve the dynamic effect he wants without incarnating it.

In the Rienzi overture performance, Tennstedt clearly made evident what he wanted based on eye and hand signals. He listened to the orchestra but they too found inspiration and guidance from him. This transaction between conductors and orchestra musicians is essential for a performance to succeed.

For sake of comparison, now watch the young Venezuelan conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, who is chief conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the most famous product of El Sistema, the admirable program that has taught classical music to thousands of young Venezuelans.

Here he conducts the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in the same work as Tennstedt, the overture to Rienzi. The performance is one second shorter than the Tennstedt with the London Symphony Orchestra, which makes this an ideal way to compare the two. My goal is not to make you decide whether one is better than the other but to think about the difference in conducting styles. We think of Dudamel as a dynamic young tyro, yet his feet are more anchored and his posture more rigid than the older German maestro. Only rarely is there a gestural flourish, but he gets an efficient interpretation from his large, young forces.

I do want to point out that the Bolivar orchestra, playing in an outdoor stadium, is much larger than a comparable ensemble in a theater. You should also note the amazingly high standard of playing from the brass section. If I were a recruiter for a major world orchestra I would immediately head to Caracas to recruit trumpet, French horn and trombone players.

You might wonder, as I do, whether something so inherently Teutonic as early Wagner is better absorbed by a German conductor than a brilliant young Venezuelan. I think we all have the capacity to feel music in its pure form but musicians are able to imbue the works of different composers and cultures with all kinds of subtlety and texture. And that is how a piece of music we think we know can suddenly sound new and fresh. I have heard Gergiev conduct Ravel’s orchestration of several times. Once was with his home company, the Mariinsky (Kirov) Orchestra. It was secure, powerful, instinctive and very exciting.

Just two days ago I heard Gergiev lead the Vienna Philharmonic in an astonishing, almost technicolor, version of the same piece. Instruments growled, purred, hummed, shrieked, giggled to form a massive musical mosaic that was devastatingly original. Gergiev took a great Russian showpiece in which he is sovereign and made it sound like something brand new and just composed. Here was one of the top moments I have had in a long life of concert-going.

But there is more to think about with this performance. Gergiev seated the musicians in a way that he felt sounded their best in relation to one another and the total music they produced. But he also seated them the way he felt they sounded best in their concert hall, the legendary Musikverein. Musicians play better, and in a particular way, when they are playing at home. But those thoughts are for a future post.

Which conductor have you enjoyed watching, and why?