After the honeymoon......
Less than a year into his tenure with the LA Phil, Dudamel has been touring major USA cities - so I followed the reviews - easily done with the web. Tours forge relationships between players and conductor - proved in our first Polish trip with Maksymiuk - and to be proved again on tour with Donald this autumn. Dudamel's inaugural concert in LA was the same day as Donald's with us, both featuring Mahler 1. Preceding ours was a TV documentary about Donald, in which Norman Lebrecht commented: "The newly hyped maestro is expected to persuade audiences that the orchestra is playing better than for any previous maestro". Bull's eye. I relished its myth busting cut. But I winced. Why: because I resent the suggestion that I, or any of us, ever play anything less than our best (given that our 'best' is contingent on conditions beyond our control), and I resent any devaluation of the many great performances that we've delivered in the past - some led by un-hyped conductors. So let's do a little scrutiny of this post-honeymoon process. What endures?
How can a conductor ratchet up the standard of a well established great orchestra? How is a conductor going to reveal a new plateau of interpretation - reveal beautiful landscapes as yet undiscovered by other great conductors? Is it likely that a 29 year old could do it with the LA or Vienna Phil? And if so, who'll be the judge, and what credentials will that judge need? At the end of the day, the American critics have said what critics say about this tour, sometimes opposite things about the same event. Well.....we knew in advance what was likely to be written - and that's not to question their integrity or knowledge. We know what Dudamel does well. They tell him what he does, and they tell him what he should do better - I'm sure he's agog - after all, music making for him is about no less than the forces of life. Do players or audience have a part to play in this? Orchestras on tour get tired - they have to cope with travel problems, unfamiliar halls, idiosyncratic acoustics, duff facilities, inappropriate chairs - and cope with anachronistic concert clothes, still rank from last night's sweat. The best halls have their good and bad seats. The best interpretations can't be fixed - they mould themselves, chameleon like, to the hall and the moment. And the audience's part? The American critics didn't omit to mention the instant sell out houses and standing ovations. It's this bit, the really important bit, the audience bit, which interests me. The bit where player meets audience. So, are we talking about the right things?
I'm not carping at critics or audiences. Audiences here in Glasgow are on the increase. We're all in this together - professional players more so - it's the whole music thing that gets me excited. The underlying problem is human nature. (.....so what's new?) Our radar is designed to scan for the exceptional. We miss what's in front of our noses - the here and now. And we want things to be simple and obvious, clear, unequivocal and explainable. We want our own judgement to be vindicated - to be seen publicly to be right. We want to be associated with the winning team. We want to re-assure ourselves that we're getting value for money. Managers need profit to create an event in the first place. Societies measure themselves on their cultural envoys. Along with this, great conductors and soloists display phenomenal skill and intellect, which taps into deep feelings of tribal affiliation, pride, and celebration. All this has got me thinking again about the wagon loads of preconceptions and agendas, expectations and moods, enthusiasms and prejudices, which we bring to a concert - agendas that we couldn't leave outside the hall even if we wanted to - agendas that are going to impact on the concert even as we take our seats. Music's operational territory lies in subterranean realms - deep and instinctive zones.
One comment caught my eye: under Dudamel the LA players are moving their bodies more. No surprises if you've seen him with the Bolivars. Let's talk about that. Joseph Swensen, conductor emeritus of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, said that we have to teach the audience to listen. Not that they need initiating into arcane knowledge, rather that the players need to spark the audience's attention, drawing them into deeper engagement with the music and away from those other agendas. This is the sweaty forge of performance and interpretation. (As conductor, soloist, and composer, Swensen should have a good idea what 'works'.) Perhaps the art of listening lies in staying in the moment, feeling the here and now - shunning cerebral and political assessments. When we attempt to define things we leave the instinctive zone of physical communication - our mind hops into judgement mode and we lose contact with the moment. As a player, I hunger for the visceral, not cerebral. As player or audience, I want dialogue - two way giving - a two way embrace - essential for a relationship to survive the honeymoon fantasies.
I keep coming back to this - the physical aspects of music - not the intellectual concepts. Do we go to a concert primarily for a cerebral experience, or something more physical? We're hungry for something - heart, soul, and mind. We can listen to as much as we like at home - so why go to a concert? Musical experience evolved in the human landscape long before words and language. There's something powerful here - it's deeper than words - a treasure that can't be brought up to the surface - ineffable. That's a posh word for something that can't be described in words. 'Semiotic' is an even posher word: it's to do with the meaning behind gestures and symbols - the power behind words - behind music. This 'meaning' is a gamut of experiences that can't be shoehorned into word shaped boxes. Music is gesture......but only when it is played as such. Our classical culture tends to shun showy gestures, dismissing them as histrionics. And so an extraordinary pianist like Lang Lang is criticised for his physical gesturing......then why is he so spectacularly successful? Does successful equal less than the best......? Ravi Shankar's collaboration with Menuhin fascinated me by the differences between them. It's no surprise that musicians from Menuhin to the Beatles clamour to glean from the productive fields of Indian gestural culture. As we put composers and conductors on pedestals, we take our eyes off the real treasure - the physical experience of live music making. Orchestras don't need conductors to beat time or show players when to come in - both orchestra and audience need the conductor to summon up underlying musical gestures - to open up and share the emotional journey. Runnicles and Dudamel cite Bernstein for inspiration - the most gestural and histrionic conductor ever. A musical phrase might sound OK on a record, but in performance an incongruent gesture can detract from the same phrase, even killing it dead. Get both right, and then you've got the power - the force is with you - live communication that will feed a relationship long after the honeymoon.
How does this deeper power manifest itself? Why is it so much more important than pizzazz and honeymoons? It seems that every week scientists discover new aspects of the way music works within in us - sensors see into the brain in finer and finer detail. Last week I read that the onset of dementia can be slowed, if not halted, with the help of music: in the ailing mind, learning and understanding can be re-activated simply by being exposed to music. Any music therapist or kindergarten teacher could have told you this, but now the neurological processes have been observed. (I would ask: Why did music ever stop being part of a person's life?) Music enables an autistic person to communicate feelings, their inner and ineffable humanity, and so connect and 'belong' with other people - building a spiritual bridge over the lethal void of isolation. Equally so for blind people. But if all that's true, it's true for all of us, not just those of us with specific disabilities, or those of us being rescued from broken communities by El Sistema projects. Label them disabilities, disadvantages, or illnesses - we're all humans on the same continuum. We all originated in communities where music was something that everyone in the group did together - as you can still witness in any 'undeveloped' area of the world. Music was a living 'now' event, not entertainment, and certainly not about subtleties of interpretation. Another aspect of all this: as we became 'civilised' we moved into nice houses - houses that bottle us up, weaken our 'belonging' ligaments, and separate us in ways for which evolution has not prepared us. This isolation breeds fears and anxieties unknown to our musical ancestors. Depression has the second highest morbidity in the developed world, leading to personal and social complications, and mindboggling costs in sick pay and treatment. Music can help. These gestural languages - they might be ineffable, beyond words - but that doesn't mean they're any less universally powerful forces of nature (forces of life and death to Dudamel and El Sistema). Composers and players can't ignore them, let alone change them, just because they don't fit into their intellectual agendas. We can simply tap into them. We can even, "Enjoy the ride!" - as Catherine Bott said, introducing our Rachmaninov second symphony live on Radio 3.