Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Steven Spielberg and John Williams

The two are inextricably linked, from Jaws to E.T.and The Adventures of Tin Tin. Spielberg is arguably the finest storyteller in film. My son says there is no one better at portraying the ravages of war, and I'm inclined to agree. With War Horse, Spielberg once again returns to the subject of a world at war. This time, it's The Great War, and the battle scenes are so vivid it's hard to imagine either side emerging victorious.

Say what you want about the film's merits. What occupied my thoughts during much of the film was that John Williams -- one of the greatest film composers of all time -- was at Spielberg's side, once again.

I have always wondered about the working relationship between these two men. Having met and worked with Williams, I know that he is an uncommanly nice man in an uncompromising business. When you hear a chorus in a Spielberg film, you can be sure it was the director's idea. But it has become impossible to think of the first great Spielberg film, Jaws, without also recalling those low tones in the string bass -- one short, the next even shorter, a half-step higher -- that tell us the shark is beneath us, always lurking. One could argue that these two notes are as famous as the four which open Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. No one could have known then what we know now, that no matter how challenging it was to build a viable, realistic-looking shark (and you thought the eponymous character's late appearance in the film was a dramatic tactic!), Williams had it in his hip pocket all along. And that is a testament to his genius.

But the music doesn't quite get it right with War Horse. This is the first Spielberg/Williams collaboration where the music is pervasive. That's not necessarily a bad thing: think of those great anthems from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman, or the bittersweet melodies in Schindler's List, and you welcome it.

Thomas Newman, one of the busiest film composers today, takes a different approach. In any of his film scores (Road to Perdition, American Beauty, and The Shawshank Redemption, to name a few), you are never aware of the music. I've seen Shawshank dozens of times, and am still, to this day, never conscious of the music. Newman is proud of this, having gone on the record to say he prefers "to deepen the action through subtext, as opposed to commenting on the drama." Perhaps this is one reason why Newman is ever malleable to the demands of the director, and is proud of that. You'll never hear his music on a symphony pops concert. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Williams's ability to take an idea and make it his own has always been a trademark. The parabolic trumpets in Star Wars are right out of those in Ravel's Daphnis. Others may recognize Gustav Holst's The Planets in some of the battle scenes. But the end result is never derivative; it always ends up sounding like John Williams.

Which is why, during the opening of War Horse, I was surprised when Ralph Vaughan-Williams immediately came to mind. (Williams has always had a love for English composers.) There are also tips of the hat to Aaron Copland. But what really perplexed me was the direct quote from Star Trek, played by french horns just as Alexander Courage scored it for the 1960s hit television series. James Horner (Titanic) is unabashedly unafraid to steal from his favorite composers: think of how he lifts a phrase directly from Copland's Our Town in Field of Dreams, or from Mahler's Seventh Symphony and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf in the animated film, Land Before Time. But I've never known Williams to do this, until War Horse.

Writing music for film can be tricky. The brilliant composer, John Corigliano, who wrote luminous scores for "The Red Violin" and "Altered States," recently had an experience where his music was not to the director's liking, and was not used. (Corigliano was still paid.) In most cases, music written for a particular movie does not belong to the composer, who later may be surprised to hear his music in other media, without accreditation.

John Williams teamed up with Itzhak Perlman and the Pittsburgh Symphony for a recording ("Cinema Serenade") of movie tunes for solo violin and orchestra. The session began with Perlman in the middle of the orchestra, with a microphone above him, but early takes were not to his liking. Finally, the producer moved him back to the front of the orchestra, and things progressed nicely from that point on. Of course, Williams's music for Schindler's List was included, and Perlman's rendition was as glorious as it was in the film. Returning to the green room (which had been converted into a studio) during each session break, Perlman had much to say, but Williams always deferred to the producer. He was also very kind to other composers represented on the disc. (Of Andre Previn's contribution, he shook his head in admiration, saying "boy, they just don't write music like that anymore.")

You would be hard-pressed to find equal doses of genius and modesty in another human being. When I saw him last summer at Tanglewood, Williams, now just shy of eighty, was his usual jovial self, trading niceties with staff and musicians.

The Adventures of Tin Tin is a movie I would have seen by now had it come out years ago, when my children were younger. But I will see it, if only to hear the Williams score. I am still, and always will be, a devoted fan. I can hardly wait to see (and hear) what he and Spielberg have wrought with Lincoln. (And Jurassic Park IV is on the way . . .)

Monday, December 19, 2011

A good performance can only come from a good start

At the dress rehearsal for a performance of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, and then again at the warmup two days later, I had the winds play the opening two bars several times. They were probably scratching their heads: "Why is the conductor having us play these 13 notes over and over again, when there are so many other spots that still need touching up?" Of course, they were right. But, reminded of two past events with another masterwork -- one told, one experienced -- I thought the better of it, and stuck to my guns.

Someone told me a great Leonard Bernstein story that sounded like vintage Lenny. (No, I never met the man, but many of my colleagues and friends were fortunate to study with him, and hearing them recount their stories has given me great vicarious pleasure.) One went like this: after a party that went on all night, Bernstein -- cigarette in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other -- went to his desk in preparation for a rehearsal later that morning of Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 6, "Pathetique."

He opened his score to the first page.

The music opens with contrabassi, playing an open fifth, E and B. A solo bassoon enters, meandering within that fifth like an inchworm -- up two steps, down a step; then again, up two steps, down one. Again, a third time. It's as if, after months and months of deep sleep, a grizzly bear is slowly waking up. Or maybe it's Tchaikovsky himself, unable to find the key of relief that will unlock him from yet another debilitating depression.

This is hypnotic music, in a world of its own, and it had cast a spell on Bernstein, for he never turned the page. He sat and studied the score for over an hour, but he never strayed from those opening bars. For Bernstein, the whole world of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique was in that solo bassoon and the low strings.

When I was a conducting student at Yale, the six or seven students would share a concert at the end of the year, with four of us dividing up the symphony on the second half. Our teacher, Mr. Mueller, usually gave me the finale -- my first year, it was Beethoven's Seventh Symphony; a couple of years later, we did Symphony no. 3, "Eroica." But when we did Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 6, I was given the first movement. (He said the first movement was nicht für Kinder -- a William Steinberg phrase that he oft-quoted -- but somebody had to do it.) After the performance of the Tchaikovsky, speaking of the climax in the development, Mr. Mueller criticized me for being 'too Catholic, not enough Russian Orthodox.' Like many of his pedagogical urgings, it took me years to figure out what he had meant.

But what I won't ever forget was how the symphony began. The opening fifth in the basses was compressed, making it sound more like a tri-tone (sometimes known as L'intervallo del diavolo). It was awful. To make matters worse, a cellist seated near the basses started to giggle. Things soon got out of control. Any hope for the music to dramatically unfold over the next twenty minutes was ruined. It shook me to the core of my being. The way our curriculum was set up, we had one concert a year in which to shine, and this was my moment. Think of an ice skater who, in some national or international event, opens with triple axle and falls to the ice. That's how I felt at the time. Why go on?

I asked Mr. Mueller what he would have done, given the same situation, if he would have started over again. He said yes.
And so I resolved, from that day forward, if something did not begin well, I would stop and take it over again, from the top.

Ten years later with the Pacific Symphny Institute Orchestra, the solo trumpet kicked the first few notes of his solo in Ravel's orchestration to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The trumpeter was a brilliant player, but also ultra-sensitive, and I knew that continuing would likely diminish him, as well as the performance. So I wheeled around, cheerfully said to the audience, "we're going to try that again!" Yes, we. Because I took a measure of the blame. If a player does not play his best, it's possible, maybe even likely, that there was something I could have done to help him play it better. (The late great conductor, Calvin Simmons, who opened his first concert as music director of the Oakland Symphony with Mussorgsky's Pictures, was luckier than I. He bounded on stage, took a bow without the orchestra, and as he came out of his bow, turned around to give a downbeat to the solo trumpet. I knew Simmons had caught the trumpeter off guard, but he played it brilliantly nonetheless.)

And so, we started Pictures once again. And this time, the trumpet solo was perfect. He nailed it. And it set a postive tone for the entire piece.

That's why, years later, I had the Hartt students play the opening bars of Symphonie Fantastique over and over again. In my mind, I was setting them up for success. The first two bars are undeniably difficult, and Berlioz's exacting dynamic directions . . .

begin softly, gradually increase the volume, and then, at the end of the crescendo play the next bar suddenly softer still, attacking it accurately and together, and then hold it, in perfect intonation

. . . are often shortchanged. After they played it correctly once, I had them do it again, and again still, so that their success was habit-forming.

Sure enough, in the performance, the winds played these two bars beautifully, which set the tone for what would be an exhilarating performance. All's well that begins well.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Berlioz and his Symphonie Fantastique

Two nights ago, the Hartt Symphony Orchestra performed Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, and it was an unexpected thrill. Why? Because, a few days earlier, we were anything but ready. One might chalk it up to the hectic lives of students and their busy schedules at the end of a semester. But I can remember some fine performances with other orchestras where things went down to the wire. I am hesitant to praise my students too strongly, because I fear they may carry the belief that waiting until the last minute to properly prepare one's part leads to a more exciting performance.

Meryl Streep once said, "Sometimes under-preparation is very good, because it instills fear, and fear is galvanizing. It makes you break out of yourself. If you're prepared, then you think you're ready, and if you think you're ready, then you're not ready."

A few years ago, a snowstorm forced the Hartford Symphony to move a concert to the following evening. Because the guest artist (the fine cellist, Julie Albers, playing Stephen Albert's Cello concerto) had a previously scheduled engagement in Princeton, the orchestra had to fill her spot with a musical selection that would be performed without rehearsal.

Since it was Valentine's Day (Prokofiev's ballet music to Romeo and Juliet was already slated for the second half), I put Tchaikovsky's Overture-Fantasy to Romeo and Juliet in place of the Albert concerto. To this day, whenever the subject comes up with my friend, Leonid Sigal (concertmaster of the HSO), he resolutely maintains that it was the best performance of the Tchaikovsky he's ever done. High praise, coming from a Russian artist who has played this work many, many times.

Was it really that good? And if so, was the excellence of our performance in part due to the fact that every player was sitting on the edge of his/her seat, ready for any cue that would come his/her way? Certainly. Meryl Streep would have loved it. [Hmm -- after practicing the violin 6 hours a day for a month (in preparation for her role in "Music from the Heart"), maybe she could have joined us.]

But Tchaikovsky' Romeo and Juliet is not nearly as difficult as Symphonie Fantastique, which always sounds like a wild ride no matter how much rehearsal time has gone into it. As well as my students played it, I will always wonder -- could it have been better? Maybe, maybe not.

Several years ago, the great Polish conductor, Jerzy Semkow, conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony in Rachmaninoff's Symphony no. 2. The first rehearsal was unforgettable, on-the-edge-of-your-seat stuff. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the subsequent rehearsals and performances had none of the energy and vigor of the initial playthrough. But the audience did not know what I knew: before that first rehearsal, the orchestra had spent all morning recording short popular melodies with Itzahk Perlman, violinist, and John Williams, conductor ("Cinema Serenade"). When you've spent hours and hours playing (and replaying) little bonbons from Yentl, Out of Africa, and Il Postino, you can hardly wait to sink your teeth into a big piece of meat like Rachmaninoff. And so, later that day, when Semkow -- a favorite of the orchestra who had not been in Pittsburgh for a long time -- ascended the podium, the orchestra took on the persona of an uncaged lion, and the playing was electric. But by the end of the week, the orchestra was more than ready, and the effect was stultifying.

There are other entertainers who would agree with Meryl Streep. Bill Cosby hates to rehearse, but one cannot deny the brilliance of his standup comedy, or his work on television. In preparation for a film, Dame Judi Dench does not like to memorize her script. And yet, on the screen -- whether as 'M' in James Bond or as Hecuba in Hamlet -- she delivers her lines like she owns them, as if she has written them herself.

The late Carlos Kleiber, regarded by many to be the best conductor of the late 20th century, performed in a manner that suggested he was making it up as he went along. During the latter part of his career, his public appearances were few and far between, as he demanded extraordinary amounts of rehearsal time that few orchestras would give him. Perhaps the essence of his disarming spontaneity was supported by the high level of preparation he required from his players.

Who is to know, really, what is best?
I just hope my students don't wait until the last minute to practice.