Monday, December 31, 2012

Janacek's Sinfonietta

WARNING: If you are a not a conductor, musicologist, editor or a Janacek devotee, you may want to stop here. --- ec

I have long felt it ill-advised for conductors to touch up scores, with the intent of 'improving' them. Great scores are best left alone. This is a tenet of the conducting profession. My studies were with teachers who were adamant about defending the integrity of composer and score, and I am passing on that same tenet to my conducting students at The Hartt School. We steer away from this line at our own peril.

Then I programmed Janacek's Sinfonietta, and that core belief was shaken. Hubris, or some misplaced desire to improve the score, were not the drivers here; rather, it was one of necessity.

In the edition I ordered from Universal, edited by Fuessl, the orchestra parts were unplayable, largely due to a plethora of repeats that are confusing and unreadable. Observing my intelligent players appear blurry-eyed in rehearsal, making (and repeating) uncharacteristic mistakes, I had no choice but to do everything in my power to help them. And so, with the initial intention of simply writing out repeated passages (many of which crossed over natural phrase points), I copied out every note of the score, using only the parts that my newly-generated score would produce. But then there were othere problems, beginning with the trumpets.

Sinfonietta was once titled "Military Sinfonietta," and no small wonder, given the brilliant fanfare that opens the work. For this, Janacek asks for an additional 13 brass players, including 9 trumpets which do not play in the orchestra.

Confusingly, in the Fuessl edition, three of the fanfare trumpets return to the orchestra for the second movement, while three others do not play at all until the third movement.

Ideally, there are 9 trumpets who play the outside fanfares only, while the other 3 trumpets play within the orchestra, beginning with the second movement. Another edition by Eulenberg wisely does this. But then this version asks the tuba to substitute for the fourth trombone. This unfortunate compromise -- understandable, given that most orchestras have just three trombones -- effectively removes the textures that are unique to Janacek's sound world. While the tuba is important, much of the low brass music in Sinfonietta is clearly written for four trombones.

Which begs the question: in a piece that requires an additional 9 trumpets, 2 bass trumpets and 2 tenor tubas, 25 brass in all, why would Eulenberg leave out the 4th trombone? If Fuessl's errors are in the distribution and layout, then Eulenberg's (reminding me of Mahler's famous comment, Tradition ist schlamperei) is one of poor economy.

Musicologists and editors sometimes make decisions with their eyes only; conductors are wont to use their ears without considering important documents to bolster their case. One might suggest that I would fall in the latter category, particularly since this is the first time I have conducted a major work by Janacek. But the act of copying each and every note of Janacek's score, while simultaneously rehearsing it, gave me an amazing window into the world of this composer.

And so, writing out all of the parts for my players, I remembered things that didn't work in rehearsal, among them:

--an inaudible bass clarinet solo
--bassoons sitting around with very little to do
--violas playing in the stratosphere (while violins pitied them)

and I began to wonder: do orchestras not program Sinfonietta for reasons that go beyond the need for 25 brass players?

Skeptics may accuse me of calling Janacek a poor orchestrator. In fact, his sound palette is unique to him, the stuff of genius. To wit:

-Who else but Janacek writes for two tenor and two bass trombones?
-The solo harp writing is exquisite.
-Flutes are galactic one moment, holding up the orchestra with a bass pedal the next.
-In the finale, the celli play a low Alberti bass figure which is ominous beyond belief.
-Before the fanfare returns, there is the all-important Eb clarinet, taking Strauss's Eulenspiegel to a new level of pain and despair.

For these instances and many more, I am deeply in awe of Janacek. Still, there is so much in Sinfonietta which has me scratching my head, leaving me with questions that will remain unanswered until I can see the original score.

So what is my new version, then?

Urtext? No.
Ersatz? Again, no.

Janacek's music is public domain in Canada and Europe, but not yet in the United States; my edition will not be available to conductors and orchestras until I have had a chance to consult the original source. Just from the way I've laid them out, with new, better-placed rehearsal figures, the orchestra parts I have created are preferable simply from the standpoint of playability.

It has been a fascinating musical exercise, ultimately leading to a concert where an audience heard an orchestra, newly unleashed and unbound, performing Janacek's orchestral masterpiece.

Alec Baldwin

Can you imagine the film, It's Complicated, without Alec Baldwin? Even with Meryl Streep and Steve Martin, that movie has no legs without him. And who can forget his hotel room cameo in Notting Hill, where he steals the scene from Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant? Do you remember which company he's hawking on those brilliant advertisements for a credit card company? Such is the immediacy of his character. A feature article in The New Yorker has been trending as one of the magazine's most frequently viewed in the last several years.

Until recently, Baldwin's musical taste was that of a typical baby boomer, predictably leaning towards the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Peter Frampton et al. And then one day, he heard Mahler's Ninth Symphony, and was hooked.

The New York Philharmonic recently installed him as its radio announcer, a job he says is the best he's ever had. (His first love, before film and television, is the stage; I wouldn't doubt it, having seen him perform memorably in Glengarry Glen Ross at Trinity Repertory Theatre thirty years ago.)

Guess what: Alec Baldwin gave a million dollars to the New York Philharmonic this year. I was already a fan; now my praise of him borders on worship.

Might the Vienna Philharmonic ever dare to ask him host their annual New Year's Eve concert? Wouldn't you love to see Alec Baldwin liven up that staid affair?

Muti, Dudamel and Gergiev with Charlie Rose

Over the past few months, Charlie Rose interviewed three of the greatest conductors in the world today, and then made the mistake of putting all three on the same program. Riccardo Muti was followed by Gustavo Dudamel, for whom English is still very much a secondary language, and then Valery Gergiev, who could not organize his thoughts in any cohesive manner.

Charlie Rose has the irritating habit of interrupting his guests while they are speaking, and he did this with Dudamel and Gergiev, in the latter case, perhaps to help him get to the point.

When Rose interviewed Dudamel, I soon lost interest and walked the dogs. During Gergiev's bit, I made myself a snack. But when Muti was speaking, Rose was mum. And rightly so, for Muti's candor was astonishing.

When a sports analogy came up, Rose very adroitly steered Muti to the question: Who are the greatest three orchestras in the world today? Muti offered Vienna, Berlin and . . . Chicago, a self-serving choice, given his current tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony. But who would disagree, really? Even when Rose wondered if the New York Philharmonic should be in the mix, Muti didn't bite. And with that, Muti may have severed his relationship with the venerable ensemble.

It wasn't always this way. The players in New York have made no secret of their love for Muti. While searching for a successor to Lorin Maazel, they pined for the Italian maestro. But after having been a music director most of his life, Muti needed a break, so he passed. New York selected Alan Gilbert, who has proven to be a propitious choice, with his fine conducting and brilliant programming. Still, it must have smarted a bit for Gilbert when, after Chicago selected Muti, several players in New York asked, "why couldn't we get him?" For Muti, it was all about alchemy: the players may have loved him, but he wasn't feeling the love for them. He went on to suggest that great orchestras are only truly great when there is a great conductor standing before them. Muti was not being immodest. He's great, and he knows it.

The Philharmonic leadership did not understand that even the greatest conductors in the world need to be coddled and cajoled. Speaking to Rose, Muti explained how for his concerts in Paris, La Scala, Vienna and Berlin, Deborah Rutter kept showing up. (Rutter is the President of the Chicago Symphony.) Her persistence made a great impression on Muti, who eventually accepted an invitation to conduct in Chicago after a long absence. Muti's preparation for the first rehearsal suggests a bit of the jitters, as he recounted how he would introduce himself. Clearly, he needn't have worried, for the chemistry was perfect from the start. After his appointment, some early cancellations due to illness brought about comparisons to Boston Symphony and James Levine, but things have since settled into a graceful rhythm.

To the claim that he has an authoritarian style, he suggested the accusation might be a cultural difference. When a London Philharmonia player complained about the way he said "no," Muti understood that his Italianate manner -- curt, to the point -- is very different from that of an English conductor ("noooooo," with an upward lilt at the end, suggesting that there could be wiggle room for a compromise, even if the answer still was no).

Gergiev is the greatest conductor in the world today, and those who would disagree with me believe that Dudamel holds that distinction. When I saw him conduct the complete Firebird ballet (without score) with the San Francisco Symphony a few years ago, Deborah Borda, President of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, sat next to me, beaming during the entire concert like a proud mother. Bringing Dudamel to Los Angeles was the baseball equivalent of stealing home; she did it while no one else was looking. The announcement came while Dudamel was an overwhelmingly popular guest with the Chicago Symphony, prompting the players to wonder why they hadn't gotten there sooner.

No matter. They got Muti. Even before my lesson with him years ago, I knew how great he was. During a conducting workshop with the Curtis Institute Orchestra in Philadelphia, I was struggling with Verdi's i vespri siciliani (Sicilian Vespers), and after explaining a few things to me, he snatched away my baton and led the orchestra in a manner that was nothing short of astonishing. After he was done, the room broke out in spontaneous applause.

Five Great Ones say goodbye

There were some notable music figures who died in 2012. On the eve of a new year, it seems fitting to share some personal memories.

ELLIOTT CARTER (just shy of 104)

My first reaction to Carter's passing was, "the guy finally died!" My students were horrified. But this was a life that was filled with energy and conviction to his last days. (I feel badly for those who took a chance on commissions to be fulfilled in his 105th year.) When I met him at his brownstone in Manhattan, he was short with me initially when I could not figure out how to open the door to his building. Once I was inside, he often excused himself to care for his ailing wife, Helen, who died a year after my visit in 1998. I sent him a recording of my performance (with Pittsburgh) of his Symphony of Three Orchestras. I don't think he liked it very much. He was a tough cuss who wrote tough music, but in his last years, he lifted the veil a bit, revealing a luminous quality that surprised everyone.

DAVE BRUBECK (a day before his 92nd birthday)

Mr. Brubeck had the temperament of Mr. Rogers -- a kinder man you never met. He wrote a concerto for orchestra for the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1997, from which I programmed individual sections for children's concerts I led there. The percussion movement caused some of the Pittsburgh players to grumble, because of the extra preparation it required.

MARVIN HAMLISCH (68 years young)

During my years in Pittsburgh, I learned as much from this man as I did from any other conductor. If every Beethoven score must first go through the prism of my teacher, Otto-Werner Mueller, every pops concert I do must pass the following test: "Will it meet the Marvin Standard?" Orchestra musicians would shake their heads, because of his frenetic rehearsal style and idiomatic conducting technique. But he understood that if an orchestra sounded fine under his guidance, what else mattered, really? One other thing -- he was a phenomenal performer. Audiences loved him.
(For a good story, please read my post of August 9.)


You won't know this man, but he may have the distinction of being the finest left handed stick-waver who ever lived. And this conductor was a REAL southpaw -- not like Donald Runnicles and Krzysztof Penderecki, who keep their main gauche close and tight. No, Berglund's technique was figuratively and literally out in left field, his baton arm hovering over the concertmaster, making it very difficult for the first violin section to follow him. But it didn't matter, for the sound he got out of an orchestra was unlike anything I had ever heard, then or since. Watching him rehearse Sibelius's Tapiola had me spellbound. At the time, Sibelius's music was rather new to me, so I attributed all of those unworldly sounds to the composer. As the years have passed, I now realize that those Sibelian textures were wrought by Berglund, a man of few words who was both courteous and demanding.

CHARLES ROSEN (85 years)

He is well known for his books on The Classical Style and Sonata Forms, both of which I own and refer to from time to time. But he was also a consummate pianist. I will forever remember him for an incident during my undergraduate years at UC Berkeley, when he was a visiting scholar. One day, walking down a long corridor of practice rooms, I heard someone practicing scales, clearly driven by the hands of a ferociously accomplished musician. Another student beckoned, "get a load of this!" When I peered into the small window of his practice room, there was Mr. Rosen, warming up on the keyboard, simultaneously reading the New York Times.