The worth of conductors

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Published: 5th July, 2014

Surprisingly often, people ask reviewers, “What’s the point of having a conductor?”. A recent concert with Emanuel Ax at the piano and Sir Andrew Davis conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra came close to providing a definitive answer. The great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham didn’t do a lot for his profession when he reportedly said: “There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between.”

The audience for this concert frankly did give a damn – and Sir Andrew demonstrated the point of conductors through three very different works. He also dispensed with the convention of earlier times by addressing the audience directly, to prepare them for the first item, Orchestral Set No.2 by the American composer, Charles Ives. Sir Andrew cautioned that it was necessary to get rid of preconceptions about what music is, alerting listeners, for example, to the fact that Ives liked to compose music in two different keys at once.

This was potentially terrifying stuff, but the first part – An Elegy to our Forefathers – seduced with its oddness, mixed with (American) nostalgia. Gordon Kerry’s program notes captured exactly the sound when he said “fragments of popular song drift in and out of a hallucinatory fog”. The intrusion of those songs at times required the brass to articulate the melody, a secure focus as basses and cellos swelled the sound with harp and the odd piano note in the mix. Our conductor worked hard to ensure the cohesiveness of all players – and the audience’s appreciation of this unique sound, which ended with the unmistakeable sound of thudding footsteps.

There was more clarity in the second part, despite its odd title – The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Meeting. Snare drum and piano contributed to the sense of popular songs, whether ragtime or gospel. Strings and winds contributed to the bright sound that seemed to swirl about the stage but was in fact very ordered. Continuing the growth of the titles for each part was the self-explanatory “From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose”. The “tragic day” in question was the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 (as a result of a German torpedo), with great loss of life including 128 Americans. Ives was in a New York street as the news broke, and a strong memory was of people joining in the gospel hymn, In the Sweet By-and-By.

This part of the work began with an uneasy sound of strings and subdued horns that presaged a disaster. A recorded version of the Te Deum was also heard, presenting another challenge for the conductor who already had to convey the chaotic sounds of the street without there actually being chaos on the concert stage. The violins had the task of keeping the strong melody to the fore with the brass still an important feature of this complex work. The conductor’s final achievement was to bring about the calm, sober mood that ended such a turbulent piece of music.

In congratulating Sir Andrew on bringing about this feat, it is important not to forget the orchestra itself. If conductors have to have eyes and ears everywhere, they have to rely on the musicians watching them too and taking notice of all the signals given, not just the beat of the baton. The MSO demonstrated its happy partnership in the Ives and in the Berlioz that ended the program. Despite its popularity it has to be said that Symphonie fantastique has its problems for the listener as it supposedly tells a story that cannot always be traced in the music.

The best way to appreciate the work might be to consider each of its five sections independent of the others. Some of the notable aspects of this performance then became: the great symphonic sound and oboe depiction of the “ideal woman” in the first movement; the harp’s contribution to the balletic sequence of the ball; the delicate pizzicato and cor anglais and oboe duet of In the Fields, culminating in the ominous roll of the timpani echoed in March to the Scaffold. (As more timpani, the lower strings and bassoon joined in to suggest the “march” it was so well executed that someone in the audience cheered!).

As for the passion of the final part, Sabbath Dream, so many instruments appeared to have a leading role, and contrasts in dynamics, tempo and mood came so suddenly that it was up to Sir Andrew to hold it all together. This he did, with a flourish, so that the performance achieved the big finish that Berlioz so clearly intended.

To return to the question of why conductors are needed at such concerts: if there is a soloist, can he or she take on the role of conductor? After all, for hundreds of years, the first violin or harpsichordist both played and conducted (a practice still quite usual today in baroque performance and even, at times, with much later works – with varying degrees of success). But (ironically, considering the work just reviewed) Hector Berlioz’s 1855 treatise L’art du chef d’orchestre is credited with being the first to articulate the conductor’s role, fifty years after they were often seen on the concert stage.

The advertised work, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, proved an interesting demonstration of how the partnership between conductor and orchestra was extended to the soloist, in this case the legendary Emanuel Ax. Unusually, the piano articulates the theme that the orchestra will emulate, in Ax’s case with softness and clarity. The conductor respected this sound with dynamics well controlled in the lead-up to the first of many crescendos.

Later the piano appeared to echo the orchestra, but with great power, even when single notes were played in the right hand. The melody played by the left hand was clear even when the right was occupied with complex scales and other technical demands. With such virtuosity Ax nevertheless seemed absorbed in what the orchestra was doing and mindful of the conductor. Near the end of the first movement a quieter passage was interspersed with contrasting forte passages and broken chords from the piano. There followed a long section in which the piano had clearly articulated notes and Ax, like Sir Andrew, had perfect control of dynamics. The cadenza was explored with fast scales and a lyrical reprise of earlier themes. Ax’s playing seemed amazingly delicate for one with such evidently strong fingers – as evidenced by an impossibly long trill.

Sir Andrew brought the orchestra in beautifully and gently at the close of the cadenza and the movement came to a triumphant end. Some in the audience clapped and Emanuel Ax, far from disapproving, acknowledged them with a smile.

The second movement was, as expected, a triumph. After a declamatory opening by the orchestra the piano gently established the theme that would be the basis of dialogue between the solo instrument and orchestra. Nothing can adequately describe the lyricism of this movement, with orchestra and piano in beautiful accord. The final movement began with a sparkling piano entry, with Ax really looking as if he was set for a race with the orchestra. A series of arpeggios were punctuated at first by strong treble chords, the pianist allowing himself some cheeky grins after particularly spectacular scales and a cadenza that encompassed many elements of the concerto thus far.

As expected there was huge applause for Emanuel Ax, the MSO and Sir Andrew Davis, who had brokered the balance between them. Surely one of the highlights of the MSO 2014 season, and evidence that like great soloists, conductors do indeed have a place on the stage.

Emanuel Ax piano

Sir Andrew Davis conductor

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Ives Orchestral Set No.2
Beethoven Piano Concerto No.4
Berlioz Symphonie fantastique

Suzanne Yanko reviewed this performance at Hamer Hall on June 28, 2014