On the cut and thrust of surgeons and conductors.

20 Oct
Hector Berlioz conducting a choir. Gustave Dore, 1850.

Hector Berlioz conducting a choir. Gustave Dore, 1850.

Arrogance exists for many reasons and comes in many forms. Interestingly, the bed rock of arrogance is often  insecurity. In recent years I’ve been under the knives of surgeons, all of them arrogant. Though rarely more than skilled craftsmen, forever replicating the same procedure, surgeons appear convinced of their pre-eminent place in the medical profession. Their work is performed in theatres under bright lights. Only after aides have prepared the patient, does the freshly scrubbed surgeon make his entrance, arms half raised as if bestowing a blessing.

Personally I think anesthesiology is where it’s at and the anesthesiologists I’ve met have been thoughtful, interesting people. The last one to put me under, played the Saxophone in his spare time. They’re also the people that insure my survival during the cutting and hacking.

Conductors of symphony orchestras are the surgeons of the music world. They too consider themselves pre-eminent in their field. Their work is done under similar conditions, players perform the critical tasks needed to replicate the conductors’  repertoire. When everyone is attentive and quiet descends, Maestro makes his entrance, poised, with baton rampant.

A few weeks ago my wife and I attended a Toronto concert by the Mariinsky Orchestra from Petersburg, Russia. The Marviinsky Orchestra is a misnomer because four orchestras known by the same name exist in the Marviinsky Theatre complex. The orchestra we were to hear was in the midst of a tour and had prepared two programs. Ours was all music by Stravinsky. A  3 1/2 hour extravaganza with two intermissions, the works were played in the order written: the complete Firebird Ballet music, 1910; the complete Petrushka Ballet music 1911; and Le Sacre du Printemps, 1913.  It was a marvelous trip hearing these three works in succession and the band could play loud as well as seat-edge soft.

The playing was uniformly good and the clarity of voices was stunning. I was disturbed by the lack of physical movement from the orchestra players, most noticably in the strings who sat motionless except for their arms and fingers. No one was swaying. There was no evidence of anyone digging into the music. Are there excuses for playing dance repertoire without moving? Go figure. There was an exception. The bass drummer, who doubled on small tambourine and gong, was the oldest member of the section and its best musician. He was into the music, always. I waited for him by the stage door, but finally gave up and reluctantly conveyed my congratulations to him via another member of the orchestra.

These were antiseptic performances with some startling affects. There was only one moment that  transcended all others, totally captivating. Near the end of Petrushka there are groups of 5 eighth notes in rhythmic unison for brass and timpani. The Marviinsky voices were so exquisitely balanced, they created a bell-like sound I’d never imagined possible. Gergiev is the artistic director and principal conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre complex. He had brought the youngest musicians on this tour so they’d gain experience. Their next stop was Carnegie Hall where a stage hands’ strike would be settled just before Mariinsky‘s concert. (The average take home pay for a Carnegie Hall stage hand? – $ 400,000.00 US. New York is an expensive town.)

The other disturbance was Gergiev. He did not use a podium or baton, which created intimacy. From shoulder to wrist, his conducting motions were generally reserved, but his fingers flailed above as if defying anyone to follow him. He strode on and off stage with a “I can do anything swagger”, bowed curtly, turned and began his phalangial oscillations. Gergiev even conducted the flutist’s solo in Petrushka. An unnecessary imposition of either control, or arrogance, or both. He was showing off and if I could conduct those three works from memory, I might develope a bit of haughtiness myself.

Fortunately I met a local Deep Throat after the concert. He was one of eight Torontonians hired to fill out the Mariinsky wind section. “It was crazy. Madness”, he said, describing a one hour rehearsal given the locals for Le Sacre. That was it.  Deep Throat said, “We couldn’t figure out his beat. Once I came in early, but he didn’t say anything.” Deep Throat ruefully shook his head and joined his wife for the ride home.

Oh, one thing more. Of the seven Mariinsky contra bass players, five gripped their bows German style. Two used the French grip. I didn’t hear any difference. C’est la vie.

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Posted by on October 20, 2013 in Unassigned


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