Please find your red pencil there on the music stand, and note: it’s The Art of Conducting. Not the ‘discipline’, not the ‘science’, not the ‘practice’, not the ‘profession’. The Art.
In last night’s 6:15pm feature at the Green Mountain Film Festival, Leonard Bernstein – young, charming, sharp and acutely articulate – patiently and passionately unraveled the complexity of skills one must have to rise to the rarified eschelon of the truly GREAT conductors.
He knew. Instinctively, it seems. Only 37 years old when this film was made (in 1955, for the popular “Omnibus” TV show), by that time Bernstein had held prominent conducting positions with the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Symphony and Tanglewood, along with many guest conducting appearances around the world.
The film begins with an engaging tutorial on the basics of conducting: how to understand a conductor’s baton gestures; what considerations a conductor makes when opening a new score for the first time; and, how one goes about synthesizing all of the dense information in a score into a unified understanding of the music, and the composer’s intent.
Early in the film as Bernstein begins to apply these basics to a real score (Brahms’ first symphony), he reads aloud the tempo marking at the top: “un poco sostenuto“, he says, then asks in mock exasperation, “how can you tell the rate of speed from three Italian words?”
That got a chuckle from the audience, and yet it illustrates definitively the relative negligibility of a composer’s markings – and music notation, too, for that matter – isolated from the conductor’s interpretation, which brings all of the information together and breathes life (music!) into a performance.
The Art of Conducting ends with Bernstein reviewing the list of ‘must have’ conducting mechanical and musical skills, and he observes that proficiency in all of these areas makes for a very—adequate conductor.
Surprising. After all of that, what else could there possibly be to it?
Bernstein pauses, and then offers in a nearly conspiratory whisper, “it’s communication“: that innate ability to translate the acquired knowledge and gestures into the kind of passion and artistic singlemindedness that fuses orchestra with conductor, and ultimately fuels a group’s musical vision, combustion, and success.
This film came as a timely supplement to an article I had just read, in the new debut issue of Listen magazine. Victor Lederer discusses the exhibit of Bernstein’s working (notated) scores, which were displayed recently at Avery Fisher Hall.
Most telling of all? – Bernstein’s own handwritten marking in the fourth (‘ode to joy’) movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. Lederer notes that “freheit” is penciled in over “freude“, as ‘freedom’ trumped ‘joy’ for his historic 1989 Berlin performances celebrating the fall of the Wall.
Beethoven was both composer AND conductor, and yet it still takes an artist of Bernstein’s skill to give that already sublime score a final coat of wax before rolling it out in public. He interprets the score in a vision that’s both right for the music, and right for the occasion of its performance.
That’s a great conductor.
The Green Mountain Film Festival isn’t even halfway over yet – please support them and their dynamic creative vision by checking out the diverse offerings over the next few days!