I often – many times – get the question (of course following the most popular of the questions, which is this: actually, what is a conductor needed for at all? – but more on that later) how does a conductor prepare for a concert? So I tried to summon how this goes – in general.
A conductor on the Lenin path.
The only “wisdom” I can quote from the red-handed Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (only my first-grade certificate had a coat of arms with stalks, thank God) is also a conductor’s most important travel pack for a life: Learn, learn, learn.
Nikisch – the ancestor of the infallible tyrants
Of course I can’t write about how The Conductor learns, as this field includes countless cults too. I am not going to talk about the unrepentant geniuses who, thanks to their photographic memory or their infallible voice recorder brain, hardly ever learn. These included, for example, the legendary Arthur Nikisch, the great-grandfather of all modern ‘great conductors’, idol of the divine Furtwängler.
Nikisch is said to have had such a photographic memory that he often didn’t even open the score before rehearsal, and then played through the piece with the orchestra once, closed the score – and knew it. The whole piece by heart. Now, we can dismiss such people with a contemptuous wave of the hand, because they “don’t understand this anguish”, at least what the constant hunching over the score means. (It is of little consolation to modestly able geniuses that this Nikisch practice also has its downside. The story goes that Max Reger once teased the master, who was about to sight-read prima vista, that he wanted to hear the double fugue first from his new piece. He smiled for a few minutes at Nikisch’s frantic flipping back and forth, then resignedly noted that there was no double fugue at all in the piece.)
Beyond Nikisch and Kocsis, there lie thousands of conductors – including me – who learn either slowly or more quickly, doubtlessly in agony. As with so many things, everyone does it differently, so I’ll tell you how I get to know a piece.
With or without preview
When a new piece of music comes to the conductor’s attention, two cases are possible: either he already has aural experience of the piece, or he is about to conquer a completely virgin territory. . In a way, I prefer the latter, for I can’t rely on my past memories as a crutch, but the thrill of discovery is coupled with a completely fresh set of eyes and ears, which can be a very important aspect in the long run. As the first encounter is of utter importance. I am convinced that here, as in instrumental practice, a significant part of the learning/practicing process is nothing more than correcting mistakes / misreadings fixed during the first read-through / first playing. It is no coincidence that in a letter Mozart wrote that he considered a musician to be ready when he plays an unfamiliar piece of music put in front of him at first reading, in tempo, flawlessly and with a right taste (recently we would say LOL, or something rasher), because our brain is a formidable instrument: it records every detail perfectly in the deeper, not yet consciously recallable memory. Of course, I don’t know of any musician who could live up to Mozart’s expectations, so we mortals are left with hours and hours of study and practice. Bad luck.
Now there’s chemistry, now there isn’t.
For my part, I prefer to start getting to know a piece by playing it thgrough thoroughly on the piano. Of course, instead of Mozart’s manner of “in tempo, flawlessly and with a right taste”, I usually start the first round in a sloppy, repetitive, analytical way. And it is usually around the secondary theme that I find out whether the “chemistry” between the piece and me works or not, whether there is love at first hearing or whether we are in for a subtle, prolonged process of liking each other during the hours we spend together. When the torch of passion is lit, it means a great joy, because – as with real love – you can almost overlook the difficult, unwanted moments. Which is a bit different to works you “must love”.
One thing is for sure: one of a conductor’s main duties is to arrive at the first rehearsal with maximum preparedness, for on this rehearsal somewhere between 10:00 and 10:10 is where it turns out how the concert four days ahead will be. And there’s long and winding road to this preparedness…
(to be continued …)
Author: Máté Hámori