The Dance of the Conductor
51 last January. How tempus fugit! (always thought the “fugit” a little obscene: time farts, or at least that is how it sounds to me. The reason for this lies well-buried within the thickly set layers of my schooldays: a Trinidadian school-friend used to have us in stitches with explanations of his extensive typology of farts). Rather too much information perhaps. Anyway, despite my protestations that birthdays are fictions created by the dubious and utilitarian art of measurement, realities only in the consequences flowing from them, created by our violent abstraction of the world, cutting her into arbitrary segments, and despite the fact that I told them I would prefer my age to be measured more simply as One Life Old (OLO) which has a nice anthropomorphic quality to it when you put the letters together, I was given loads of presents, including a wonderful family size tube of Rituals Ice Shower Super Exfoliation Gel, which when you wash your bum with it, gives it a slightly worrying Japanese flag feel, not unlike the day after a good Indonesian Meal. From my daughter I got Debussy’s La Mer and Prokofiev’s Fifth at the Rotterdam Philharmonic, conducted by Yannick Nézet Séguin to be performed on Sunday the 13th of February.
We arrived nice and early, the lobby was filling up. I thought I recognized someone, a young girl, a past student perhaps. I asked Rosie whether she recognized her and she shrugged, "no", she said, "you probably thought you recognized her because she is young within a sea of old people". I looked around me; it was true: a sea of oldies, lots of them rather beautiful in their dignified togetherness, well-dressed, well-contained in their increasingly unwilling bodies, some quite obviously at their last concert. Mind you what a concert! Not a bad thing to go out on! We entered the auditorium, held doors open for others: wheelchairs wheeling bodies, accompanied by plastic bags suspended high in thin air yet moving and wobbling in concert with the chairs and the bodies. Our tickets read: Organ right, row five, seat 6 and 8. We were behind the orchestra; the percussion section had been dropped right below us but we couldn’t see them. We could read the music on the stands facing the copper and wind sections though and laughed at how the heads of the base players, the celli and the wind instruments had all been protected from the impending noise from the copper section by specially made square shields of thick black cloth on light movable stands. “Mahler would have put the lot of them behind doors,” Rosie said. We had a good view of the strings chatting happily amongst themselves. The auditorium filled up and that alone was a feast for the eyes, all these little bobbing and nodding heads with their careful perms in glorious shades of grey, bluish grey and white, hundreds of them, thousands. Then the first violin stood up, a man with too much black curly hair and filled to the brim with his own worthiness and purpose. He had a spotless white cloth meticulously draped over the brace of the violin to protect his sore and sweaty neck from all that passion of the sea and the frothing human spirit that was to come our way. Then the hobo stood up, a youngish man with gelled back hair who blew his magic over the orchestra and they in turn responded immediately and enthusiastically with that wonderful music-before-the-music.
Then came the conductor, with a light athletic walk amidst a light waterfall of applause. La Mer is a delicate piece with a very delicate beginning. Someone coughed as the conductor stood ready to launch. He waited, poised, holding his hand forward, suspending time. And someone coughed again. The silence became oppressive and expectant. A door scraped and slammed. The conductor gave a little nod to his orchestra, smiled and indicated with a kind expression that this sort of thing happens. The person had left, the silence was complete and full of suspense and so he allowed the first stirring of dawn to take us to the loud crescendo of midday. The conductor is young and fit, dressed in a black t-shirt and a dark jacket, informal as a matinee is allowed to be and yet the music was extremely disciplined and beautifully carved into the space of the auditorium which is what makes a live performance immensurate with a the flatness of a CD, however good one’s installation. It was music in space-time, a a swarm movement, led and beckoned on by the athletic conducting of this young, confident and extremely sensitive man. Music is a spatial art of movement and the more instruments involved, the more important it is to take account of spatiality. Small quartets can sound lovely on CD's, symphonies always sound flat. In fact that very fact reminded me of a wonderful story told by Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia, where he tells us of the man who had lost his hearing in one ear and with it his love for music, which now sounded "flat". I now know what that means, there is a literal sense to it. We had prepared our visit to this concert, listening to our cd's and talking about bits and pieces of it. And that was good. But what a pleasure to hear the surges and the echoes in space and to have all that tied together by the dance of the conductor over the waves, like Eurynome. Conductors are the movement of music! Not in the sense that you can take away the music and do with the gestures of the conductor, that would be an impoverishment, but the conductor in conducting is the embodiment of the symphony as a single whole. Of course, as Wittgenstein argued, musicians express music in their gestures, in their movements, in their faces. And we receive the music with our muscles, and sway, as Nietzsche observed; but with a symphony orchestra there are too many musicians, they need to be tied together into a single thing to make the symphony gaspable. So the body of the conductor, his gestures, his movements becomes the symphony by leading it into form, which we then receive and respond to. And with him it was particularly pleasurable to have him face us, he is a dancer. With oldies conducting an orchestra, which, let’s face it, is what often happens, and not without reason, after all you need to know what you’re doing, but however beautiful the resulting music, their movements generally show powerlessness and sometimes a certain anger when their movements are frantic, or resignation, at best a kind acquiescence when they admit that the task is too big for their frailty. This man was an athlete, a dancer whose face and torso, whose arms, hands and shoulders became the music, and the musicians responded eagerly with extraordinary discipline, like large hungry tigers on small stools in a large impressive circus: dangerous, awesome, poised to strike out wildly, but tamed by the bewitching dance of their slave and master. Rosie and I were squirming in our seats; I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a symphonic piece as much.
Then came Prokofiev. It has to be said, I am not one for tam-tam and clangy bits. I will happily admit that this is all to be put down to a faulty attitude and ignorance, but whatever its cause it has made me carefully avoid most late romanticism from Wagner to Britten. This Christmas I had a wonderful conversation with my cousin Max who tried to convince me of the pleasures of Bruckner. Although he did not succeed immediately, it was he who had caused a crack in my prejudiced armour. So, there I was listening to Prokofiev’s Fifth, which, to me, comes under the same heading: lots of loud clangy bits, a hymn to the human spirit maybe, but a loud one, too much dynamics, crafted not with the earnestness, subtle structures and seeming self-evidence of Beethoven, but with the mannerist hyper-virtuosity of eager people too desperate to do their thing with every greater effect, numbing us with the violence of their means. However, I now realise that this view may be unfair under some conditions. Perhaps it was because of our position relative to the orchestra, we were virtually on top it; perhaps it was because we had a conductor declaiming for us with all the vigour of which he was capable so that the music became a series of enthusiastic responses from the crowd of musicians to the sweeping rhetoric of the conductor dancing his Periclean speech to his people; perhaps it was because of the beautifully distributed spatial explosions of fullness and drag. Whatever it was, I ended up being as excited about this piece as I had been about the Debussy, something I would never have considered possible. I am now going to reserve tickets for the next Bruckner available and hope it will be conducted by this young man. I shall get seats for Organ, right, row five. Perhaps I shall be converted to late romanticism after all. It was a great day out.
On the way back we were waiting on the platform. I noticed a lovely girl in her twenties, leaning over the edge of the platform and spitting a huge globule of thick spittle onto the tracks below. I turned away in horror. I don’t like people spitting, it’s as simple as that, no discussion. The train arrived, we got onto it settled ourselves, full of excitement about the concert. The girl then joined us on the other side of the aisle. She was gorgeous. How could such a lovely girl do that? Then came her friend, a nasty short little man with baggy everything, greasy everything and obviously spending rather too much time and attention on his bad-man looks. They argued all the way home. He in hateful tones and she with short indignant wails in ever weakening jets. She had done something to humiliate his manhood or something trivial. I don’t know. It all sounded so pathetic and it dominated our carriage. What does one do, move? No. By the time they got out I was feeling very sorry for the girl and had completely forgiven her for spitting, in fact I would gladly have looked the next time and evaluated the quality of the spittle's arc as it flew through the air and landed on a designated spot, even, should it have proven necessary, discussed with her its consistency and stickiness. How can people apparently enjoy making other people’s lives so miserable? What would have happened if I had got up and told that young man to look at his girl properly and love her well? I didn’t. I would have probably made it worse; he was so stuck in his macho-testosterone-becoming-gorilla, it would have made him even more horrible, hateful and aggressive to boot. He was thinking about his place in the pack. That was obvious. At least, that is what I tell myself.
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