After RCICW- The physicality of sustaining

So, back to sustaining….
We talked in some detail about one small bit of Beethoven, and some of what we had to understand in order to begin shape the sound to make the music sound as alive, vibrant, intense and directed as the composer wants it to sound.
For the composer, translating musical understanding into gesture is no easy task, but the first mistake most of us make is in trying to make that translation too early in the process of our study. Our gestural vocabulary can only as sophisticated as our understanding of the music.
For now, taking as read that one has a strong concept of this section that takes into account all the detail in it, as well as its place in the context of the larger work, let me outline a few technical concepts that I find helpful in shaping sostenuto playing.
First, remember, gesture should always be a reflection of the flow of energy used by the musicians. Thinking about the motion of the bow used by the second violins in their fugue statement is a good starting point. They’re going to be moving smoothly and with a great deal of resistance between the bow and the string. Their motions are going to be centered in the plane of the string, not hopping or flopping about. Big, flabby rebounds, sudden changes of direction, angularity- any of these will disrupt the players concentration and there for the continuity of the sound. It’s particularly helpful to think about how the players make the sf’s happen in this passage. Neither the melodic nor counter-melodic players are going to be making wild, flamboyant gestures or breath accents on any of these sf’s because they still have to sustain the tone for a long time after the sf.
Second, have a sense of the density of space you are moving in. Again, it’s helpful to refer to the resistance of the string or the reed or the embouchure, but in any case, your arm will not be moving through air, it will be moving through sound, and, in this passage, that sound is getting denser all the time. Don’t mistake making space more dense for making your arm more tense- quite the opposite. The arm becomes more and more alive and engaged, but also has to remain flexible. Remember the old Tao-ist axiom that the flexible branches of a tree can survive any wind- it is the rigid trunk that snaps.
Third, create gestural transparency by limiting the expression of each class of musical event to some portion of your physicality. Both Karajan (yes, I know he’s a controversial guy) and Mravrinsky were very careful not to waste their whole physicality. Regardless of the overall dynamic, they both showed almost all the regular bar-to-bar changes of dynamics and shapes of phrases just with their hands. Changes in the relation of the hands to the body, or movements of the entire arm(s) were carefully held back for major structural arrivals. If one’s conducting space is sufficiently alive and energized, I don’t think that there’s much of anything in the first twelve bars that requires the use of  the whole arm to underline it. Think how much farther there is to go- the first timp entrance, the great horn solo, the arrival at letter E.
When bringing in new entrances, try to carry the music to the new entrance. You can either engage the new section in a way that chops up the music (too late and too fast) or in a way that strengthens the tensile strength of the whole (organically, well-prepared and engaged before, during and after the moment of the entrance). If you have 3 bars between fugal entrances, use those three bars to physically carry your energy and attention from the old section to the new rather than leaping at the new section one beat before they come in.
Finally, be aware of your motion towards beats. Too many of us stab at beats, approaching the moment of the pulse with a manic, uncontrolled mania. Often, a smooth approach is much easier for the musicians to cope with, as long as your own sense of pulse is entirely regular. If you feel like the musicians need more clicks and flicks from you, chances are your time is not good, or you’re not listening to them, or some subset of them is not listening to the rest of the band. Likewise, learn the art of the slow motion cue- throwing a cue like a major league fastball is not always the way to go.
But before doing any physical work, get to know the shape of the music. Practice singing the melody to a metric subdivision (one-and two-and or what ever), but see if you can express every aspect of the musical intensity in the intensity of your subdivision. You’ll quickly get a sense of where you have to be within the bar, within the phrase, within the fugue and within the movement.
In any case, non of this is rocket science, and I’m sure most of the younger conductors reading this already understand most of what I’m talking about. As I said in my preface two days ago, the real reward of this process has been the way in which thinking about the question has helped me define my approaches in more detailed, sophisticated and specific ways.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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