Our final full day of teaching at the 2008 RCICW was a rather epic one. We began the day with the Beethoven F minor Quartet, op 95 (the “Serioso”), with which we had started the workshop on Monday. I was altogether happier with the second session, mostly for two related reasons. First, I think those who hadn’t known the piece before came away with a much better sense of what makes it special, which is something I felt we hadn’t quite expressed in our Haydn 86 sessions, for instance. Yes, one has to aim for better conducting, but that can only come when we understand the music we’re dealing with.
As we got more and more in touch with the genius of the work, we got closer to the second reason the session was a good one- discovering just why it is such a uniquely challenging piece for a conductor. On Monday, I had tried and failed to express just why the rhythm of the 3rd mvt poses such interesting challenges- on Saturday we finally all experienced it and got a good sense of how one might go about meeting the challenge.
The afternoon session gave us a change to revisit the Stravinsky Octet with the Discovery Students, and there had been some notable improvements from earlier in the week. In the second hour, everyone had a chance to conduct a short excerpt from the 2nd movement. David conducted through the excerpt once at the beginning of the break (he knows this piece better than anyone, I’m sure) just to give everyone some ideas about how to handle it. To my delight, everyone handled the exercise quite well, especially the transition, although nobody really controlled the rushing in the theme itself.
What was interesting was that nobody chose to try David’s exact version. Perhaps at a younger age, I would have also wanted to prove to myself and the faculty that I could do it my own way and make it work. On the other hand, had they succeeded in getting me to do it, I would have copied David’s version exactly, as I think even now that is a much more interesting exercise than simply conducting it like me. We all struggle to let go of our limitations (how many times did I hear “I really struggle with this”) and imitation can be a very effective way of forgetting ourselves in the best way.
Finally, we returned to Brahms for the evening. It was an inspiring session, with Rick playing beautifully. As with the Puccini the previous night, the lesson for me seemed to be that you have to dare to ask for things with your hands, no matter how scary that might be. I think we’ll all remember Edette’s pianissimo- something I had to push her towards and which she later said was “terrifying.”
It gets less terrifying in time, but only if you learn to dare to do it often (in her case, it was daring to give only the most microscopic of gestures. Not only did the band come in together, they did so with the most amazing sound). If you go to work thinking “I’ll conduct a little safe for now, then try to show more dynamics later,” you’re doomed.
Other than that, the other insight for me was David’s work in getting the students conducting the slow movement to really respond to Rick’s rubato. On paper, that looks like the easiest movement of the concerto, and one of the easiest of the week, but to really hold that luminous soft sound aloft takes tremendous skill.
Finally, let’s all remember- Brahms is a round composer, Stravinsky is a pointy composer, but Brahms is NOT a slow composer…. If you’ve got a 50 minute Brahms concerto (in D minor, no less), you needn’t worry that it won’t sound important and profound enough. I’d focus on making sure it sounds coherent enough