As part of an ongoing effort to make this blog less boring, I’ve decided to try a few posts on major pieces that are more anecdotal than analytical. (Yes, it’s the old master plan of using stories about your own life to avoid boring other people. Guess how well it works!)
Last night was my first rehearsal for next week’s performance of Beethoven 3 in Guildford. It marks my return to the piece I’ve probably conducted more than any other work after a long break- I don’t think I’ve listened to it or conducted in since 2006.
I can vividly remember the first time I heard a Mahler work (Das Lied von der Erde) and even pieces like the Mozart Requiem and Shostakovich 5, both of which I encountered as a toddler. On the other hand, Beethoven 3 was just sort of always around- it wasn’t until someone told me that those four tunes constituted Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony. It was an “oh that’s what that’s called” moment.
I’ve probably played it more times than just about any other piece, including one of the worst concerts I’ve ever done. That was a performance that included Eroica and the very difficult 2nd Strauss Horn Concerto with a very bad left handed conductor and a terrible orchestra. The town was famous for making plastics- everything smelled toxic and I always had bad headaches there. Normally, I don’t even notice if someone beats left-handed, but if they’re very bad, then I keep thinking it must be because everything is backwards. At one point in the Finale, I rationalized that the music was unfolding in reverse because he was beating left handed, which caused musical time to be inverted. I mostly just remember that every movement started slow and got slower and slower, and the orchestra sounded like the hoarse screams of someone being killed slowly with sandpaper.
At one point I’d played it so much that I had the cello part memorized- once when I was sitting alone on the 2nd stand of a chamber orchestra, I played both performances without opening the part just to see if I could, bowings and all. It wasn’t an indication of some great gift for memory, but simply the result of playing it too many times. The most fun I ever had playing it was on an all-Beethoven concert with my university orchestra. We’d done the Triple Concerto on the first half with my teacher soloing, and I felt a bit like I let him down (I was playing principal and the section and I just didn’t come to life), so I came out mad for the 2nd half. I always play better when I’m pissed off, and I think the conductor was a little amazed and scared by how intense the cello section was that night. There’s nothing like feeling
Beethoven 3 is one of 2 Beethoven symphonies I’ve always had a color association with. To me, it is a red piece (I suppose it is also a bit of red meat piece for most people). Funnily enough, so is the 7th, my other favorite Beethoven symphony. Both red. Of course, red is not my favorite color. I suppose A and E flat major are both red keys to me- I can’t think of any other tri-tone related keys that share the same color. Mahler 6, my favorite Mahler symphony is in A minor, which I also hear as red. Really, I swear- red is not my favorite color.
It was the first piece I conducted with the laboratory orchestra at CCM when I started my conducting studies. Nobody had told me that the first movement is one of the most difficult things ever written to conduct. Gerhard just ripped into me after about 20 seconds- “It’s too slow!” he bellowed. (I’d fallen a bit too in love with Jochum’s recording with the Concertgebouw). “And your technique is terrible! We’re going to have to fix your technique It’s going to take all year- it’s a disaster!” That was after about 4 bars- not a good way to start a conducting degree. For the rest of the week, every time I saw him in the hall, Gerhard sighed and shrugged in despair and said “we’ve really got to fix your technique.” I was pretty much in a state of pure anxiety and depression when I went for my lesson, but after 45 minutes, he said “good, you’ve got it!” (“It” is: don’t stop between beats, and show the music”) and we never talked about technique again (really, conducting shouldn’t be that hard- if you can’t learn it in an hour, you should probably do something else:) ). We did, however, spend 6 more weeks on the score, which is something I remember fondly.
As of this week, I think I’ve conducted it everywhere I’ve had a permanent position (except Orchestra of the Swan, but give me a few months, okay). When I conducted it at the OES, the soloist was the same chap who is soloing with SMP next week. He probably thinks it is the only piece I know!
The sickest I’ve ever been for a concert was one that revolved around Eroica- I’ve had one vaguely scary health issue that’s come up half a dozen or fewer times in my life. The morning of that concert, I woke at about 4:30 suffering with it and nearly went to the hospital. Instead, for some bizarre reason, I got my wife to drive me the three hours to the gig. We got stuck in the worst traffic jam of my career- I missed most of the dress rehearsal. That was probably lucky. I was so weak, I just sat listlessly and silently when not conducting. The first half was not good- the soloist, who I’d worked with before, got all dramatic and insecure on us and made a shambles of a piece she’d nailed the last time. For the whole intermission, I was too weak and tired to move or speak, and thought again about calling it a night, but eventually went on- partly because it felt easier to go out and collapse than to admit to everyone I couldn’t conduct. Sometimes, you’ve just got to lift your arms, say “fuck it” and see what happens. Somehow, it went very well, and by the end I felt, if not good, at least much, much better. I’ve had a few experiences like this where one really does experience true healing through music- I think there is so much more to understand about how music affect the body.
I taught Eroica at the 2006 Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop. In retrospect, I think it’s not a great choice for most student conductors- the first movement is just too hard for most people (many pros struggle to do it justice) and the 2nd movement tends to slow down so badly in inexperienced hands. It was humbling for many students. On the day of the final concert, one of the students assigned the first movement came to me and said “I think I want to try some crazy Furtwangler shit tonight. Is that okay? Will everything fall apart if I do?”
He was a talented guy- a Musin student who started the week poorly, like someone who had taken a blow to his confidence, but had regained a lot of mojo over those few days. I had no idea what he was considering. “It’s your nickel,” I answered, “if you want to some crazy Furtwangler shit, try it. If it falls apart, don’t use the videotape for auditions.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect from said crazy Furtwangler shit. Would it be very slow? Different tempo in every bar? In the end, it was a hot performance- a great tempo, lots of command and shape, and the best all-around orchestra playing of the night…. Except….
When he got to the climax of the development with the tremendous dissonances going into letter I, he started to do a big ritardando. “Aha!” I thought. “At last we’re going to get some crazy Furtwangler shit!”
Except he either lost his nerve, or decided it was in bad taste, or just freaked out. He started slowing down, then stopped slowing down, then wasn’t sure if we wanted to do a tempo on letter I, or work back up to speed. For a moment things teetered on the brink of irrevocable catastrophe as the shit was tried, abandoned, reconsidered then negated. After a massive moment of uncertainty, he got back on track, and the rest of the performance rocked.
It was a good object lesson in the dangers of learning from recordings. From experience, he knew how he wanted the passage to sound, but he didn’t seem to know why he liked it that way. When the moment of truth came, he lacked the confidence to execute it.
In fact, it is impossible for a conductor to slow an orchestra down or speed it up– instead, you have to accompany the orchestra in your head that is speeding up or slowing down. When you are doing that, the orchestra follows you effortlessly. When you just try to slow down the rate at which you give beats (don’t beat!), things just crash and burn.
Anyway, last night, in his honor, I got to that passage, and I pulled some crazy Furtwangler shit.
There was a database problem that caused about half of this post to be temporarily deleted. That has been fixed. Also, the comment function was briefly disabled- please do continue to share your comments and reactions!
There are a couple of older posts on Eroica that might be of interest to people thinking of attending next week, or to young conductors working on the piece-