When the Rubber Doesn’t Meet the Road

I’ve played under a lot of conductors in my time, some great and some not so great. One thing that always personified the great ones was an insistence on strong rhythm and crisp articulation when called for. Most had one specific feature of their stick technique, and that was the unity between the wrist and the baton. The baton was an extension of the wrist and the beat could be delineated with a flick of the wrist. Compare that with many of today’s younger big name maestro’s; the wrist and baton seem to have been surgically separated, and every beat is a spongy, rubbery disconnect, with the baton mainly pointing upward, which causes the stick to become irrelevant. Since the wrist comes down first and the stick somewhat after, discerning the focal point of the beat becomes a real problem, which may be the subconscious intention, albeit an erroneous one. All this in the vain attempt to appear more “musical,” and purports the idea that “everything that is not together is automatically more musical.” Riccardo Muti, my boss, who has an outstanding stick technique puts it succinctly; “You control the orchestra with your wrist, (with the baton anchored to it,) the arm just supports it, and the hand is just an extension of it.”

This brings me to a related point; that perceived perfection is somehow cold and unmusical. Just because something is technically nearly perfect does not make it automatically unmusical. It depends on what is musically done with technical perfection. I remember a performance of Verdi’s Othello in New York, with Pavorotti and Kiri Te Kanawa. Kiri Te Kanawa was dressed in white and sang as close to perfect as one can imagine, with little or no physical distractions. Yet the critics reviewed her performance as cold and sterile, something it was certainly not. Maybe it was just a little too perfect, which has nothing to do with musicality. When a top notch American ensemble goes to Europe to perform and plays a close to technically perfect performance, they will almost always be thought of as just playing together but musically and stylistically wanting. Human nature classifies perfection as cold and sterile, and slightly sloppy as more musical. BTW, as my readers know I am a big fan of classic European orchestral style.

Music critics are as guilty as anyone of this strange coupling of perfection and unmusicality. You can tell in every review if a critic wanted a performance to receive a positive review and when they wanted it to receive a negative one. Phrases like; “although there were technical lapses the performers showed a keen grasp of the style necessary for this music.” Then again; “Every note was in it’s proper place and time, but there was a coolness and lack of occasion in the overall performance.” The point is, something can be technically spot on and still be musically inspired, and of course vice-versa. The two aspects really aren’t reliant on each other.

Many years ago I owned two 78RPM copies of Ravel’s Bolero played by the Boston Symphony with Koussevitzky conducting. The trombone solo on both recordings seemed to be different. On the well known recording, the trombone solo was supposedly played by Jacob Raichman, and was characterized by a re-articulation of the high Bb grace-note gliss to high Db.The sound overall had a somewhat brittle timbre. On the other recording the solo seemed to be played in a manner more reminiscent of today’s modern sound and style. My friend and colleague the late Adolf “Bud” Herseth said he thought it might have been Johannes Rochut on that recording. My question is; does anyone have any information to either confirm or deny this theory? I will share any gained information with my readers.