Thursday, 14 July 2011

Watching the Conductors

When the 117th season of that grand musical institution The Proms kicks off tomorrow, TV viewers will be able to avail themselves of a remarkable 'red button' feature called Maestrocam. This trains the camera relentlessly on the conductor, whose work is analysed in an expert running commentary. Hmm. I'm not sure that even watching the concert itself on TV adds anything to the musical experience; in fact it mostly distracts the attention. Nobody looks at their best while performing classical music, let alone conducting it. Many conductors grimace and gurn, emote and make extravagant interpretative gestures - which might be fine in the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall, but will surely look pretty horrific under the pitiless gaze of Maestrocam. My late father always reckoned conducting was a racket. He would point to the behaviour of dance band leaders, who didn't even bother to face their musicians but turned the other way and spent their time smiling ingratiatingly at the audience while making vaguely rhythmic gestures of encouragement. In vain did we protest that dance bands and orchestras - and their respective repertoires - are rather different kettles of fish; there was no shifting him. How he would have relished Maestrocam!

8 comments:

  1. Nobody looks at their best while performing classical music, Alf Brendel being a good example, the piano playing is sublime (still doing Sinatra style come backs at the Köln Symphony) the double of Roy Hudd and grunting like a bulldog with breathing difficulties.
    Yer man Herbert always looked the part, a few moments looking down, deep intospection or shoelaces undone then head tilted back, Zeffirelli hairdo gleaming in the spotlights, immaculate clawhammer jacket, looks down nose at the BPO crew and off we jolly well go, eyes tight shut, imperious expression, only ever been one von Karajan.

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  2. I suppose we should be grateful it's the BBC and not Sky bringing us The Proms. With Sky, they would probably have used their 'out-of-season' football production team, and we would have had Maestrocam about four years ago, and by now have moved on to an Insidelegcam, a hairsonthebackofyourneckcam, and a conductorsthoughtscam, brought to us via an electonic helmet, named by Sky as an onmeheadsoncam, worn by Sir Simon and colleagues in return for lashings of dosh.

    I can, though, see the benefits of the new camera to music students, and those who have classic recordings of the pieces being performed to fall back on and who wish to understand from the expert commentary the composer's intentions and the conductor's interpretation. As for me, I shall only press the red button if that excellent German conductor, Claudia Schiffer, arrives with the BPO.

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  3. Norman Lebrecht, among many others, tried to get to the bottom of this old saw in his book The Maestro Myth - and reached no firm conclusions. Orchestras these days are so technically adept that they can (and some do)play perfectly well unaided, and present us with a decent performance. But who wants decent? In my reasonably wide experience of listening to serious music via a conductor, or without one, I would have to say that I believe orchestras need and want somebody on the podium. Listen to rank and file players in major bands talk about this, and they nearly always speak with one voice. And when certain names are mentioned, even these hard-bitten professionals can lapse into a hushed awe. And it is worth adding here that sometimes these great players have no idea how a certain person can 'make them play', and produce, sometimes, transcendental performances; but some can, and do.

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  4. Readers of Nigeness may like to know that I will shortly be posting on this subject on the Lazy Sunday slot at thedabbler.co.uk with some musical examples.

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  5. Excellent - hope you'll include Gunther Wand's Schubert 9 Mahlerman...

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