On the Theater

On the Theater
February 10, 2020 leonard slatkin

“Music of all arts should be expansive and inclusive.”
—Jesse Jackson

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of dining with Riccardo Muti after a concert I conducted with the ONL at the Ravenna Festival. It was a most pleasant evening, one that stretched into the morning hours. The maestro had much to say, and we had never really conversed prior to this night.

At one point, he asked me a very direct question: “You are not a man of the theater; are you?”

I explained that opera was really not part of my experience as a young person, and my passions leaned more toward orchestral, jazz, and chamber music. After that, I went on to speak of my family background in music and living in a household filled with vastly different styles of music, excluding opera. At the time, Los Angeles did not have its own company, and the San Francisco Opera came down south for only a couple performances each year.

While I was familiar with the repertoire via recordings and broadcast performances, opera was outside my comfort zone when I began my career. Although my principal conducting teachers were both schooled in the pit, they rarely taught their students much about this side of the repertoire, much less the differences between leading orchestras on and below the stage.

I was reminded of the Muti query when I read that the recently deceased Mariss Jansons’s father, Arvīds, had said that conductors should begin their musical training in the opera house. Although his son had done very little in that department, there certainly was a time when this adage was true. Most European orchestras evolved out of their time spent in the lower depths and gradually came up to the platform. It was not so long ago that the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera began to give standalone performances at Carnegie Hall. To this day, some people do not realize that the Vienna Philharmonic is made up of musicians from the Staatsoper.

Had I known Maestro Muti better, I would have countered in a different way, and perhaps in a subsequent meeting we might speak again about his question. As we stumble our way through this first quarter of the twenty-first century, there are more outlets for conductors. Many of these opportunities were available years ago but were not really thought of as part of the standard path for those aspiring to lead orchestras. When we speak of the theater, in terms of music, rarely do ballet, musical theater, and cinema leap to mind. And yet, these are becoming more and more a part of the conductor’s domain.

If we take into account pop, jazz, and choral literature, there is simply too much music and too many genres for one person to master. A few have tried, but it tends to come down to finding a degree of comfort within just a few idioms. In my own experience, I have found that conducting for the ballet is the most difficult of all. Tempos are hard to judge, costumes sometime make it impossible to tell whom to follow, and some of the orchestral music is quite complicated.

One of my teachers, Jean Morel, when asked about the difference between conducting opera and ballet, had a truly great answer: “They are the same, except that when the dancer comes to the top, she must come down.” Of course, it is more complex than that, but it is clear what he meant. Simultaneously coordinating what is happening onstage with the music in the pit is only one of the conductor’s responsibilities. Putting disparate elements together so they flow seamlessly takes great concentration and genuine musical skill.

But is that any different for the other above-mentioned genres? Not really. Take film, for example. Now here is an art that used to be dismissed as inferior to virtually every other. Never mind that in the past, almost all composers for cinema were classically trained and educated. In 1908 Camille Saint-Saëns became the first prominent composer of a film score, signaling the emergence of the new form as a pathway to the future for those who had previously written for opera and ballet.

Whether it was Gershwin, Shostakovich, Bernstein, Copland, Rózsa, or Rota, the film bandwagon was something that many composers jumped on. Some succeeded to the point that they shed their allegiance to the traditional forms of writing, concentrating entirely on the silver screen. For a few, this was clearly a way to earn significantly more money. For others, it was a way to escape the horrors of World War II. If the first quarter of the twentieth century saw New York as the musical capital of the United States, there was a gradual shift to Los Angeles as the decades moved forward, although the East Coast still remained the destination for many artists.

In order for a motion picture to be coordinated with the music, an entirely different way of conducting was required, at first just following what was on the screen and hoping for the best. Streamers, timecodes, punches, and click tracks took the musicians into the next phase. And, beginning at the turn of the twenty-first century, presenting entire film scores became commonplace in the concert hall. But not every conductor is equipped or trained to do this.

There are scores for silent films, and even contemporary ones, requiring conductors to lead the orchestra for a good hour and a half with no pause, almost the length of Salome. Since there is no give and take, we have to put our own musical instincts on pause and make sure that the beat is synchronized exactly to the picture. The really fine performances, few and far between, are those in which the conductor and orchestra not only hit all the marks but also bring forward their finest musicianship to amplify what is happening on the screen.

Just listen to some of the great film music in its original form from the 1940s and ’50s. All eleven studio orchestras in the States were incredible, easily outclassing most of the ensembles playing symphonic repertoire, and each had its own, distinctive sound. With my father as concertmaster at Twentieth Century Fox and my mom as first cellist at Warner Brothers, I ear-witnessed the quality and individuality of these ensembles time and time again. The difference in sound that these two orchestras created was instantly recognizable. The same held true for MGM, Paramount, and all the others.

John Williams once told me that the most difficult form of composition for the screen was the cartoon. The music has to be even more precise, and delivered in a shorter timeframe, than the usual motion picture. That is why he has never written for Bugs Bunny. Go back and listen to, and watch, any animation from the same period as the Golden Age of Hollywood to hear the most astonishing music played with remarkable precision and musicianship.

At this point you might be asking, “What does this have to do with being a man of the theater?” Well, when I was a youngster, we did not go to multiplexes or cinematheques. We went to the movie theater. Conducting this music in the proper manner and style was something that came as naturally to me as opera conducting did for others. Not only were my parents involved in the music end of the film industry, but they were also mainstays of Capitol Records in both the popular and classical divisions. Being surrounded by the greats in the pop and jazz world prepared me for some of my first conducting experiences when I began as assistant conductor in St. Louis.

In 1971 I gave the world premiere of a live version of Jesus Christ Superstar, which began its life as a two-record rock opera. It brought a much different audience into the concert hall. Prior to the 1970s, pops concerts were given more in the manner of Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. His unique format was simple and elegant. The program was often divided into three sets: first, a selection of short, classical favorites; next, an equally popular concerto; and finally, arrangements of music from the stage, screen, and pop charts. After all, it was only natural that recording artists would want to promote their songs, and one way to do that was via the concert hall.

With radio starting to decline and television now the medium of choice for getting one’s musical message out, a few individuals and acts had orchestrations made of their best-selling tunes. The Boston Pops would play them, and then they would be broadcast on TV. It was a tremendously effective marketing tool. Those who could not go to the live concert could at least see some of their favorite stars perform with a live orchestra.

Just as with film, a new set of conducting techniques was needed. Often, there was no full score available, but instead only a piano reduction with indications for a few instrumental cues once in a while. If it was a pop song or jazz chart, the words of a song might not be included, and chords notated with symbols rather than the notes themselves. Conductors not versed in this shorthand found themselves at a loss, unless they really remembered those lessons in harmony and theory. Even then, the classical training simply did not prepare them for all the discrepancies between the score and the parts.

These early variants of crossover music were difficult for many. Surprisingly, many of the most renowned singers did not read music, relying on their basic musicality and what they had been trained to do. How was the conductor supposed to communicate with them if the usual point of reference, the printed musical text, was incoherent for one party? Again, I grew up knowing many of these artists, and it was second nature to me. If something was not going correctly, you just sang or pointed out the lyric, then said, “I will cue you in.” Seems simple enough, but surprisingly few conductors really understood how to do this.

Then there is the world of Broadway itself. Born out of the operetta, moved forward by Rudolf Friml, Victor Herbert, and Gilbert and Sullivan, among others, musical theater evolved as a particularly American medium. By the time we got to Rodgers and Hammerstein (or Lorenz Hart), Lerner and Loewe, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim, it was clear that something new was in the air. I have always found it amusing that the name of the lyricist is credited alongside the composer for the vast majority of works for Broadway, but the name of the librettist for an opera is never included in the same way.

Broadway has changed tremendously from the early days when the shows were referred to as musical comedies. Musical Theater is now a more expanded art form. Back then, singer/actors were not the norm. From the 60’s to now, it is necessary to do it all to be a consummate Broadway performer.

—Betty Buckley 

I, for one, never thought of Carousel, My Fair Lady, or West Side Story as musical comedies, but I understand what the great lady was talking about. Having led all three of these shows, I can say that they are just as difficult and complex as any work written for the combination of stage and pit. Add to that the stylistic differences between these shows, and it is impossible for me to make a case that this is a lesser form of art than any of the others that grace the stage.

As I glance at the list of music directors leading major orchestras around the world today, I notice that very few of them started their musical lives in the pit. They may have known the repertoire at an early age, but the opportunities in the operatic world were decreasing, while those in the orchestral sector were increasing. From around the 1920s on, more works written for instrumental ensembles were entering the repertoire, while for the most part, stage pieces were few and far between. Apprenticeships for conductors with symphony orchestras were plentiful from the 1950s onward, but unless you were a répétiteur (rehearsal pianist), there were fewer chances to work with an opera company.

These days, the majority of conductors move back and forth between the concert hall and the pit. Many put on un-staged or semi-staged performances of the great works from the opera house. This concept presents several problems, not the least of which is the balance between voices and instruments, but it has been something passed down from the time of Toscanini and even before. My mother used to tell of being dragged to a concert version of Lohengrin—all of it—and thereafter swearing that she would never step foot in an opera house.

As for me, I have enjoyed most of my experiences in the pit. Unfortunately, there are usually compromises, sometimes with a member or two of the cast, sometimes with the production team, and sometimes because I do not love every note of the score I am conducting.

This quote, attributed to Rossini, sums up a few of my thoughts about certain stage works: “Wagner’s operas contain wonderful moments but terrible half hours.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, and there are certainly works in the symphonic canon that contain some padding, but I believe that it comes down to understanding something more basic. Obviously works that include an additional element, whether opera, ballet, film, or song, tell some kind of story. Most orchestral, chamber, and solo pieces do not. It is a question of concrete versus abstract. One conveys the vision to the person listening or viewing, and the other allows that person to create, or not, what a given piece of music might represent. At this point in creative history, there are so many paths that can be taken that it does not matter if someone comes from a theater background.

I will leave it to Leonard Bernstein to remind us of the infinite variety of music:

A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers. To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.

Questions and suggestions (6)

  1. anonymous 2 months ago

    I see “film music” at least has changed so drastically as a vehicle to not only sell more pop hit songs, but even “break” new artists or chart a hit (that maybe was expensive to produce but didn’t do well at retail.) Music directors on many films it seems just added their own Spotify playlist to the film. Almost gone are days of fantastic scores, imaginative pairings of event sequence and analog electronica. Zimmer! Etc. There are a few new composers who have set a high bar for anyone wishing to follow. Listen to Pirates of the Carribean (first film from the 2000’s) wow! So few and far between of great film scores, way way too many done on composing software with no vibrating wood and brass. Sad. It’s all about money and how “creative” a director thinks they are. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Tarantino soundtracks or Cohen films … they work. 90% of films are throw-away padding.

  2. anonymous 2 months ago

    What strikes me when reading this is the thought that no performing art can exist in and of itself. Dance, opera, film, and even a magician on the stage would not work without music. Music is the ingredient that makes them work.

    Like a master chef who must interpret an old recipe and make it work for modern palates while keeping in mind the wishes of the person who developed the recipe, the conductor is the interpreter. The chef may have a recipe that doesn’t specify temperature or time or specific measurements. They use their skill and knowledge to make it work. The conductor that conducts music for screen and stage, in the same way incorporating the various ingredients of music, orchestra, and actors or dancers or singers to make it all work. It is a skill in and of itself and, it seems to me, that developing such a skill would help develop a flexibility in the conductor that would serve them well when it is only the orchestra that is performing.

  3. anonymous 2 months ago

    If we consider the concert hall a theater, then aren’t we are all actors? The conductor, orchestra musicians, soloists, even the audience plays a role. There simply isn’t a “performance” without them.

    Perhaps there is a bit of pretense in the conventions at play here. As some try desperately to uphold these traditions, others are more natural in the way they communicate and direct the drama and forces at play. For the most beautiful vibrations do not require a set, costumes, or a Greek chorus for us to be moved.

    After all it is about the composers’ intentions, being realized as best we can.

  4. Nathan Mitchell 1 month ago

    Film music gave me an early appreciation for the symphonic sound. The bombastic brass of John Williams and the scherzotic frenzy of David Grusin still evoke memories of carefree childhood adventures and playful exploration. In high school, I was fortunate enough to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra rehearse Ravel’s Bolero under the baton of Maestro Muti. The experience, and the music, forever transformed me, inspiring a deeper understanding of what music can do. Now, as I listen to Brahms, Mahler, Beethoven, Rossini, et al, I can hear the music that informs those film scores, and I am forever grateful.

  5. Martín Ruiz-Mendoza 1 month ago

    In September 2018 I attended a screening of Kubrick’s 2001 with live orchestral and choral accompaniment in Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium. My thoughts about that performance resonate with your reflections on music and theater. I think some film directors see cinema as a Gesamtkunstwerk and therefore explore the relationship between music and the cinematic image in a thoroughly original way that enriches both. It would be interesting to know how a conductor like you would approach a classical music score in an event like the aforementioned screening. Given the fact that Kubrick used commercial recordings for his movie, how to avoid the temptation of just imitating those recordings? How to let the music speak for itself and not be reduced to a background effect? I recently watched an interview in which Till Fellner talks about his interest in the music of Luis Buñuel’s films. I think his reflections would be worth considering. Unfortunately, I can’t find what he has written about it. This is the link of the interview, in case you want to see it: https://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/interview/22394-3

  6. Ian G. Sadler 3 weeks ago

    An anecdote re: ballet tempi & the choreographer/conductor tennis match: Sylvie Guillem sent me an Email saying that Barenboim said to her that the music has to be right, first. And Sylvie said it is no problem for her to add or subtract a step to help make that happen.

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