Each year, in addition to my activities at the Manhattan School of Music, I try to do some educational work at other music institutions in the States. These are almost always schools I have never visited, and it gives me a chance to see how we are doing in terms of training young musicians who are about to begin their professional careers.
In late January, it was Yale’s turn, the university where Cindy earned her master’s degree and one with an excellent tradition of outstanding scholarship. At first, I only was asked to lead a concert with the orchestra, but after a little bit of prodding on my part, I was also able to participate in a session involving the composition students.
New Haven was the site of a few elaborate pranks I was involved in during my time on tour with the St. Louis Symphony, but you will have to wait for a further volume of memoirs to read of these misadventures. It was all business this time around.
The program included a piece by Cindy, naturally, as well as works by Prokofiev and Bartók. Circuits is a piece I perform quite often; with a running time of six minutes, it makes a perfect opener. The young musicians nailed this, with especially fine contributions from the percussion section.
Next came a very large-scale piece for cello and orchestra, the Sinfonia Concertante by Prokofiev. I have always had a special place in my heart for this piece, having performed it with the work’s dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich. This time it was the winner of a competition, Jakob Taylor, who had the unenviable task of getting through one of the most difficult works for cello and orchestra. He displayed outstanding technique and a very good understanding of the musical requirements. The ovation was well-deserved.
Following the intermission, we played the Concerto for Orchestra by Bartók, a work all young musicians must get to know early on in their potential orchestral careers. Since most of the rehearsals did not take place in the hall where we performed, it was a bit difficult to adjust balances. However, for the most part, the ensemble learned the work well, and the preparation by Sam Hollister was excellent.
About Woolsey Hall: the acoustics reminded me of a space I encountered during my early conducting dates in Manchester, UK. Back in the day, British Rail used to have these grand hotels, and guests of the British orchestras often stayed there. Not only were the rooms more than spacious, but the bathrooms also had enough room to fit a small chamber orchestra. The reverberation, if one decided to sing in the shower, was overwhelming. That is what Woolsey sounded like with an empty hall for the rehearsal. It got better when the audience showed up.
Not having spent much time walking around campus, I did not really feel the presence of the past masters who attended the school, like Charles Ives. But tradition dies hard, and if you look and listen closely, there are still echoes of what was, in addition to premonitions of what will be.
My brother’s memory was honored a couple days later in an event hosted by the Violoncello Society of New York. Fred was the president of that group for a couple years. The program included lovely tributes, heartfelt speeches, and some performances to celebrate his life. A full house came to pay tribute, and it was wonderful to see people who meant so much to him.
This spring, I will take a short trip to Las Vegas, where Fred and I used to meet up once a year to hang out and just be brothers. We were supposed to take that trip in September, literally the day after he died. I am going to place a $200 bet at the craps table, as that was his preferred game of chance. But we never went there just to gamble or even to see shows. It was our retreat and something we could always count on. Soon, I will complete this cycle in his memory.
A return to Detroit was next on the docket after the memorial service in New York. Almost three years ago, I had planned a program that I considered to be an ideal combination of pieces. Covid wiped that out, but I was determined to present it. With music by Stravinsky, Bartók, and Brahms, it is pretty hard to go wrong, but here it was the actual works that made it so special.
The Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947 revision) received its first DSO performances. What a glorious ten minutes this homage to Debussy is. How Stravinsky even came up with the delicious combinations of sonorities remains a mystery to me, but no one has surpassed this work in terms of its incredible use of color and overall sonority. The winds played beautifully in the Stravinsky, as did their colleagues in the next piece on the program.
Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta had not been heard in Detroit for more than twenty years. It used to be considered standard repertoire, at least when I was young. Now it is almost a rarity in the concert hall, although it has been recorded recently. Like Stravinsky, Bartók was in total command of the unusual forces he utilized. I have not performed this work nearly as often as I would have liked, but the DSO musicians gave it their all and seemed grateful for the opportunity to explore the wonders contained in this masterpiece.
The First Piano Concerto by Brahms brought most of the orchestra together for the second half. Garrick Ohlsson, one of the finest artists and humans to grace any stage, brought his incredible power and passion to the piece. He was matched step for step by the DSO. Each of the three performances was memorable. When we concluded, and during our customary onstage hug, Garrick and I both knew that this had been a very special set of concerts.
The last stop on the tour was back in NY, this time at the Manhattan School of Music, where I usually spend two weeks working with the students. We had planned a program that was somewhat similar to the one in Detroit, with the first half showcasing different sections of the orchestra. However, it turned out that due to scheduling challenges, there was not enough time to prepare the full program. We simplified it by performing George Walker’s Lyric for Strings followed by the Fifth Symphony by Shostakovich. Being able to focus on one major work gave us the opportunity to get under the surface of the piece. As rehearsals progressed, I could feel the orchestra growing and understanding the inner meanings of the symphony.
It is unusual for me to drastically change my ideas about a given piece. I make slight adjustments, sometimes based on previous performances and occasionally due to a discovery that I had not really comprehended earlier. A couple days before the performance, I mulled over the controversial aspects of the symphony. This caused me to rethink my own approach to the symphony’s final pages, specifically.
I wrote the following to my friend Colin Anderson, a classical music critic who curates a website called Classical Source.
A Conductor’s No-Nonsense Response to a Tempo Dilemma
We are all influenced by our first exposure to greatness—whether it is a person, structure, or work of art—which informs our thinking for the rest of our lives. However, once in a while, we are forced to look at certain elements differently, in a way that dramatically alters our original thoughts.
These days, in addition to my conducting activities as well as writing both music and prose, I am engaged in what I hope will be a valuable project for anyone interested in the methodology involved in conducting orchestral masterworks. Among the pieces I examine is the Fifth Symphony by Shostakovich. The essays are intended as a practical guide to how these works should be studied and led.
Readers of Classical Source will not need me to tell them the history behind this specific symphony. However, for the purposes of what I am about to write, we have to throw out the millions of words written regarding ideology and politics.
Perhaps the single most controversial tempo in all of music occurs during the last pages of the Russian master’s work. In a recent concert with the Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra, I gave a little demonstration of how the coda has been performed over the years. To do this, it was necessary to examine, as always, what the composer wrote. What we find is that the last section has a metronome mark of crotchet (quarter note) equals 188 beats per minute.
But all you have to do is listen or watch any recording made by the conductor Eugene Mravinsky, who gave the world premiere of the work, to see that he hardly follows this instruction. It is a slow, almost dignified approach, one that he would maintain throughout his career. Although the piece was given its first performance in 1937, it took a few years to commit it to disc, even though the work was immediately popular and became standard repertoire all over the world. He can be seen conducting in four but quite contrary to the indicated tempo marking.
Only a few years later, for reasons that are unclear, most conductors during the 1950s, including Eugene Ormandy, one of the composer’s strongest advocates, started taking this ending with the minim (half note) equaling 72 or so. So not only had the tempo changed, but this section was also now conducted with two beats to the bar as opposed to four.
Enter Leonard Bernstein, who took the work to Russia on a tour with the NY Philharmonic in 1958. With the composer present, he dashed off the coda with the minim at around 104 and even faster in some performances. Shostakovich beamed, praising the performance. It appears that he liked the way everyone interpreted his music. Conductors have varied the tempo over the ensuing years, with Rostropovich leading the way on the slower end of the spectrum.
Why have tempos differed so dramatically, and is the truth out there?
As mentioned, I am not going to get into the social or political subtext, which may or may not have anything to do with this. Instead, I am going to place the blame, as some others have suggested, on the publisher, although mine is not the usual criticism.
The tempo marking of crotchet equals 188 is ridiculously fast, and it is almost impossible to move your arms at this speed. Some argue that the marking was misread and should indicate the quaver (eighth note) at this tempo. That really doesn’t make sense either, at least for conducting purposes, but it would place the crotchet at 94, which is reasonable but still quite a bit faster than Mravinsky.
Bernstein must have thought that there were actually two misprints, marking in his score held by the New York Philharmonic Archives that the half note (not the quarter) equals 96.
I have another thought. What if the number “1” before the “88” was the misprint? If we eliminate that, then we have the crotchet at two digits, not three, which is certainly logical. It places the tempo much closer to Mravinsky and still allows Bernstein his belief that there is a second error with the note value.
The icing on the cake is that the designation of 88 then makes the Coda the same tempo as the opening of the movement, giving a true cyclical feeling to the piece.
Can it really be that simple—a mistake on the part of the publisher, consisting of an added digit, as well as an oversight by the composer?
Yes. And it still affords others the opportunity to come up with their own solutions.
With that out of the way, I now present the next in my ongoing series of movie reviews. This is going to become a monthly feature, mostly because I have such a good time watching the films and writing about them.
In 1968, a film was released that in today’s market would have probably gone straight to video or streaming. That is, if it were made at all. The premise was off the wall, the plot devices sometimes silly, and a few characters pretentious to the point of cartoonish. Since it was about a conductor and his orchestra, I had to rush to the theater to see this epic. Now, 55 years later, I ran across a reference to it, ordered the DVD, and decided that this had to be the next movie I would share with all of you.
Counterpoint is set in 1944, in still-occupied Belgium. It is important to understand this, as what transpires is so ludicrous that you would have never thought Germany could have gotten as far as they did. The fact that this movie centers itself around an arrogant conductor, an equally arrogant Nazi general, a completely naïve orchestra, and a stereotypical German lieutenant makes it ultimately predictable but somehow perversely fun.
My assignment is to stay within the confines of the musical world in which this epic finds itself. With the history out of the way, let’s dive right in.
Before any action starts, the credits pop up, and to my surprise, some names I knew well were involved in this. Lionel Evans, apparently the most famous American conductor at the time, is played by Charlton Heston, who, as far as I know, had very little musical training. His coach for this film was one Leo Damiani, founder and conductor of the Burbank Symphony Orchestra, right around the corner from Warner Brothers. My brother and I played in the ensemble from time to time.
As you all know, the orchestra you see on the screen is not usually the one performing the score or soundtrack. The classical selections, and it classifies them this way in these credits, were conducted by my good friend Lawrence Foster. He was always Larry to us. The orchestra is listed as something called “The Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.” Well, there was no such ensemble. It was just a name they made up to give the whole thing an air of credibility.
What was very strange was that I was in my twenties when this came out and, given my family background, knew most of the musicians in LA. The orchestra that you see in the film clearly knows how to play their instruments, but I did not recognize anyone. My guess is that they used the LA Phil to record the “classical’ excerpts and then a studio orchestra to play the original score, which was composed by Bronisław Kaper. Fittingly, he was a composer who escaped the Nazi regime and fled to Hollywood. He wrote the music for the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera as well as the jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street.”
Back to our story. The government sends a USO orchestra to play for the troops abroad. Well, that might have been a nice idea, but as one of the Americans in the audience says, “Hitler gets Marlene Dietrich, Omar Bradley gets Bob Hope, and we get culture in a bombed out Belgian opera house.”
This is countered by the officer next to him who responds, “The 82nd Airborne gets the Royal Brussels Ballet.” The rejoinder is, “At least the ballet has girls.”
Classical music was just not on the radar for our fighting forces, and no orchestra ever went overseas.
Heston is busy rehearsing his orchestra when the Germans come marching in, ordering them to leave and get on their bus. He says, “It seems we are involved in some sort of mass exodus. I trust that it was not entirely as a result of your performance.” As to that exit, the maestro comments, “It will be the first time on this tour that this orchestra will finish together.”
Maximilian Schell, playing yet another of his sensitive Nazi parts, is a music lover. When he discovers that the conductor his lieutenant has captured is none other than Lionel Evans, he devises a scheme to bring them to his current hangout, a deserted castle. What he wants is a private concert from the maestro. Of course, there is the little problem that Berlin and an oily snark named Col. Arndt want them executed.
Among the members of the orchestra are the concertmaster, played by Leslie Nielsen, who gamely tries to look as if he is actually playing the fiddle, and his wife, who is a cellist in the orchestra. And, surprise, she used to be Lionel’s lover. Why not?
The orchestra is pretty much clueless as to what is going on, and Lionel assures them, “We have all toured with corrupt concert managers, so this should be a familiar experience.” Look, I have had my share of tough road trips, but as far as I know, no one tried to kill me and the orchestra.
Somehow, they still think that the rules of home govern this gig. One musician says, when told they would have to play and rehearse at the castle, “Maestro, you are making extra musical demands. As a representative of the union …” This is followed by what might be the single most incongruous sentence ever uttered in a film about classical music: “Wait until Local 802 hears about this. The grievance committee will be meeting in five minutes to discuss the matter.” (802 is the actual musician’s union in New York.)
I love it.
Heston does a surprisingly good job of tracking with the orchestra and—aside from the fact that he does not know what to do with his left hand—has some convincing conductorial moments. The concertmaster’s wife also seems at ease playing her cello. Nielsen looks lost most of the time.
I won’t give away spoilers, but it is impossible not to mention some of the music heard during the film. Almost all are obvious—Beethoven 5, Brahms 1, Swan Lake, etc. But the most absurd comes near the end. Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture! What is a USO orchestra doing in Germany during the war playing Wagner? And how did they get all those full-dress outfits for the musicians dry cleaned and pressed so well? My tails never looked that good.
There are some decent moments of heavyweight banter between Heston and Schell, and each actually seems to be having some fun with the material. I did too, but probably not for the reasons the filmmakers intended.
I give it one-and-a-half golden batons, because Larry did a great job with the music.
The rest of February entailed a couple weeks at home. Now I have embarked on what I hope will be an interesting time in Europe. Stay tuned.