Sistema and the Professional World – plus an apology

In rehearsal with the PGSO


Back in 2004, during one of my previous lifetimes, I rented a Mercedes SL350 Diesel in order to impress my then-girlfriend when I picked her up from Düsseldorf Airport. (It must have worked – the girlfriend is now my wife.) I was en route to the airport early that Saturday morning, when I hit a particularly straight, long and lonely stretch just east of Dortmund on the A2… “A” standing for “Autobahn.”

It was a temptation no man (gender specific?) could resist. I just let the car go, and sure enough, it went. But when the needle hit 240 kph (150 mph) and I still had two inches to go underneath the gas pedal, I desisted, startled but gratified to acknowledge that the car still had much more to give.

Conductors like to compare orchestras to cars – strangely, since the exercise does orchestras a particular disservice. They are living, thinking organisms, all related biological entities of a clearly defined, if endangered genus, but each unique, with a distinct character and temperament. They aren’t mass-produced hunks of machinery, no matter how fine the engineering. But sometimes the sensation of conducting a good orchestra is the same as driving a fancy car down a motorway, unfettered by speed limits. Not a feeling of control, but of release, of being carried.

I had that feeling working with the PGSO. The road wasn’t straight, nor was it level: the climb was severe and the repertoire offered surprising twists, but I was still left with that sensation that there was much more potential there than a single short visit might uncover, more capacity left to explore – and in many dimensions. For the first time I can recall, I was compelled to ask a trombone section to play louder, and a viola section to play softer, both incidents wonderful testaments to the uncommon nature of the orchestra.

That sense of “releasing” also manifested in myself in way that I found very surprising. I’ve spoken publicly and written within this blog about the negative effects of the high intensity/low frequency approach to music making that generally characterizes both the professional and amateur rehearsal environment in North America. With so little time, rehearsals become exercises in efficiency, in which shopping lists of musical issues are tackled in the most surgical of fashions. But like surgery, the experience becomes necessarily anaesthetized. It’s a reality of the industry, and Prince George was no different, schedule-wise. But without any real conscious thought or decision on my part, Sistema concepts are permeating my own approach, against all my training, against all the conductor “conventional wisdom.” In Prince George I tried to give musicians the time and space to hear, diagnose and fix problems with minimal intervention and guidance from me. And they did, of course, allowing me to focus more on music than mechanics. I didn’t think this was possible or even prudent in the professional context, but upon reflection I think the results were as good or better than they might have been with the profoundly dissatisfying but more common shopping list approach. Who would have thought that relaxed, happy musicians would perform better than highly stressed, unfulfilled ones?

Once my eyesight was restored after the blinding flash of the obvious, I made the unhappy discovery of another major divide remaining between my own philosophy and practice. After the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, the audience spontaneously burst into applause, but like the snobbish classical musician I was trained to be I didn’t acknowledge it. I hereby offer an open, unconditional apology to everyone there for that omission. Applause is the most basic participatory gesture in music making, and in any context is to be received gratefully and acknowledged. I thank the excellent principal cello of the PGSO, Sebastian Oestertag, for reminding me of this. Not applauding between movements is a performing tradition in the most Mahlerian of senses – something artificial, unjustified, and historically inaccurate. I’m delighted the attendees thought enough of the performance to express their appreciation, and I deeply regret discouraging them by my inaction. I won’t make that mistake again.

2 thoughts on “Sistema and the Professional World – plus an apology

  1. Pingback: Top 10 of ’11 «

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