November 19, 2009
Master Class of Wagnerian Intensity
It was time for students in the San Francisco Conservatory’s symphony orchestra to knuckle under. The world-famous, dandelion-headed conductor was taking time out of his busy schedule to run a master class workshop just for them. But — gasp — was he encouraging an anarchic free-for-all?
“Don’t do anything correct,” he insisted. His next command was the order of business for last Thursday evening.
“Play Wagner!” exhorted Sir Simon Rattle, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.
The piece in question was Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of music from Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde, described in the classic text Men of Music as either “a sublime catharsis of the emotions” or “a prolonged excursion through the rank jungles of the psyche.” Rattle was taking the former view, and rather than focus entirely on technicalities of orchestral musicianship, he was aiming for his charges’ guts. Time and again he urged them, in a series of admonitions, not merely to play, but to exude. You have to give me all the sound and passion possible … Join every note … There’s no such thing as a single note in this piece … It’s not dark enough … It’s not deep enough … They take five hours to die … Now shock the hell out of us! … You’re playing exactly what it says, but nothing that it means.
Make it a whole lot more caloric … More threatening — and make it dark! … I have to understand what you feel about this! … It should never be like this building; it should be like waves … There are pebbles in the water — I want the ripples, but not the pebbles … Every single person has to play something transcendent … It’s a soup of quivering long notes … In Wagner, not sweet, but SWEET!
You are in your 20s — is this all the sound you are going to give me for the end of the world? … Use your whole body — you cannot sit there like lumps … How about a nuclear explosion? Think of North Korea.
Negotiating the HairpinsThere were a few technical tips. Rattle worked hard on a trademark he carries off brilliantly in some of his new Brahms symphony recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic — focusing on variations in volume (“dynamics”) during single notes, and forcing his young mustangs to hold back from racing at climaxes (“If you have something to say, don’t say it fast”). He obtained a striking effect by asking the strings to raise their hands and bows high in the air to finish off a pivotal pizzicato note. In order to increase intensity, and not just volume, of tone, he drilled the strings to increase their rate of vibrato over the course of the “hairpins” (the crescendo/decrescendo marks that look like < > in the score).
The result was electric among the musicians. “This was the best I’ve heard the orchestra play in two years,” declared one violinist. Another declared it was the highlight of his life. Flutist Calisa Hildebrand felt she reached new levels of excellence:
I thought it was amazing because he was demanding that we reach the potential that I feel like we’ve always had. And I’ve never heard the orchestra play that loud, ever. And the pizzicato: When he was working on that, the cellos were like Boom! Wow! Where did that come from? I thought, “Who are these people?” And he does it in such an inoffensive way. It’s like “That doesn’t sound good. Do it again.” I’m like “Oh, OK.” He’s polite, but also demanding, which is the perfect combination to pull something out of you.
The pulling came from the audience as well, which endured those highly sensuous musical passages over and over again. It responded with an extended and enthusiastic ovation at the conclusion of two wringing hours. For me, the repetition was worth it, for each time the music was better. When many of the musicians started using their “whole bodies” per Rattle’s suggestion, the visuals helped me imagine the truly transcendent performance — however “incorrect” the playing — that the conservatory players may experience someday in their future careers, thanks in part to what Sir Simon had so powerfully inculcated in one San Francisco evening.
Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area. A photomontage enthusiast, he illustrates his own reviews.
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