The Nerds Shall Inherit the Earth

My friend Joseph So recently shared a link on Facebook that started a conversation about conductors.

Carlos Kleiber

Carlos Kleiber

Carlos Kleiber has been named the greatest conductor of all time in the April issue of BBC Music Magazine…  In a poll, 100 conductors including Sir Colin Davis, Gustavo Dudamel, Valery Gergiev and Mariss Jansons were asked to vote for their favourite.”

Here are the conductors’ selections, lifedates & nationalities; boldface signifies conductors who are still living.

1. Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) Austrian
2. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) American
3. Claudio Abbado (b1933) Italian
4. Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) Austrian
5. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (b1929) Austrian
6. Sir Simon Rattle (b 1955) British
7. Wilhelm Furtwängler (1896-1954)
8. Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) Italian
9. Pierre Boulez (b1925) French
10. Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) Italian
11. Sir John Eliot Gardiner (b1943) British
12. Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) British
13. Terenc Fricsay (1914-1963) Hungarian
14. George Szell (1897-1970) Hungarian
15. Bernard Haitink (b1929) Dutch
16. Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) French
17. Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988) Russian
18. Sir Colin Davis (b1927) British
19. Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) British
20. Sir Charles Mackerras (1925-2010) Australian

As much as I agree with many on the list, I couldn’t help wondering: about the few unexpected omissions such as James Levine or Otto Klemperer, and about what such a list tells us.  What is a conductor’s conductor?  Too bad nobody asked the conductors to spell out what they admire in their colleagues. Baton technique or fund-raising prowess? Masterful control of the orchestra or of reviewers & publicity? Clearly tastes are changing, as evidenced by the inclusion of Harnoncourt & Gardiner.

At some point you may begin wondering what any of this has to do with the title of the post: “The Nerds Shall Inherit the Earth.” The nerds of course have the patience to wait for me to get to the point; as usual, we have a lot to learn from the nerds.  I’ll get back to them in a moment.

Conductors at one time were a fearsome bunch.  Think of Leopold Stokowski, Gustav Mahler (yes he was a conductor, not just a composer), or Arturo Toscanini.  They unapologetically re-wrote scores, etching their own personal stamp on music from someone else; and for their audience this was never a problem.

If you think of the imposing shadow Stokowski casts –literally—in Fantasia, you almost have the sense that a composer was lucky to submit to the brilliance of such an artist.  But as I said earlier in reference to the BBC conductor poll, fashions change.  The world has had records (wax, vinyl, and assorted digital formats) for over a century, which means that the worldwide audience exhibits a growing sophistication.  When I recently watched Fantasia with my grand-daughter I found the tone a bit condescending, as if the maestro were so far above us as to be invisible in the clouds.  Conductors of the old school were absolute rulers, tyrants who commanded.

The world has changed of course.  Whether in the world of sports, in management, or the arts, tyranny is no longer acceptable in a leader (even if several countries still seem to put up with pompous asses…but excuse me for venturing off topic).  In its place, there appear to be a number of possible prototypes to replace the old one: if you can call anything “new” that has been emerging for quite awhile now.

One option is the composer-conductor, arguably the original role of the composer, if we recall that Richard Wagner & Hector Berlioz were among the first great orchestral conductors.  Among the Top Twenty we find Wilhelm Furtwangler, Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez.  There are others such as André Previn & John Williams from the world of film music.  This signifies a new option only if the composer-conductor resists the temptation to re-write masterworks; that’s exactly the kind of textual fidelity we see with Bernstein & Boulez.

conductor David Fallis

Toronto Conductor & Scholar David Fallis

Another option is the scholar-conductor.  The scholars are perhaps the ones who have been quietly changing the musical landscape.  Charles Mackerras, Frans Bruggen, Roger Norrington, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner, René Jacobs all bring a different sort of authority to the podium: the authority of research.  In Toronto we have another such scholar, namely David Fallis of the Toronto Consort & Opera Atelier, whose careful exploration of the text makes him leader on merit, rather than by some sort of divine right of the podium.

Both composer & scholar have legitimacy as the leader of the ensemble.  The older model – of the virtuoso conductor—can also work of course.  Carlos Kleiber came up the usual way, as an instrumentalist, then a repetiteur, and then as a conductor.  James Levine, too, plays the piano with his singers, a talented musician who is a friendly leader rather than a fearsome ogre.

And so we’re seeing several competing prototypes on the podium.  Sometimes we get the slick matinee idol looks of the old powerful maestro, for example Riccardo Muti, Herbert von Karajan or Carlo Maria Giulini.  Alongside that image, we have a gentler sort of conductor, such as Fallis, Norrington, and Rattle.

I watched a movie today that I found online, namely The Schumann Encounter – Robert’s Rescue, starring Simon Callow & yes, Roger Norrington.

You may remember Simon Callow as the boisterous friend in Four Weddings & a Funeral, or Schikaneder in the film of Amadeus. Callow was in fact the original Mozart for the premiere of  Shaffer’s play in 1979.

Norrington –who is also credited with the idea for the film—is in some respects the most daring of the scholars.  Where Bruggen, Harnoncourt, Fallis & Jacobs have explored early music (admittedly a loaded term, and with very different application for some such as Fallis than for the others)  using instruments purporting to be authentic, Norrington fearlessly explores music previously left to the modern orchestra such as the symphonies of Brahms and even Mahler.  It also means that some of his experiments rub people the wrong way, if this critique is any indication.

The complete film is available—at least for the time being—through the link (below).  It’s a charming fantasy, exploring the mind and mythology of Robert Schumann, as exemplified in this little blurb from Schumann’s wikipedia entry:

Chopin’s work is discussed by imaginary characters created by Schumann himself: Florestan (the embodiment of Schumann’s passionate, voluble side) and Eusebius (his dreamy, introspective side)…. A third, Meister Raro, is called upon for his opinion. Raro may represent either the composer himself, Wieck’s daughter Clara, or the combination of the two (Clara + Robert).

In Schumann’s suite Carnaval, opus 9, both passionate Florestan & contemplative Eusebius get a musical self-portrait (“self-portrait” because they are aspects of Schumann’s mind).

Contemplative eusebius:

Passionate Florestan:

The film is heart-breaking in some respects.  Talk about a nerd project!  Here’s a film made for those so fascinated by Robert Schumann that they would enjoy a film exploring his internal demons.  That the film is available online for free suggests that perhaps there aren’t enough of us – Schumann nerds of the world—to have made the film profitable.  While it does have a few silly moments, its chief strength is the way it illuminates something of Schumann’s madness.  I don’t think it matters that at times it resembles a total flight of fantasy.  It’s no more fanciful nor any more inaccurate than the aforementioned commercial success, Amadeus. While Norrington may not be everyone’s cup of tea –as actor, film-maker or his chief strength as conductor—I really like this film.  If you’re a musical nerd maybe you’ll like it too.

The Schumann Encounter – Robert’s Rescue is available at least for the time being via the following address (the URL resists embedding):

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