Great Conductors

On Saturday I was browsing TED talks and stumbled on this incredible talk by Itay Talgam, “Lead like the great conductors.” Even if you’re not a big fan of classical music, watch it to learn a lot about different management styles (I watched it five times!).

I am a civilian when it comes to classical music – I don’t play an instrument, I don’t read music; I am just an amateur who loves to listen to and learn about great music. Like most civilians, I have always been somewhat mystified by the role the conductor plays in the orchestra. Was a performance good or bad because of the orchestra, or because of the conductor? Hard to tell – maybe the conductor is really on stage just to entertain the public? I feel like there is a secret handshake among musicians – they know the truth, but they won’t share it with civilians.

Of course there is the story of how Leonard Bernstein became an overnight sensation. On November 14, 1943, Bruno Walter, who was the guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, got sick. Twenty-five-year-old Leonard Bernstein was asked to step in the last minute, but he didn’t have a chance to rehearse with the orchestra. The performance happened to be broadcast nationwide on the radio. Everyone was amazed at Bernstein’s performance, and he became an overnight sensation, and the career of one of America’s true musical treasures was launched. Talk about luck! This is a great story, and maybe it is even true. Or maybe Bruno Walter did a terrific job prepping the orchestra, or the orchestra was just very, very good.

Watching Mr. Talgam’s talk sent me on a whirlwind of YouTube viewing. I spent almost the whole weekend watching everything I could I find about conducting, great conductors, and especially Leonard Bernstein. (Watch the last two minutes of Mr. Talgam’s talk and you’ll see why I was so motivated.)

The kids and I watched an incredible movie, The Making of West Side Story. In 1984, a few decades after West Side Story came out, Bernstein – who had composed the music for West Side Story – wanted to make a recording on which the arias would be sung not by singing dancers (musical singers) but by traditional opera singers. He recruited Spanish tenor Jose Carreras to sing Tony and New Zealand’s Kiri Te Kanawa to sing Maria. I enjoyed watching this hour and a half movie as much (or maybe more) than watching the musical.

Here is a short video of Leonard Bernstein discussing role of the conductor,

and here is a much longer biographical video about Bernstein.

I’d like to leave you with Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Adagietto and this thought from Milan Kundera:

If the apple had fallen on Isaac Newton’s head, it might have killed him and he wouldn’t have come up with the Universal Law of Gravitation. Some other scientist, maybe hundreds of years later, would have formulated the laws of gravitation. But if there had been no Rachmaninoff, Mozart, or Mahler, nobody else would have written their wonderful music.

Mahler – Symphony No. 5

In the past I shared with you my conflicted thoughts on anti-Semitic German composer Richard Wagner. To balance things out, today I want to point you to a piece by the Austrian Jewish composer Gustav Mahler, whose music I learned to love only recently. I had tried to listen to him in the past and quite simply did not get his music until I heard “Adagietto” from his Symphony Number 5 – conducted by Valery Gergiev.

During his lifetime Mahler was known more for his conducting than his music. At the age of 37 he was offered the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera – a very prestigious position (Austrians took their opera seriously then) and an “Imperial” post. At the time, Viena was one the largest cities in Europe and the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Mahler’s appointment was met by public outrage, because until that time that post had never been occupied by a Jew. Anti-Semitism was a big part of European culture – the Austrian public was saying that “a Jew cannot understand Austrian music” and “he will Jewsify our Austrian music.”

Mahler ended up being an extremely successful conductor and music director and held that the Viena Court Opera position for ten years. For appearances he had to convert to Roman Catholicism, which was really not a big deal for him as he was not religious one way or another. Here is another wrinkle to Mahler’s story: – one of his biggest admirers as a conductor and interpreter of Wagner’s music was Adolph Hitler.

Mahler’s music often has very depressing tones and for good reason: – eight of Mahler’s fourteen siblings died in childhood. One of the first pieces of music he composed was a funeral march. His Symphony Number 5, which I’d like to share with you today, sounds in many places like a funeral march. Click here to listen to Symphony No. 5, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

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