A conductor's podium style may be arresting, but; What it all means to the music needs close study these days
New York — Do a conductor's gyrations really make any difference to the end result of memorable (or undistinguished) musicmaking?
Pierre Monteux felt a conductor should never show exertion in performance, and Igor Stravinsky always cited Monteux's erect, authoritative back at the scandalous Paris world premiere of ''Le Sacre du Printemps'' as the one thing he remembered of that tumultuous night.
The question of what all that movement has to do with conducting takes on particular meaning these days. Now more than ever, a jet-setting maestro (as most of the good ones are) seems compelled to come up with a distinctive yet arresting podium style, usually because his musicmaking has taken on such a bland sameness with that of his colleagues.
Regular concertgoers are privy to an incredible variety of styles. Seiji Ozawa is most often described as balletic. Klaus Tennstedt is ''awkward'' or ''gawky,'' Zubin Mehta is self-assured, Rafael Kubelik benevolent, Erich Leinsdorf professorial, and so it goes.
Did a cool Monteux wave of the baton have any more or less effect on an orchestra than an Ozawa grand jete?
Yes and no.
I never had the privilege of seeing maestro Monteux conduct, though many of his recorded performances have taken their place on my shelves as definitive renderings. One instantly senses in Monteux's work a complete grasp of the style , structure, and content of any piece. Ozawa's, on the other hand (and he is cited here only as an example, hardly as the prime offender), too often gives little clear sense of what the piece is specifically about. In concert, however, a particularly dramatic gesture from Ozawa can appear to create a particular intensity in the orchestra's response. I remember a Tchaikovsky Fifth in Boston one Friday afternoon that was the quintessence of Ozawa in action. Every sweep of the arm, every twist of the hips, every arch of the spine, seemed to find its instant, thrilling equivalent in the Boston Symphony's playing. Maestro and orchestra were gracefully one, throughout, and it remains emblazoned in my mind as an unexcelled exhibition of the kinetic effect a conductor can have on an orchestra and its musicmaking.
But Ozawa's is more than a motion-based podium address. His so-called stick technique is so precise, so utterly communicative of his every intent, that the orchestra can get through even unrehearsed pieces with confidence and force. If this implies a certain facile gloss to the musicmaking, that is perhaps the price one has to pay. But for many regular BSO-goers, Ozawa-watching has been all that has mattered, and he has surely given them (and still gives them) their money's worth.
I watched it in Boston, I see it in New York: Conductors who behave like ''conductors'' usually capture and sustain the interest of the concertgoers. Riccardo Muti, the new music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is a handsome man with a noble profile which--whether intentionally or not--he spends a good deal of time showing off to his audiences. Mr. Kubelik, on the other hand , emerges from the wings, tall, disheveled, with a benevolent glow on his face, looking for the world like an absent-minded professor. He looms high on the podium, clutching his baton in his fist, and his downbeat is more importuning than clearly indicative of when the ensemble is supposed to start playing. Once it does start playing, his work is often exalted.
I have watched Carlo Maria Giulini coax a ravishing, haunting statement of the ''brotherhood'' theme of Beethoven's Ninth from the cellos with the mere twist of the right wrist (baton clutched in fist) - back and forth, twist right twist left, eyes clenched fiercely, transcendently shut. And the Los Angeles Philharmonic played with just that much fierce, though smoldering, intensity. Of course he had had an inordinate amount of rehearsals before this concert--his first with the orchestra as its new music director.
Most conductors prepare the desired results in rehearsals and plan the "show" for actual performance. Sometimes what is fixed then never really changes. Sometimes, as in the case of Tennstedt, he fixes it in rehearsal so it can be changed in performance. His performances often have a free-wheeling, visceral excitement that arouses audiences and orchestras into modified or complete frenzies. Yet there are those who will say they cannot understand how such an awkward presence can be considered the stuff of an important conductor.
Zubin Mehta is a conductor who comes under fire for his podium manner. Some call it arrogant, others off-putting; there are those who accuse him of not even being "in the concert hall" mentally. These are fairly wild accusations. Conductors do have their off days, such as the time Ozawa tried to repeat his Tchaikovsky Fifth triumph at Tanglewood: The entire venture ended up soggy and out of sync. Mehta's podium manner if efficient -- back erect, beat extended outward and high. Efficiency in this overwrought age is often misconstrued as breezy or indifferent. Yet watching that back and the tensions it expresses is to witness a conductor always involved in what he is doing. And when he does get animated, he seems to be veritably willing sound into being with majestic, power-fraught gestures.
So does it all have an effect? To a certain extent, yes. A flashy podium style can certainly cover up a lack of musical depth by keeping the audience's attention on extramusical matters. Today's maestros are more and more conscious of the theatrical values of their podium address. They captivate where their older colleagues -- the Kubeliks and Guilinis -- persuade.
Nowadays there is entirely too much listening with the eyes, which is why flash is so acclaimed. When it is all put in the right context, it can heighten enjoyment. When it is used as the sole criterion for effectiveness, or even greatness, some reassessing has to be in order. For even that great wizard of showmanship, Leopold Stokowski (who used to spend hours having the podium lighted to show off his hands), made music while he was making theater.