Questions on Conducting from Eduardo Diazmunoz

Essay Responses to questions posed by Maestro Eduardo Diazmunoz. January 13, 2005


Eduardo Diazmuñoz:  Do you think that contemporary conductors and orchestras should program more 20th/21st century music in their repertoires (including recent compositions)? If so, how would one go about introducing these works to their audiences?

KC:  Contemporary music should always have a place in a musician’s repertoire and should therefore be embraced by orchestras of all standing.  All music was, at one time or another, “contemporary’.  History is filled with anecdotes of audience complaints about premiers of works by Beethoven, Mozart and others as being unconventional, unpredictable and, therefore, uncomfortable to the listener.  It is this discomfort that makes so much contemporary music inaccessible to musicians and audiences alike.  However, it is the responsibility of musicians to continue to examine and explore the work of today’s composers if musicians wish their art to be viewed as a living entity and not a museum quality relic.

In addition to providing an outlet and an exposure to composers, a conductor should wish to explore modern music (especially new repertoire) as a matter of diversifying concert programs and stimulating orchestral musicians.  For the musicians, there is great benefit in performing contemporary music.  For instance, the rhythmic complexities of the Denisov Symphony will require tremendous concentration and preparation on the part of performers and the conductor.  However, the work invested in bringing a piece of this complexity to life in a vibrant, colorful and convincing manner will equip the same musicians with a heightened sensitivity to the (seemingly) much more conventional rhythmic and stylistic requirements of a Beethoven symphony.  Ursula Oppens once remarked that playing Elliott Carter made her appreciate the difference between ‘piano’ and ‘pianissimo’ in the “Hammerklaavier’.  Immersing oneself in a good deal of contemporary music develops one’s sense of rhythmic precision, as well as sensitivity to texture, balance and dramatic character.  Besides the benefit to the musicians, it is strikingly effective to program something atonal, perhaps aleatoric, with a work of traditional tonality.  For instance, a program that opens with Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima might be followed by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1.  The specific pairing is not logistically ideal, and is also a bit unusual, but the tonal sensibility of a work such as this particular symphony will sound visionary to the audience whose aural senses have, in effect, been assaulted by the sound mass which came before it.  This is one of the reasons I am generally opposed to chronological programming.  The unconventional pairing of contemporary music and traditional repertoire can be very effective if handled properly.  Of course, these thoughts use contemporary music to the benefit of traditional works and musicianship, where the true purpose of programming should be to seek some sort of communication through the work at hand.  However, despite the best attempts of a performer, and often regardless of that performer’s conviction and attachment to the work he/she/they are presenting, the efforts are lost on an audience which is reluctant to accept the sounds of discomfort.

It is human nature to avoid those things which cause us discomfort.  At the sound of a loud noise, we will put our fingers in our ears to avoid the sound; if the weather is cold we will dress in layers to keep the chill away.  The same is true for an audience that is not versed in music history, compositional techniques, etc..  It is here where orchestras likely suffer the greatest difficulty in attempting to program contemporary music.  While some subscribers may feel there is some glamour in attending a “world premier”, most audiences wish to avoid music they don’t already know, or cannot immediately, comfortably comprehend.  The danger for an expensive institution such as an orchestra is that of alienating its listeners.  If too many attempts are made to program contemporary music, a Music Director may lose his/her job as audience complaints mount and ticket sales fall.  The key seems to be in finding an approach to programming that involves the listener in the music.

Since the contemporary music being addressed here is that which is not readily accessible to an average audience, it must be accepted that the typical reaction of a listener will be to shut off his/her attention the moment they realize this work does not consist of traditional harmony or discernable melodies.  That being the case, some effort must be made to engage the audience beforehand.  In some instances, the best approach might be the most direct in which a few words are spoken about the work to be performed.  If it is done with sincerity and simplicity, it can be an effective way to keep the listener attentive to the sounds they are hearing.  Rather than shutting down the moment the music begins, an audience member is likely to continue to actively listen to the music if they have some idea what it is they should be listening for.  Since there may be no discernable melody or structural harmony for the listener to aurally latch on to, knowing that they should be concentrating upon texture or particular timbral features, rhythmic gestures, instrumental effects, etc., can be what keeps the listener engaged.  Likewise, even if they are completely unaware of the sophistication of the compositional process of the work, if a listener is given a modicum of explanation as to the process or its significance then the work will likely hold their attention as well.  Leonard Bernstein effectively introduced atonal music through his talk later published in Joy of Music.

In any approach, it seems only necessary to engage the active imagination of the audience in the piece.  One way in which to do this is, first of all, to afford audiences the luxury of using their imagination.  A quick comparison to ‘film’ music is often enough to convince an audience that there is nothing in the music of Penderecki of Ligeti or Varese that hasn’t been heard in some of their favorite movie music (such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Jaws or, of course, Psycho).  It may seem rather casual, and may not be entirely appreciated by the composer of the work in question, but this approach has its way of putting an apprehensive audience at ease with a work that otherwise may not be to their liking.

Ultimately, creating an environment of active listening, education and imagination will invite an audience to embrace challenging new music.  If the discomfort is removed, or at least alleviated somewhat, new music can be presented to any audience as a service to both listener and performer alike.

ED:  To what extent do you engage the composer in dialogue about his/her music?  Do you involve the composer in the rehearsal process or feel obliged to adhere to the composer’s wishes?  If not, how do you determine what changes to introduce or the amount of yourself to introduce into the work?

KC:  While a composer may be defensive to the approaches of a conductor to engage the listener’s attention through the methods detailed above, such efforts are only made with the hope that the work in question will receive the consideration it clearly deserves.  It takes great care and commitment to perform new music because the works do not necessarily have a following or those elements which will engage those in attendance.  As someone who does care about the music I am presenting, I think it is always advisable to collaborate with the composer, but only to an extent.  A good deal depends upon the circumstances of the performance, whether or not it is a premiere, for what purposes, recording, etc..  Assuming it is in preparation for some sort of public performance or broadcast, as an interpreter I would make it a point to discuss the work with the composer to gain insight into the composer’s motivations and aesthetics as the relate to that composition.  However, in my experience with younger composers I have found that there tent to be two philosophical divisions:  composers who conceive of only one particular ‘interpretation’ of their music and those who are interested in the ideas of others.

Any performer involved in new music knows that the former type is tremendously ungratifying to work with.  The reason being that, as a performer, I am an interpreter of music.  I have made a conscious choice in my life and career to develop my talents and abilities in bringing music off of the printed page by presenting it with a sense of character and drama that come from within my own musical imagination and life experiences.  The reason I chose to perform contemporary music is to explore new works and find my own ways of addressing the challenges contained with them.  To that end, I am willing to solicit the thoughts and input of the work’s creator so long as that person does not seek to suppress my participation in the process of performance.  A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to discuss Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata with the composer.  Since I was preparing to record the work I thought it polite to invite him to offer any comments or suggestions he might have.  His response was that, as a composer, he had done his job by investing himself in the organization and notation of musical ideas into the composition at hand.  Assuming that I was not attempting to re-write his music, it was now “what matters to the performer that counts.”  For me this is the essential working relationship:  one that recognizes the skills and responsibilities of both the composer and the performer.

The successful and sincere presentation of any musical work takes great effort, study and contemplation.  As a performer, I have tremendous respect for the creative imagination of composers.  To discuss the ideal performance philosophy demands that one assumes the composition is of the highest quality.  It is not possible for a performer to make a work seem better than it really is and, therefore, it is important for the performer to be able to identify with the composition in some way.  Assuming the composer was accurate and disciplined and created a technically sound work, as an “interpreter” I would feel obliged to treat the musical text as sacred – adhering to notes, rhythms, tempi (for the most part), articulations, dynamics, etc..  As someone with strong musical convictions, I would have to wrestle with any music that seemed contrary to my musical instincts.  Just as I would with traditional repertoire, I would think and re-think as necessary until I felt I had arrived at a musical rendering that was consistent with the overall objective and emotional program of that particular piece.  If, in consultation with the composer, I found his/her comments were not consistent with the musical message as I understood it, I would be willing to dismiss them for the sake of my own convictions.  As many performers of contemporary music know, composers themselves are not necessarily the best interpreters of their own music.

In many instances, I have noted that performers live with a single composition much longer than a composer may have.  A few years ago I took part in the world premier (at Carnegie Hall) of a saxophone sonata by one of America’s foremost composers.  The piece proved to be a tremendous disappointment considering his apparent dismissal of the commission.  Perhaps unaware and thus uninterested in the capabilities of the instrument, the composer delivered a minor work of disjunctive ideas.  In this instance, since we were committed to presenting the piece on our recital program, our task as “interpreters” was to make this piece sound as substantial as we could.  After a telephone conference with the composer it became apparent that he had spent very little time on its composition and, in fact, could not even recall significant details about the work.  In such situations, the composer’s intentions simply cannot be regarded as sacred.

In the end, the ideal relationship between composer and performer is one that allows each to use his/her abilities completely.  While a composer should be willing to discuss aspects of the work (eg. Rethinking awkward writing, unforeseen balance issues due to instrumentation, etc.), the performer likewise should be receptive to the input of the composer regarding a work’s performance.  Any performer hopes to find a common musical vision with the composer, whether it is with Brahms or Berio.  But a truly successful performance can only be achieved with the complete commitment to the music and its message.

ED:  In the role of conductor, how much license do you offer a soloist (instrumental or vocal) regarding tempo and interpretation?

KC:  As with composers, it seems that the best possible working relationship with a soloist is one of open communication.  The best results are achieved when both conductor and soloist share the same musical vision and have largely agreed upon the means of illuminating that vision.  In the case of opera, I feel that the conductor has a particular responsibility to assert his/her ideas regarding the pacing of musical events, and an overall consistency of interpretation (especially with regard to style, performance practice, etc.).  The opera conductor is usually the only person who has an overall sense of pacing.  The conductor may encounter some inconsistencies with the view of the Stage Director, especially if that director comes from straight theatre and is accustomed to having a control over the dramatic pacing.  Since opera is founded on the music, the conductor is the one responsible for the tempo and architecture of the drama and must find ways to maintain them.  To that end, a soloist who wishes to indulge in certain ill-informed conventions, or over-indulges in the course of certain arias (often those found in all the popular anthologies), must be approached regarding their musical choices.  In opera, it is perhaps easier for the conductor to ‘dictate’ tempo and rhythm in the preparations of ensembles.  Performers, however, have a tendency to view solo’s as their private domain and are often less inclined to outside direction.  This can be a trying situation for a conductor in some circumstances, yet a view towards the ultimate goal is essential.

My inclination is to largely allow singers to interpret as they will their arias.  The primary concern is to ensure that they are not too far off in their pacing or their musical portrayal as is consistent with the rest of the opera.  Singers who repeat roles regularly need to be flexible in their interpretations so that they can adjust to slightly different portrayals as seen by different directors and conductors.  However, that is not to dismiss in the slightest the experience and knowledge that the singer brings to this role.  Instead, I find the most useful tactic being one that suggests a correction without overtly offering it.  For example, to tell a Mezzo that her non piu mesta is “excitedly buoyant and really captures the essence of a director’s quasi-Marx Brother’s approach to the wedding scene” is one way of inciting a performance angle that will not be as heavy and lethargic as her last attempt—this without tampering with the “diva attitude” by criticizing her performance in the first place.

Instrumental soloists, on the other hand, tend often to be less resistant to musical criticism while also being more prepared.  The idea of ‘coaching’ does not exist so much in the arena of purely instrumental music, where preparations are done by the individual and the individual assumes a greater responsibility for musical decisions.  As a result, a concerto soloist will likely have very strong convictions about the piece and will not be easily swayed by the conductor.  In the case of a concerto, it is not necessarily the conductor’s place to try to assert his/her views, if they are inconsistent with those of the soloist.  In some instances, if it is a particularly experienced (professional) soloist, it is likely that the instrumentalist has spent more time with the particular concerto in the course of his/her life than has the conductor.  Likewise, the presentation of the soloist is a programmatic event and the audience is likely there to hear the soloist, not to hear the work itself.  Again, the goal is to share a musical vision and some degree of compromise, combined with a great deal of respect, needs to be exhibited from both soloist and conductor if the performance is to be successfully inspired.  A concerto should be a collaboration of some sort, even if it is not quite 50/50.  If the soloist is particularly individual, and their musicianship or vision is far removed from that of the conductor, then the conductor should accommodate the soloist.

The final goal should be a performance that is polished and musically convincing, even if it is not wholly consistent with one’s own musical vision.  The conductor should never fear presenting his/her musical conception to a soloist as some, perhaps more than others, may be excited by fresh ideas and willing to enter into a collaboration as partners in a common goal.  However, in certain circumstances, the conductor must be able to exhibit versatility and flexibility to accommodate the musical views of their soloists.

ED:  How much consideration do you give to creating historically authentic performances?  Are there specific guidelines you follow regarding dynamics, balance and choices of tempo?  What are your views towards the use of period instruments and tunings?

KC: As someone who was raised around, and trained in, traditional orchestras, I was quite slow to embrace the techniques and attitudes of authentic performance practices.  It was not until I participated in a round-table conversation with Sir Roger Norrington that I began to explore the practices of early music ensembles.  The seemingly unkempt sound of forte-pianos, violins with gut strings and the lack of vibrato in performance had always seemed unnatural and unattractive to me.  However, after meeting Norrington, I chose to give listening another chance.

What I quickly discovered was that my ear soon became adjusted to the colorful timbres of early instruments and particularly appreciative of the purity of the straight tone.  Once I realized how much colour was present in the sound of these instruments when playing period music, I began to feel that the more modern approach of orchestral unity of sound had largely sterilized music of much of its splendor.  It was an interesting experience to note that, in a very short period of time, I came to find string vibrato in Mozart to be terribly intrusive.  The very sound that I once thought was full of warmth seemed, instead, clumsy and inappropriate.  Once my aesthetic towards performance practices had changed, it was necessary to redefine my choices as a performer and conductor.

Having no first hand experience with historic instruments, I do not have any particular ambitions regarding forming or performing with purely historic ensembles.  Instead, my discoveries of the scintillating performances of Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Band (especially their Mozart operas) have impacted my aesthetic as it translates to modern instruments.

In the discussion with Norrington, I asked him to what extent a conductor should go, when conducting an ensemble with modern instruments, in ‘recreating’ the sounds of period instruments and period practices.  His simple answer was “Go as far as you dare!”  Unfortunately, I don’t think he really understood my question.  The dilemma is:  how relevant is the early music aesthetic and its performance practices to performance by modern ensembles, in modern halls, on modern instruments?  It is the same question every pianist must ask when performing Bach’s works on a modern piano.  The answer for me seems to be not in attempting to imitate the sound of period instruments (as an imitation can never be substantially convincing) but rather to recreate the colour spectrum of musical sound.

I am largely insistent on the use of non-vibrato from the string players in Mozart.  The result is a bloom of sound that is both round yet very transparent.  The possibilities that the overall absence of vibrato provides is exciting in that wind textures emerge without being forced; sustained chords in melismatic passages of Mozart’s piano concerti (for example) are present but never overpowering; and the occasional, deliberate employment of vibrato can be used to great effect.  Rather than being the convention, vibrato was only intended as an ornament and, when used in this way, can serve that purpose.

I also encourage the use of wood mallets on timpani, which provides a percussive edge to the sound that was clearly intended.  Likewise, sforzandi and abrupt dynamic changes can be particularly brutal and noisy in period performance (on period instruments).  Having the sound and colour of these instruments in mind when conducting Don Giovanni, for example, can make Donna Anna’s exclamations of horror particularly terrifying when played with an unapologetic ‘bite’ on modern instruments.

Since my interest is not in the literal recreation of antique sounds, my consideration of issues such as tuning, are fairly limited.  I am interested in gaining a sense of the aural effect of such tunings and the timbres of period instruments, but in the end it is how the aesthetic sense gained from exploration of these things translates to the modern ensemble that, for me, holds the most interest.