Can showmanship and conducting ever go hand-in-hand?

Andrew MellorThu 22nd September 2016

Everyone loves a musician who’s good to watch, but is a conductor who plays to the crowd being generous or disingenuous?

In my first ever full-time job, at the bottom of the orchestral management heap, one of my assigned tasks was to literally cut and paste the week’s reviews. One of them sticks in my mind to this day. It was printed in The Guardian newspaper and written by Gramophone contributor David Vickers. He questioned whether a particular conductor – actually one who had been hired-in by an external promoter who had also hired the orchestra – was in control of the music he was conducting or, rather, was being controlled by it. The maestro in question had apparently conducted most of the concert with his eyes fastened shut.

That question of ‘control’ is pivotal. But it’s also elusive, tied up in issues of personality, physique, temperament and inspiration. It’s also connected to the slippery notion of whether or not a concert audience pitches up to be entertained. Well of course they do, to some extent. The question, in the case of orchestral music, is to what extent they want their entertainment in physical form, supplied by the person on the podium, who is pretty much ethically bound to put him or herself at the service of the composer.

This week in Copenhagen, we’ve had the chance to mull that question over after two very different concerts that had one thing in common: unusual antics on the podium (or in one case, a few feet above it). On Saturday at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, the Copenhagen Phil’s big-haired young Principal Guest Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali stopped conducting Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto some bars before the piece had finished, turning to look the audience wryly in the eye as the music rocketed home. Then, after the heavy silence that followed the dying bars of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, Rouvali tossed his stick despondently onto the floor.

A few days later at the Danish Radio Concert Hall, Kristjan Järvi led his Baltic Sea Philharmonic in a festive performance of his own suite from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and a not-so-festive rendition of Weinberg’s Violin Concerto. Järvi didn’t lob any equipment but he certainly had fun on the podium, leaping clean into the air at least half a dozen times and indulging in a veritable cavalcade of physical gestures that would have impressed Alvin Ailey (actually, make that John Travolta). Järvi surely had one eye on the punters sat behind him, and finished the show by leaping from the stage to haul audience members from their seats to dance while the orchestra jammed through an Estonian folk tune.

First things first: music is a physical activity almost as much as a sonic one – often involuntarily so – and Järvi put many smiles on many faces (he also gave a quite beautiful speech that short-circuited the PR guff printed in the suave programme, speaking of music ‘stopping us over-thinking things’…go figure). But as anyone who’s played in an orchestra would have recognised, more than half of Järvi’s gestures were redundant.

Let’s say you’re a conductor, and you’ve found a useful evocative physical tool with which to communicate the shape of a repeating phrase or entry that occurs multiple times in the space of a few bars. You need only use that tool once, right? In other words, by all means use that suave little gesture you dreamed-up in front of the mirror when the phrase in question first appears; after that, your players will have got the message.

That’s why the physicality of Järvi’s conducting seemed to me a little disingenuous. Was his orchestra slick and tidy? You bet. Was it fired up and having fun? Ditto. So why did it leave a bad taste in my mouth? Maybe because it was impossible not to conclude that there was some other impetus at work behind Järvi’s leaps, flourishes and cruise-ship disco moves – one that might not have been divorced from the music, but was certainly superfluous to it. When he glanced over his shoulder to check how the crowd was digging his technique, it rather took from Tchaikovsky and his tortured swan.

Which is interesting, as Rouvali’s post-Tchaikovsky baton toss did the opposite. As the Pathetique collapsed into emotional exhaustion, the intense silence that followed represented one of those rare communal moments that only music can deliver. Rouvali is no stranger to the big gesture, technically speaking; for a conductor of his age and unpredictability, he is remarkably physically traditional. But I’ve seen him do odd things, not least dismissively toss a bouquet into the crowd as soon as it was handed to him, without even looking where it was going (perhaps he’ll do the same tonight, when conducts the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in a live-streamed concert). But his final gesture seemed to say that the music was bigger than anyone or anything in the room on one level, while on another it felt like an expression of how hopeless that symphony’s final message really is.

Or perhaps Rouvali was just being his slightly eccentric, quasi-teenaged self, something he’s pretty good at (he walked past the bar I was sat outside later that night and stopped momentarily outside, before concluding it was far too civilised-looking for the likes of him). But hang on, wasn’t Järvi just being himself too? Perhaps. The problem was that he didn’t leave enough room for Tchaikovsky to do the same.

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is a Gramophone reviewer and freelance journalist - he writes widely on opera, classical music and Nordic culture for magazines, newspapers, orchestras and opera companies in the UK and in Denmark, Finland and Norway

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