Only one member of the orchestra is mimicked with any regularity. The average guy doesn’t tape empty soda cans together and pretend to play the bassoon, or sit on a chair and saw away at an imaginary cello. Nobody plays the air flute.
But who has not picked up a pencil and pretended to conduct? You hear some rousing Beethoven symphony, you almost have to. At least I hope you do and it isn’t just me.
Either way, I’ve always wondered: what, exactly is the conductor doing? I’ve always meant to ask Sir Andrew Davis, conductor of the Lyric, “What are you doing with the stick?” But if divas are stars, conductors are superstars, and the chance to ask him anything has never arisen (well, once, I saw him smoking a cigarette outside the Civic Opera House, but it struck me that a considerate person would leave him be, so I did).
But when Chicago conductor Anthony Barrese offered to stop by my office and talk about what he does, I jumped at the chance. My first question was: Explain this waving-the-baton business. Musicians seem fairly intent on their music — they aren’t necessarily even watching you. What’s going on?
“By the time you get to a performance, the great amount of work is done,” he said. “Any conductor who is jumping around, flailing about and wildly gesticulating during a concert, that’s for show. The orchestra is not really paying attention. The real work is done in rehearsal, which you don’t see. By the time you get to a performance, you’re still guiding, you’re still shaping the architecture, musically. But it’s sort of in the hands of God at that point.”
So why have a conductor at the performance at all? Why not just rehearse, then let them play? Short answer: Stuff happens.
“The soprano could have an off night,” Barrese said. “The trumpet could be nodding off. You’re sort of gently keeping it together. You’re also trying to inspire.”
Barrese is one of perhaps a dozen full-time conductors who make a living in the Chicago area, including the two stars, Riccardo Muti at the Chicago Symphony and Davis at the Lyric, plus a variety of others who combine university posts and gigs at smaller ensembles. Barrese lives here but conducts for Opera Southwest in Albuquerque and scans the horizon for work, as most do.
“I do have to cobble together a living,” said fellow Chicago conductor Francesco Milioto, who conducts the Skokie Valley Symphony, where he is also musical director, plus is principal conductor of the Highland Park Strings, artistic director at Access Contemporary Music, and fills in as a cover — a replacement conductor — at the Lyric. And he gives vocal lessons.
“You need a lot of these jobs,” Milioto said, but not as a complaint. “I am quite happy. I don’t have any other job other than music and am very lucky and very appreciative.” (Even stars have multiple gigs: Muti, for instance, conducts here and in Italy while Davis moonlights in Melbourne.)
Milioto pointed out something I never thought about — that conducting an opera is much harder than conducting a symphony, because not only do you have the orchestra to keep together, but you have to coordinate it with 100 singers and dancers on stage.
“In opera there is quite a bit of maintaining communication between the pit and the stage,” he said. “Half the orchestra is under the pit, so the sense of timing and delay always needs to be dealt with, especially with a chorus on stage. A symphonic performance, it’s a little bit easier.”
Barrese started conducting because he needed somebody to conduct his own compositions. While we were on the subject, I had to ask: Classical music of past eras — Mozart, Bach, et al. — is so beautiful; modern music, not so much. What’s the matter? Why can’t anyone write like Mozart?
“The more you listen to contemporary music, the less bad it sounds,” he replied. “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was seen as crazy in its time, now we think it’s gorgeous. “The Rite of Spring,” there was a riot, people thought it was horrible. Now any decent college orchestra plays it.”
In other words, the culture moves on, and no matter how great something is, if you merely redo it, then you’re just aping the past. No matter how exquisite a nude figure you may carve out of marble, Michelangelo has been there, done that, 500 years ago.
“I had a composition teacher who said that it would be as if rock ’n’ roll musicians today were writing in exactly the three-chord style of Elvis Presley,” Barrese said. “Things change. You can’t go back. You can’t write in the style of Wagner anymore.”
That might actually be a good thing. One Wagner is plenty.
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