Thursday, April 19, 2007

jungle rules of orchestral playing

The other day in rehearsal, guest conductor Robert Spano made some interesting comments about the relationship of an orchestra and its conductor, and the need to play firmly with the beat. Great orchestras don't rush - in fact, if you listen closely, they often seem to be deliberately playing at the back of the beat, filling out the rhythms as slowly as possible within the tempo. This gives a conductor something to work with - he can propel and drive the orchestra, when he wants to create added excitement, and trust that we won't all fly off the handle. That inner pulse, which we establish as an orchestra, can accomodate the conductor's excitement without getting swept up and losing its integrity.

He talked about how this dynamic gets screwed up when the orchestra tends to rush. Then the conductor has to take a restraining role, holding us back and doing his best to avoid train wrecks. The message he projects becomes cautionary, rather than motivating - which is why an orchestra that rushes can actually sound less exciting, more boring, than one that plays behind the beat but allows the conductor to propel forward.

Spano put it best when he said that the orchestra's job is to always say, "We're not going to rush." The conductor's role, on the other hand, is to say, "We're not going to be boring." It often puts the two in conflict, but that tension is itself a source of excitement for the audience and the performers. It's the will of the one against the will of the many, and ultimately the conductor's will prevails - assuming we all respect and trust him enough to respond to his ideas - but only as the result of an intensely powerful struggle.

I'll write more tomorrow on this weekend's program, which includes Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra and Michael Gandolfi's Impressions from the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. The latter piece is inspired by an actual place, a garden designed by the philosopher Charles Jencks. You can check out some pictures of the real thing at Charles Jencks' website.

In the meantime, here are a few pictures from the Fairchild Tropical Gardens, which our orchestra visited last Sunday. I don't think the gorilla in the top picture is meant to be conducting an orchestra, but that was my first thought. I wonder if gorilla conductors ever have problems with rushing...?

No comments: