11 February 2011

Watching the Conductors

A youthful ambition – ultimately fulfilled – to become a bus driver led to months working as a bus conductor before I was finally allowed into the cab.  Even for a bus conductor, the training was surprisingly intense; three days dealing with such issues as operating ticket machines, handling change, dealing with passengers, changing the destination blind and, I kid you not, operating the bell (apparently those long ropes which used to be strung along the inside of double-deckers were prone to stretching and we were shown the way to get them to ring clearly and precisely even when they were drooping down well below head level).  When I finally stood on the platform in charge of my first solo No.9 I felt confident that I was adequately equipped to handle whatever the world of stage bus travel could throw at me.

Compare that with my first solo outing as a conductor of music.  What training had prepared me for the ordeal?  None.  When I stood up in the aisle of Guildford Cathedral to conduct (I was assistant organist of the church slated to sing Evensong that day and, as the anthem was Harwood's O How Glorious, the Organist decided he wanted to play - and who can blame him, just look at the first page!) all I had behind me was the aural test in my graded ABRSM piano exams which obliged me to beat two, three or four in a bar to a rigid pattern.  When, years later, the ABRSM announced its intention to abandon this test, I stood up half jokingly to say that it was a bad idea since this was the only proper conducting training most British cathedral organists ever received, and was shocked when the British cathedral organists amongst the assembled throng of examiners all agreed.  When, at university, I was obliged to conduct an entire concert of Palestrina, the ABRSM training did not really help and the final straw came when a choral society I conducted along the North Wales coast, performed The Country Beyond the Stars by Daniel Jones. 

The choral parts are straightforward enough, but there is a central orchestral symphony ("Joyful Visitors") which runs in an alternating 3/4, 3/8 time signature, and I couldn't handle that at all.  The society had booked members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to play and, after sitting down and going over it with their excellent concert-master, he suggested I just tried to hit the down beats and they would do the rest.  I have to say, despite this difficulty, any choral society with a competent conductor should attempt The Country Beyond the Stars; it's a fantastic sing, a great piece for the audience and, astonishingly, since Charles Groves recorded it with the WNO chorus in 1972, I don't think it's ever been recorded again (although the Groves has come out again on a Lyrita CD).  For my part, though, I decided I'd abandon conducting unless and until I could get some proper training.

That was hard to come by and I was advised that most conductors came from within the ranks of orchestras and were mostly violinists (which surprises conducting friends of mine who claim that, apart from the guys in the front two desks, no violinist would ever recognise a conductor if they met him in the street) and I would do better just to sit and observe.  I've been sitting and observing thousands of conductors' backs and hundreds of their fronts for years and still haven't fathomed out what the secret is.  Of course, as with all musicians, the real work is done behind the scenes, but unlike other musicians, when the conductor is on stage most of the audience takes all that for granted and judges you simply on how you look.  If a conductor looks graceful, easy and in command, he's good; if he looks stiff, awkward and panic-stricken, he's lousy.  This probably explains why there are so few really top-flight female conductors; musically they are every bit as good as male ones, and when it comes to orchestral discipline they are in a dictatorial league of their own, but when they are out there with their backs to the audience, few look entirely in their element.  Funnily enough when I first attended a concert given by the most successful female conductor around at the moment, I assumed the programme had printed her name incorrectly and that Marin Alsop was actually a man called Martin.  Nothing I saw at the concert disabused me of the belief that she was a male and I have a horrible feeling I was reviewing the concert for some newspaper or other and referred to her persistently as he; I haven't the nerve to go back into the archives and check.  My apologies to her for getting confused over sex, but to say that she looked like a man is, in a funny way, a great compliment.

A lot of conductors do come up through the ranks of an orchestra, but there is also much more work done to train conductors than ever was the case in my student days.  So it was thrilling that the Prize-winners' Concerts run by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory at the National University of Singapore this week and last, included one performance by a student conductor.  Wong Kah Chun has clearly got what it takes from the audience point of view; he looks at ease, looks natural and looks to be in command of the score (he was conducting Mastersingers Prelude from memory).  More than that, he's one of those conductors who, if you were unable to hear the music, you'd still be able to tell what he was directing, so strongly was he involved in the music.  He even added a touch of individuality at the end to make it a distinct, and musically cogent, interpretation.  True, the student orchestra was at times ragged and more than once they seemed to be leading him as cues came just that fraction of a second too late, but it's unfair to judge purely on what an orchestra of his peers, coming on to stage cold with a pretty daunting programme ahead of them, does, and my belief is that Wong Kah Chun has it in him to become a very good conductor.  With his fellow-Singaporean, Joshua Kangming Tan, having made a pretty impressive show in the performance of Carmen last month (see my post Singapore's Operatic Bellwether), I reckon that Singapore is becoming something of a breeding ground for fine conductors.

Given the exceptionally high standards Bernard Lanskey inspires from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory students, it certainly wasn't in any way surprising that all four concerto winners acquitted themselves magnificently.  Last week it was pianist Jonathan Shin and violinist Zhao Yi who wowed the audience, but without doubt for me the startling talent was that of Zhang Feng who gave last night an astounding account of Weber's Second Clarinet Concerto.  Nerves and inexperience led to rather longer breaks between movements than the audience was really comfortable with, but in every other respect his was an astonishing performance, full of character, drama and wit, elegance and humour, and revealing a quality of tone and control which only the very top soloists usually muster.  This is clearly a player to watch; my money is on Zhang Feng from China becoming one of the big clarinet names in the near future.

But even Zhang Feng's brilliant clarinet performance was not the musical highlight of these concerts.  That came with the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto.  Xie Tian was certainly a fine soloist, impassioned and totally committed to the music, although he needs to work on his vocalisations – at times they drowned out the sound of his own cello.  But it wasn't his performance that turned this into an unforgettable musical experience, it was that of conductor Jason Lai.

It might seem insensitive to praise above the students the Conservatory's professional conductor, but this was a real revelation.  I've known and admired Jason Lai's work for years.  He impresses me as an astute musician, an alert conductor, a fine communicator and one of those few people with a real gift of making music accessible to all.  He's been doing fantastic things in Hong Kong with his Babies' concerts and he's well-known for his work in de-mystifying the art of conducting through his television appearances.  But what he did here cast him in an entirely new light.  Jason Lai is an astonishingly astute Shostakovichian (is there such a word?).  His intensely focused reading, which had us all in thrall for the entire length of the Concerto, was so compelling, so thoroughly at one with the character and spirit of the music and so wholly absorbing in its far-sighted sense of architecture, that I honestly don't think I've heard such a convincing reading of a Shostakovich score before; certainly since the death of the composer.  Inspired by their conductor's visionary reading, the Conservatory's orchestra raised their game to a level where little separated them from a top-flight professional band, some individuals (notably the horn) shining above and beyond the very best orchestral musicians around.

If there's any orchestra out there looking for a charismatic conductor to lead them through some Shostakovich, or a record label keen to sign up an as-yet unsigned talent and reap rewards with a Shostakovich symphony cycle, Jason Lai is clearly the man.  And if, while he's with them, the local bus company needs conductors I'll happily come along too.  After all, I'm very well trained.

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