In 1975, to further explore the relationship between orchestra and conductor, I assembled a crew to film a rehearsal of Wagner’s “Prelude to Die Meistersinger.” Brian Priestman, the Music Director of the Denver Symphony Orchestra, conducted. The Prelude is a bright, one-movement work, full of open harmonies and grand climaxes. It was perfect for Priestman, a large, balding, red-bearded Englishman in his mid-forties, with a hearty conducting style.
I had been leading children's concerts for the Baltimore Symphony several years earlier, when Priestman arrived as a guest conductor. We became friends, and when he was appointed Music Director in Denver, he took me along as his Associate Conductor.
An Associate Conductor has many responsibilities. I attended all rehearsals and had to be ready to take over in case the Music Director or a guest conductor became ill. (This never happened.) In addition, I was given a pair of regular subscription concerts to conduct each of the five seasons I was there. Those were wonderful opportunities. I conducted major works by Mahler, Beethoven, Bartók, Debussy, and Stravinsky.
I was also in charge of an education program that consisted of thirty or more school concerts a season. These usually took place in school auditoriums at 8 or 9 o'clock in the morning. The musicians did not like these concerts, especially if there had been an evening performance the night before. To help keep the students and teachers -- and the orchestra -- awake, I told stories about the pieces and the composers. Occasionally I chose students to come to the podium and conduct a Sousa march. I would start them off at the right tempo, but they were so excited that they would start waving the baton faster and faster. The orchestra stayed right with them, in perfect ensemble. If the student conductors realized their mistake and slowed down, the orchestra, too, got gradually slower and slower, like a phonograph losing power. The players followed the wayward young student perfectly - faster, slower, slower, suddenly faster, faster. It was hilarious. The audience loved it. It was also instructive for me to see how responsive the orchestra could be.
As a special treat, two or three times a year the student concerts were performed in the orchestra's main concert hall. The buses that delivered some twelve hundred children to each of these concerts were invariably late; the kids were still filing in noisily after the music had started. The teachers contributed to the chaotic atmosphere by walking up and down the aisles, demanding in full-throated stage whispers that the kids quiet down. The orchestra resented having to play under these conditions. I made several appeals to the school administration, and the buses began to arrive on schedule. The first time the auditorium was completely quiet when I walked on stage, the orchestra stood up as a gesture of thanks.
Then there were the Pop Concerts. Here my job was to accompany established luminaries in arrangements that made little or no use of the symphonic forces available. We used to call these concerts “white-note concerts,” because an entire string section would play nothing but long-held whole notes in a kind of hymn-like background while the soloist was pouring his heart out. Among others stars, I accompanied Dave Brubeck, who in fact had written some interesting orchestra pieces to accompany his jazz group, and Phyllis Diller, who sang a little, but mostly joked about life with her husband Fang. I also conducted a complete performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the Denver Nuggets professional basketball arena. That was fun!
Though the Pop Concerts generally sold out, they didn't accomplish the goal, which was to build audiences for the Denver Symphony. They did, however, help the management identify new potential donors for the orchestra's fund-raising drives.
A word about the title -- Associate Conductor. If you are not the Music Director of an orchestra, you are not in charge, whatever they call you. Consequently the players feel free to take advantage of your subordinate status. When I was on the podium the players did not always play their best. They were masters at communicating a mild air of condescension, smiling to each other at some of my requests, as if to say, “Does he really want that?” If I asked for something a little louder, they would blast it out and look at me blankly. More than once, with five or ten minutes still left in the rehearsal, they stood up at the end of a piece, assuming that I would let them go early. They would groan good naturedly when I asked them to sit down and finish the rehearsal. Sometimes, to score points with them, I did end the rehearsal early.
From time to time, Brian would attend my rehearsals, and I couldn't help noticing that his presence had a marked effect on the musicians’ behavior. We always accomplished a great deal when he was there.
In retrospect I believe the orchestra's behavior was not entirely directed at me. It was also a way to release the players' pent-up resistance to the authority of the Music Director. And I always knew that in spite of these tensions, the orchestra would play well in our concerts together - if not for my sake, then at least for their own professional self-respect.
One result of my subordinate position was that I learned more about the inner workings of the Denver Symphony than the Manager, or the board members, or even the Music Director himself would ever hear about. By attending all the rehearsals, hanging around during breaks, riding the bus with the players on tours, I heard the musicians speaking freely about things they liked and didn’t like. They would openly talk to me about the conductor, the schedule, the repertoire, the union rules, their favorite board members, and quite often about each other. I was one of a very few to hear about a management plot to get rid of a player, or a new love affair in the orchestra. With a number of the players, I formed real friendships, and was invited to dinners and holiday parties at their homes. For me, these insights and friendships - and of course the chance to conduct great music – helped make up for the difficulties that go with the job of Associate Conductor.
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Though the silent communication between conductor and orchestra will always remain a mystery, some of it becomes clear during a rehearsal. After all, during a concert the conductor communicates only through his baton and body language: in a rehearsal he is forced to use words to explain what he wants.
Before we filmed Brian's rehearsals of the “Meistersinger” Prelude, we recorded interviews with him and the players. He discussed his ideas about the piece as a whole, and explained what he hoped to achieve in each section. Then we filmed several rehearsals showing him working with the orchestra, and included the musicians' responses to his requests. We were particularly happy with the players' outspoken comments - about the music, the conductor, and each other.
Generally an orchestra does not like to hear a conductor talk during rehearsals. The momentum of an orchestra, like that of a locomotive, is hard to bring to a halt. It's difficult for a hundred musicians to interrupt their combined musical involvement and focus on the conductor’s words. Sometimes in a rehearsal, Brian stopped the musicians to correct a mistake, but he often let them continue, knowing that they would play the passage correctly the next time around. If he felt that the orchestra really did need another chance at a thorny passage, or if he wanted to rebalance some of the instruments, he stopped them, described succinctly what he wanted, and had them try it. Often he illustrated what he wanted by singing, and the musicians understood immediately. When he started the orchestra again, we all noted that his gestures conveyed what he had asked for.
If a conductor feels particularly confident in a rehearsal, and the orchestra has been working very hard, he might take a minute to lighten the atmosphere with a joke or anecdote. But he will never, ever, no matter how sincerely, try to describe in words the mood he thinks the music should achieve. He will keep in mind the story that has made the rounds of conducting classes for half a century: when a celebrated conductor could not achieve what he wanted in a particularly expressive passage, he began to rhapsodize poetically on the composer's ideas about “destiny” and “ultimate human achievement.” After too much of this, a musician in the back of the second violin section stood up and asked, “Maestro - do you want it louder or softer?”
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There is a moment in the “Meistersinger Prelude” when the orchestra quiets down, in preparation for a steady rise to the final climax. This is marked by a single ding on the triangle – a clear solo that emerges from a soft orchestral background. In our filmed interview the triangle player described the tension he felt as he waited eight or ten minutes for this crucial entry. At last the moment arrived and he produced a perfect, bell-like sound. He showed no emotion, but after the cameras left him he grinned, and his neighbors in the brass section gave him a big thumbs up. I wish we had caught that. In many screenings of the finished film the audience often laughs at this place, not necessarily because it’s amusing but because of a kind of nervous relief they share with the triangle player.
Here is a selection of statements made by Brian Priestman and the players of the Denver Symphony, in “THE SECRET LIFE OF AN ORCHESTRA,” my 1975 film of Wagner's “Prelude to Die Meistersinger.”
“THE SECRET LIFE OF AN ORCHESTRA”
Transcript - Selections
NARRATOR: Every rehearsal is a performance and every performance is a rehearsal for a better performance next time.
PRIESTMAN: (voice-over) It’s very difficult to start off that music in exactly the right tempo for the march that is going to come and to make it perfectly clear to the orchestra as to what the beat is and how the music is moving forward.
VIOLIN: What we want is a very strong rhythmic beat.
VIOLIN: No flamboyance. We’ll do that.
BRIAN PRIESTMAN: Fine. We have to be able to hear it across now from cellos across to the winds with the...the rhythm clicks very well with (sings).
CELLO: The most ideal conductor would be the one who can really do everything with his hands.
CELLO: If he told everybody how to play every little phrase, the rehearsal would last days for a single piece.
CELLO: If he just talks at us, it’s not enough because we don’t know what he’s going to actually do when he has to finally do it.
VIOLIN: I do feel that perhaps it’s not possible to show everything with the beat and this is why there must be verbal discussion in a rehearsal so that the conductor can convey his wishes.
BASS: Most of the time the conductors just give them a little quiet indication of what you want, and if you really know your stuff, they’ll pick it up.
PRIESTMAN: It’s forte in the flute. You should be forte in the clarinet part too, can you...can you get that in there? Because there needs to be just a little more clarinet to balance in there so that she also, so that she hears you.
FLUTE: Playing in tune with the clarinet, is the first thing one has to worry about. Usually the pitch is pretty good and if it isn’t then we work that out. If it turns out that we weren’t close in pitch, then we discuss it, and then we try and compromise. That’s the best thing to do, compromise. There isn’t any one person who is right.
CLARINET: No, I don't think there's such a thing as being right.
FRENCH HORN: The more a person studies and tries and works on pitch the more thin skinned that person could become.
CLARINET: Some people in the orchestra don’t tune at all. You know, they play on instruments tuned at the factory.
PRIESTMAN: And the tremolo now.
TIMPANI: It’s only two notes, G-natural, C-natural. That’s all there is. I get a lot of mileage out of those two bloody notes, you know?
TROMBONE: I think the problem for a brass player is one of pacing oneself. You can’t just shoot all the cannons in the first sixteen bars of this piece.
TROMBONE: Well, I’m sure for most string players this is a very boring piece. For a brass player it’s not.
VIOLA: I don’t care if my own viola isn’t heard. I just like being a part of that whole big total sound.
VIOLIN: It’s like asking a 155 millimeter cannon to reduce the charge and what’s the point?
TROMBONE: That entrance brings back the whole hero theme of this, you know the Meistersingers with their robes and the pageantry
FRENCH HORN: You have to know when to carry the ball and when to block. There are some sections in the Meistersinger where you’re given the ball and say go. Go get it.
PRIESTMAN: Bill, I see you poised. I see you poised with your triangle, and then I hardly hear it at all.
PRIESTMAN: I suppose it’s the most magical triangle stroke in all music. To stand up in your place and with the utmost delicatesse strike one note, piano, on your triangle.
TRIANGLE: After many hundreds of bars rest, I have one note. Even though it’s one triangle it’s a beauty. And I would imagine if I would miss that one note I would be fired.
PRIESTMAN: It’s the spot of glue that really holds everything together at this point, that triangle stroke.
TRIANGLE: I know that’s an important note and I doubt if I’ll ever miss it. I doubt if I’ll ever miss that note. I might miss something else, but not that one.
PRIESTMAN: Now can we put together the two outsides. The bass of the texture and the top of the texture please. Figure eighteen. Espressivo. Feel it. Feel the line. Long line. Just the upbeat into the tempo primo. The upbeat is the tempo primo. But you’ve got a chance, the seconds here, all right? Three, four. And one....
FLUTE: Well, sometimes I think rehearsal is, you know I wish I weren’t here doing this. I have a piece that I find easy, you know whole notes and half notes, my goodness, you know, like I tend to daydream a lot.
VIOLA: The fact that we’ve played it so many times means that you kind of have to work a little bit harder each time you play it.
VIOLIN: Well, it means coming in each morning and of course doing your best regardless of how you feel.
CLARINET: The job is entirely too difficult. It requires entirely too much concentration, too much effort, not to want to do it well.
VIOLIN: It takes a bit of character. Strength of character.
VIOLA: If you get caught up in this ho-hum attitude, here we go again, you can get your head handed to you by a conductor.
PRIESTMAN: As we get to the tie now, in the second bar of figure three, can we come off it just a little earlier please? (SINGS)
FLUTE: Sometimes the conductor can instill that vitality, that excitement, that’s necessary, and make you do something that maybe you didn’t feel like doing in the first place. And then it’s twice as good.
PRIESTMAN: Seconds, the second violins - really you can let your hair down here you know. You can really let it go...with the firsts. What? Bald is beautiful, I know.
2nd VIOLIN: We have a lot of people in this orchestra who feel that playing in the second violin is below playing in the first violin.
1st VIOLIN: Well, it’s nice to have melody. I know the poor second violins always feel left out, occasionally I think of them when I’m playing the melody and they’re not.
2nd VIOLIN: I think sometimes the second violin can be a little dullsville.
2nd VIOLIN: I do like being a second. In fact I enjoy it much more than playing first violin. Whatever we play, we hear the inner voices as well and to me this is much more fun. But we feel that there are many people in the first violin section, not all of them by any means, but there are many who have no awareness of what’s going on around them, and even if they do, they just go their merry way anyway.
1st VIOLIN: The prima-donna type just can’t help but stick out like a sore thumb. How can they forget that they are a part of a group that has to sound as a unit?
PRIESTMAN: Broad, broad line (voice-over) Oh yes, it is an enormous exhilaration conducting the end.
PRIESTMAN: And now all of us please. Just backing up a little so we can get in the triangle stroke again. Two bars before eighteen. Three, four...
BASSOON: You have this whole orchestra around you, all the heavy breaths and the entire orchestra playing and building up. It feels good to be part of it.
BASS: Oh, it’s phenomenal. You get...you get a sense of triumph if you’ve made it without faltering.
PRIESTMAN: And it’s a crescendo.
VIOLIN: Those are the gravy times. And I enjoy them.
VIOLA: It happens sometimes and it’s just beautiful when it does.
PICCOLO: It’s just there. It really is just there.
BASS: Well, I’ve been in it a long time and I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world.
VIOLA: It’s one of those moments when I’m very happy I’m a symphony musician.
VIOLIN: (sings) I feel like dragging that out and saying hey baby, I got it now, just relax.