Looking Back #4

Hermann Scherchen was never interested in teaching us baton technique. He insisted that if we concentrated intensely and conducted what we were hearing inside, we could not fail to produce gestures that would show the orchestra how to play.

If you have ever seen a great conductor from the front, you will observe, in addition to clear physical gestures, a flow of facial expressions that inexplicably convey the conductor's deep image of the music. If you attend a performance in a concert hall with seats facing the conductor from behind the orchestra, the players won't show you anything. But a good conductor, and, if you are lucky, a great one, will unconsciously enact the music for the players, and show in his face, as well as in his more down-to-earth body movements, how he wants the music to take life. One cannot analyze this almost tribal communication, so rich and unfailingly understood. A great mystery of orchestral playing is that musicians do respond, and perform what they see.

Since conductors differ in their physical stature, and in their movements on the podium, the quality of sound produced by an orchestra can differ from conductor to conductor, even when they are performing the same piece. I once attended a conducting class in which five students of varying height and weight - and self-possession - mounted the podium, readied the orchestra, and gave a downbeat for the opening chord of the same symphony - one chord - that is all. All the downbeats were different in a hundred ways: in strength, in freedom of motion, in the amount of the body used, in the conductor's attitude of commanding versus inviting the orchestra to play - and in many more physical characteristics. The conductors did not speak. They simply gave the downbeat. In playing that one chord the orchestra responded with five completely different qualities of sound - surprising, but clear to everyone.

Sometimes orchestral musicians delight in distracting an inexperienced conductor, to relieve the routine of rehearsals and to find out if he really knows the score. They will look around in studied inattention, chatter to each other, complain about the lighting, and ask the conductor foolish questions about "unclear" notations in their music. With a new guest conductor, they may even play wrong notes on purpose to see if he hears the mistakes. Most important to them, they want to see if the conductor can communicate a compelling image of the music from his first downbeat to the final chords. If he doesn't, if he stops the players for unimportant errors that will correct themselves the next time through, if he doesn't hear the mistakes, or if he simply talks too much, they will go after him.

Strangely enough, these are challenges they hope to lose. At heart, the musicians do not want to master the conductor; they want to be won over. Playing well is what they have studied all their lives. It is what they long for, season after grueling season - to be respected, and yet to be compelled to play beautifully together.

And so I continued, striving to hear the music ever more vividly, hoping that the inner image would make its way to my arms and hands – and face. 

I stayed with Hermann Scherchen for two years, and during that time became better and better at concentrating and hearing the music, without the concrete sounds of an orchestra – conducting Scherchen and the other students, who "listened" and watched together. We studied each other's scores, the better to participate in the lessons. We also began to conduct for each other away from Scherchen, taking advantage of the opportunity to cover large sections or whole movements without his interruptions. We would unhesitatingly report weak spots in each other's gestures, and almost always agreed whether the one who was conducting was hearing many lines or only one. These were eerie, yet intensely musical experiences.

Scherchen's lessons usually took place at home in the quiet of his Gravesano studio, or in his private concert hall dressing rooms on the road. As he was guest-conducting a good deal, he took us with him from city to city, and gave us lessons in every kind of venue. He continually presented us with distractions to overcome. We had lessons in hotel lobbies, in train-station waiting rooms, and once on a balcony overlooking a crowded Sunday park in a Berlin suburb - very entertaining to the afternoon strollers. In a restaurant after a recording session in Vienna, I was settling into my schnitzel, when Scherchen looked over at me and commanded, "Beethoven!" I folded my napkin and stood up, quite accustomed to this by now. It took only a moment to blank out the noisy diners, the clinking glasses, and the waiters' shouts, before I heard the opening chords of the Eroica Symphony crash silently through my brain at the command of my downbeat. I continued through the entire first movement of this most dramatic work. No one in the restaurant seemed shocked or embarrassed. They were startled at first - all that intense waving - but they soon settled down to watch quietly. For reasons I still don't understand, they never seemed to take my "performance" as a trick, or as Scherchen showing off his trained animals. Maybe the fact that our group watched me with such focus communicated something to them. When it was over there was no applause, just a few smiles, perhaps to show how relieved they were that I had come through unscathed. Scherchen said he would save his comments for the next day, and invited us to order dessert.

Hermann Scherchen

Hermann Scherchen

His criticisms were always illuminating. He indicated where I had not been not clear, and remembered exactly where I had lost concentration or cued the wrong instrument. Corrections began with singing, then conducting. He would discuss the structure of our scores in detail, showing us where we needed to give particular attention to achieve emphasis or gradual transition, and others where the orchestra would best be left alone. He wanted us to understand the difference between a Haydn forte and one by Beethoven, how to determine dynamics and tempo in Bach. He was demanding and often impatient, but never harsh. We always felt that he was committed to us - devoted, even.

When we traveled with Scherchen to his concerts in Germany, France, Italy, and Switzerland, he introduced us to composers, musicians, managers, and others involved in the musical life of each city. We were included in his meetings and dinners with his family if they were traveling with him. He called us to his hotel room to talk about the history and philosophy of music as he saw it: he had read widely, and connected his music to what he had studied. Composers of every school sent him their scores, and he went over many of them with us, especially those from his upcoming concerts. He knew the music of composers from Bach and Handel, through the nineteenth century, to the most difficult music of our own time. He kept sharpening our ears, teaching us to sing difficult passages. We loved competing with each other to fill in the twelfth note of a tone row, when he had sung us the first eleven. 

And we did a lot of tasks for him, running errands at home and on the road. We made phone calls, carried his scores - I even washed his back after several concerts. It was like being apprenticed to Hans Sachs.

Once, while he and his family went on ahead by plane, I drove his old Citroen - an official sedan familiar from World War II newsreels - through Communist East Germany from Hanover to Berlin, explaining myself to skeptical guards at numerous military check points. On another occasion, he left rehearsals at La Scala, in Milan, and returned to Gravesano in anger. I was summoned to the opera's elaborately furnished board room, with its gilded ceiling and velvet arm chairs, to face the wrath of the theater director and a bunch of assistants whom Scherchen had apparently insulted. The director insisted that I get Scherchen to return and apologize. I understood his Italian, and could speak a little, but mostly I responded with an assortment of vague gestures and nods. I didn’t know exactly what the problem was, but I telephoned Scherchen, and he had cooled off enough to return. I'm sure he never apologized.