“The Maestro Complex” Part 1.

Posted by jlubans on May 10, 2012

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Caption: Vivian Hagner
While in New York city in April I had the pleasure of observing the violinist Viviane Hagner rehearse with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. She was their guest soloist for a performance at Carnnegie Hall. If you follow this blog, you know that the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (composed of between 25 -40 musicians depending on the piece of music) plays without a conductor. There is no boss. The players make all musical decisions (tone, mood, interpretation, tempo, etc.) Each musician is free to offer well-considered and well-informed commentary within the rehearsal time frame. The collective goal is an outstanding performance. While I have written extensively about their democratic process, I always find fresh insights at each rehearsal about their unique way of making decisions.
One of my on-the-road reads was “What Do Conductors Do?” by Justin Davidson, New York magazine’s music critic. He tells - a la George Plimpton or maybe, Walter Mitty – of his adventures in conducting the Juilliard School of Music student orchestra. Not a rank amateur, Mr. Davidson is a student of music and once conducted a few of his own compositions in college. And, he spent two months diligently preparing, with two Juilliard conducting coaches, before taking wand in hand for the 6-minute overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Still, Mr. Davidson is to be admired for his adventurous spirit and frame-by-frame analysis of how he did it. You can see a brief video of what happened at this link.
My interest in his story was more about how he led the orchestra than his musical interpretation of Mozart. The anxiety, the “Maestro Complex,” he feels about his leadership - that “the person responsible for the totality of sound produces none” - probably is similar to that of a work group meeting for the first time with a new manager or leader. The workers, just like the musicians, are thinking: “Does this person know what he is doing? Can we have confidence, trust in his leadership? And, the leader shares in the uncertainty: “How am I coming across? Am I being clear about my expectations? Are these people on board with my leadership? Will we excel or muddle along?”
There are multiple theories about how much we should involve workers in decisions about getting the job done. Some managers prefer to direct the worker – the expert manager knows more (he or she certainly believes that) than anyone else therefore it is for him or her to make all the decisions. Others, less certain about knowing it all, take a more democratic approach and expect the worker to have ideas on how to do a better job. While this manager “lets go”, he or she is no different from the micromanager in wanting results. In my experience, a manager’s genuinely “letting go” results in more innovation and higher productivity than does the omniscient micromanager.
The conductor, as a highly visible leader, gives us insights into the process of leadership and followership. Conducting is not karaoke – a version of singing along. In a live musical performance the conductor is literally a beat ahead of the orchestra. The orchestra follows. Like what a dancing instructor told me: “On the dance floor, good leaders initiate the movement they want from their partner and then follow the movement they've created.” That’s sort of like it is between the conductor and the musician. What’s unknown is how much input the musicians have had in the decision making prior to the performance; how much collaboration has gone on among the musicians and between them and the conductor in developing the interpretation and delivery of the music. Lots, some or none?
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Caption: Orpheus at ease.
Today’s rehearsal, at the Kraft Center on W. 115th Street, was Ms. Hagner’s first time playing with Orpheus
Ms. Hagner rehearsed two pieces: Henry Vieuxtemps’ Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor and Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 in F Major.
I got there late, but soon after I sat down and listened, I was captivated by the bel canto quality of Ms. Hagner’s playing. I use the operatic term "beautiful singing" deliberately because it has multiple meanings about musical depth, breadth and range. The term fits what I heard: a lightness and richness, transcending and soaring alongside that of the orchestra.
Ms. Hagner, in jeans, sweater and flat shoes, plays with energy, rising up on her toes, moving about, playing toward the orchestra. (Good naturadly, a violinist reminds her that she should face front, not toward the orchestra. I think she was enjoying the collaboration so much that it was natural to turn to the orchestra.) I picked up on what must have been an immediate camaraderie – a liking and trusting of each other. (That said, I discovered during the 2.5 hour rehearsal Ms. Hagner's unstated charm that draws people to her.)
Today’s concert master (and first violin – for both pieces was Martha Caplin.
As the concertmaster, she is in charge of the “core”, the group of 4 or 5 musicians who make pre-rehearsal musical decisions. And, as concertmaster, she led and facilitated today's rehearsal. She is not, however, the only voice offering guidance and direction. At Orpheus ideas can come from any section of the orchestra.
Along with their patented forms of giving and sharing of information with each other – “say it, play it, sing it” -I have often seen Orpheus musicians stop playing and go out into the rehearsal hall to listen to the music. Today at least a half dozen players took turns to stand, a few steps behind me, and listen intently – score in hand. Then the musician describes what he or she heard and makes suggestions on what needs to be improved in the overall sound, pace and balance. Or, it can be a request to develop a less quantifiable quality, more nuanced, such as making the music “more sensitive” or “less mushy.” During the Beethoven piece an observer offered: “(The sound is) not as convincing; it should be darker, richer.”
Nor was Viviane reluctant to offer her ideas: At one point: (That was) “a little thick, get more air in the sound.” At another, she tells them, “That was good, that was great – we got it. One more time.” Shortly after, there is a mess up, but it results in good humor, not any blaming or finger pointing. Everyone wants the piece to work. That is what drives the discussion and decision-making; it is not one interpretation competing for first place. Rather the discussion, the back and forth, is about making the most of this musical piece. The process is collaborative; no one player has the answer. Instead the answer evolves, builds as the group rehearses and talks about it, tweaking, improving, and clarifying.
The group is having so much fun that Ronnie Bausch, a veteran member of Orpheus, admonishes: “Let’s do it for real; too many jokes, asides; now, all together.” The result gets applause.
Making decisions like this – typically the realm of the musical director - means knowing the ins and outs of the music, literally “knowing the score”. Each musical selection has at least a dozen or more Orpheans who hear the entire work, not just the sound his or her section makes. It is this shared overview (the big picture) that leads to the performance the orchestra wants. It is Orpheus’ unique sound.
At rehearsal’s end, I asked Ms. Hagner, “Did you miss having a conductor make decisions?” She smiled, “I did not miss one today.”
(Part 2 of "Maestro Complex" is here.)

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