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Orchestral Concerts: Disasters-in-Waiting

by Arthur Butterworth

MISHAPS in orchestral performance are something all players have anxiety about from time to time.

If amateur players feel nervous they are not by any means alone, for professionals not infrequently are plagued in this way too, although a year-in, year-out routine does engender a certain blasé attitude and self-confidence in much the same way as a steeplejack might regard his next day’s job of repointing a mill-chimney. Still, accidents happen on occasion even to the most competent and self-assured.

As with car-driving, the less experienced one is, the more nervous one is likely to be on a busy motorway — and being timid often makes one vulnerable. So with orchestral playing: amateur players are often anxious, scared or not quite confident of their ability to get safely through some particularly difficult passage. When, on the other hand, accidents happen to professional players the cause is more likely to be overconfidence, carelessness and not paying proper attention to what is in hand (like the young stock-broker whiz-kid deeply absorbed in fixing up a deal with Tokyo on his car-phone while negotiating a contra-flow on the M25 in the early morning rush-hour).

Of course the obvious accidents are sheer bad luck: a broken string, a key-spring coming loose, or a harp-pedal sheering off - but then think of organists and all the awful possibilities of mechanical malfunctions in their instruments! It is not often that the listener is really aware of the many trivial accidents that befall professional orchestral performances: fluffed entries. split notes, coming in at the wrong place, wrong transpositions (horn players and trumpeters are especially prone to this), not watching the beat (or what is far more likely — the character on the box not giving the right beat in the right place!) Somehow, most of these heart-thumping near-misses go unnoticed. But not always.

What seems certain is that the players concerned in incidents of this kind NEVER

forget even years afterwards. I have several such horror stories in my dark cupboard of memory and can thus never hear the works concerned without being painfully aware of the disaster which once struck at this or that point. Such is the slow movement of the Symphony no 2 in D by Sibelius when as trumpeters in 1949, my colleague and I both failed to come in at the very climax, leaving a deafening silence —and attracting threatening KGB-like looks from the conductor that suggested we might spend the next decade or two in some nightmarish musical Lubianka. The next week we both made up for it (in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra) by coming in fortississimo on a high unison 'A' a bar too soon! This long-suffering conductor had a long memory. Whenever we played the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz be would invariably turn to the second violins with an acid smile and say to a second desk player, ‘Now, Mr Coia, remember to watch me this time!’ — recalling a little misunderstanding of fifteen years earlier.

But for all that players are sometimes at fault, their shortcomings are as nothing compared to those of conductors. (Conducting is a hazardous and nerve-wracking job - that is why (did you not know?) big-time conductors are paid such vast fees: it is danger money they get for doing the job!] I have made quite a few stupid mistakes in my time — ridiculous, quite inexcusable incidents: missing a beat here, putting in one-too-many there, and so on. Players, by and large, take all this in their stride and are generous in not holding it against you. But really duff conductors don’t get away with it for long, not with a professional orchestra anyway. One safe — well, anyway, good —escape is to keep the beat going by doing a kind of circular motion like a ringmaster flaying his whip round when commanding the big cats at the circus. The players can choose which part of the circle to latch on to (not that they will all latch on to the same part of the circle, mark you, but there can be no court of inquiry afterwards, since it all looks efficient enough — and the audience likes the balletic display anyway).

Conducting from memory is a debatable point: the objectors to this practice maintain that the great conductors of the past never showed off in this manner, but relied on having the aide memoire of the score in front of them on every occasion no matter how well they knew it from memory. However, there is a valid reason for dispensing with the score if at all possible and it is this: when using a score a conductor inevitably has to divide his attention between it and the players. The score is in effect a large book, whose pages be must turn on average every ten bars or so. Now this act of turning over the pages is not merely a lot of wasted effort: it results in lack of attention to the players. A conductor ought really to be so familiar with the score that for all practical purposes he does indeed know it from memory. If the score is there at all in performance it is primarily as an adjunct to memory and in case anything goes seriously wrong (though what help can this really be, other than to stop and start again?).

The presence of the score can tempt the conductor to rely on it too heavily when he ought really to be concentrating so thoroughly that it becomes merely a hindrance. The score and the stand also do tend to get —in the way of a clear beat and that intimate, subtle communication between conductor and players. Without them the conductor can then communicate by eye contact with the players all the time — unless, of course, like Karajan, he prefers to close his eyes and commune only with himself and ignore the well-drilled players (who, in the Berlin Orchestra of his day never seemed to need him anyway, since they had played the programmes so often that he had probably become surplus to requirements).

The other essentially practical reason for dispensing with the score is that of eyesight. If you are still fortunate enough not to have to wear spectacles that’s a great advantage, but if you do need them, then that presents conductors with a dilemma, since good vision for the score more often than not means that the players’ faces become a blur, though given that in concert the conductor should not need to read the score in detail (referring to it only for a reminder of broad outlines), a clear vision of the players’ faces is probably more important.

The fashion now is, of course, for all the young whiz-kids to conduct from memory, and their feat is certainly admirable,

Toscanini, one of the greatest of all 20th century maestri, could do no other than conduct from memory since his eyesight was abominably poor (on the other hand, Sir Adrian Boult never conducted without a score). However, though I once made a practice of dispensing with a score for many things, now I generally have it front of me even if the work is very familiar. I came to this decision because I felt that with amateur players particularly this gave a sense of corporate security, and perhaps the ultimate performance benefits as a result.

One conductor I used to play for had indeed a quite phenomenal memory and it rarely let him down; but it did on one occasion in spectacular fashion. The first movement of the César Franck Symphony in D minor bowls along with great gusto - two-in-a-bar - until the big reprise which suddenly puts the brakes on (as if one were hitting a sudden hold-up in a motorway fog) and goes into a very solid four-in-a-bar.

On this occasion he forgot, and went on in overdrive. There was utter chaos. The next morning the distinguished critic in a national newspaper wrote:'...the woodwind whinnied, the brass huffed and puffed, the strings scratched and scraped, the percussion bashed away for all they were worth, but no one knew where they were, least of all the conductor, who, ashen-faced, tried to sort out the mess........'.

Some years later at the Royal Festival Hall, one of the most revered and distinguished of all conductors came to grief in the first few bars of a new work being given its very first performance. There was little he could do but to stop and start again. Before doing so, he courageously turned to the audience and said, with the grave courtesy of a First Lord of the Admiralty announcing to the nation that we had just lost five battleships owing to enemy action, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I very much regret to say that the blame for this inexcusable misunderstanding is mine and mine alone; the orchestra is in no way to be held responsible for this disastrous incident; accordingly we will begin the symphony again’. This incident was never forgotten by the powers-that-be with the result that this conductor was never again entrusted with a first performance, though he still remained in the public eye and conducted many concerts after that.

The most hilarious accident occurred in Newcastle one dull, routine Sunday afternoon. The concert had not even really begun … there was a certain panache about the playing of the National Anthem but as the very last nobilmente chord rang out fortissimo one of the leather thongs with which the player grasps the clashed cymbals — held flamboyantly high above his head - snapped. ‘DOING, DOING. borng.. boing.. boing.. burlburluroing.. oing.. oing.. brurp.. brruurp.. gedoi-oi-oi-oi-oing... — it rolled down the steps at the side of the stage. Then the concert started.

Arthur Butterworth © November 2003


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