Distilling the Soul of the Composer

At a Tent Club Q&A session on Wednesday, someone asked our conductor John Oliver, “What is the purpose of the conductor?” Rather than focus on the mechanics, like “beating time” or “keeping everyone together,” John’s answer was more profound. “The purpose of the conductor,” he said without even pausing to think, “is to distill the soul of the composer, and give it the orchestra, chorus, and soloists so they can communicate it to the audience through the piece.”

Throughout my stay at Tanglewood this week, I’m finding many applications for that statement during our rehearsals as we prepare two Verdi opera excerpts and Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.  It applies at three levels: the mechanics, the emotions, and the message.

The Mechanics

At an almost superficial level, it’s about what the composer wanted tactically within the music. Our conductors have been excellent at giving us technical details to further their interpretations.  Maestro Honeck is very clear about the placidity he wants at the chorus’s entrance in the Mahler, asking us to dramatically de-emphasize all the German consonants and maintain even dynamics and flow — it goes against all our instincts for singing German!  Maestro Lacombe for the Verdi has worked intensely with us to capture the character of each chorus, which is particularly tricky given Aida has bad-guy priests demanding blood, broken prisoners pleading for clemency, and victorious citizens celebrating.  He’s made the priests’ sound darker and more biting.  He’s asked us in the prisoners chorus to watch him closely for rubato to better shape our cry for pity.  He’s turned the people’s chorus into a baseline for the other choruses, asking for precision in consonant placements and dynamics, while bringing out subtle rhythms to maintain the driving pulse of the piece.

All of these adjustments are de rigueur for the week of Tanglewood.  I’ve always accepted them as part of the process, as the means by which the conductor shares his vision of the piece with us.  But never before have I done so with the broader purpose in mind; that if the conductor is giving us his interpretation, who is he interpreting?  It’s not just the notes and dynamics on the page, it’s what the composer wanted when he captured that music onto paper.

The Emotions

At a deeper level, it’s about the emotional interpretation of the music and what we want to deliver.

The lovely melody of Va, Pensiero from Nabucco is deceivingly simple, and it’s easy to get carried away lustily singing it.  Remembering that it’s a chorus of Hebrew slaves lamenting their exile from their homeland tempers that notion.  Mechanically, you sing more sotto voce, you shape phrases to avoid outbursts, you hold back until the third stanza’s fortissimo to give more impact to your lament to the fate-seers about times gone by.  But that’s all in service of the emotion.  Emotionally, you need a hushed reverence, an unquenched longing for what cannot be, that must carry through the entire piece.

The Mahler is all about emotion at the end, and I’ve written before about the musical orgasm of the finale, as you pour forth every ounce of your being into a joyous crescendo, a tidalwave of sound that overwhelms the audience.  We will rise again!  It’s almost impossible not to be affected listening to this piece.  My wife and I get goose bumps in the car just listening to a recording.  Here, too, though, there are subtleties before that moment, which Maestro is giving us.  Rubato again, but to signify the wings we win, to the point where we can visualize a feather darting back and forth in an uplifting wind.  The utmost silence of the opening is now a vehicle for the soloist to rise out of, her part splitting from the chorus and ascending just like the resurrection we sing about 5 minutes later.  Lots of neat colors are being painted with the music that I’ve not experienced as part of this piece before.

The Message

At its deepest level, I’m realizing how important it is to study the composer himself; what his life was like, the circumstances of his composition at the time, his comments about the work to peers. I’d always enjoyed reading about that anyways, purely out of my own interest. But I never really consciously consumed that with the intent of better delivering the message to the audience.

Verdi’s wife and small children had just died when he wrote Va, Pensiero.  What mindset must he have been in to pen this song of loss of one’s love, be it country or family?  How was he representing his loss through the chorus of the Hebrew Slaves?  

Mahler was obsessed with death; it’s no wonder the first movement of the 2nd Symphony is this threatening, funereal march to the grave. Moreover, he was a Jew who converted to Christianity. Before that conversion from Judaism, there was no afterlife for him. So the 2nd Symphony’s emotional center is the 4th movement’s “Urlicht” about the promise of heaven, before he celebrates that resurrection in the final movement, first quietly and then with raucous joy.  The music’s emotion is unmistakeable, but in the umpteen times I’ve performed this piece, I’ve never thought about the childlike wonder of a composer who is exploring, perhaps for the first time musically, the concept of salvation from the death he had brooded about for the first half of his life?

Artist’s interpretation

Somewhere while wandering through art museums, I picked up a notion that I hadn’t heard before: once a work of art is submitted to the public, it is no longer about what the artist intended when he created the work.  It is about the art community’s interpretation of the work.  Never mind what Picasso had in mind whenever he painted bizarre portraits of his lover–he relinquishes ownership of its meaning.

Perhaps that is as true in music as it is in the visual arts.  But since music is digested through performances, there is a more active element involved, one that mandates a translator.  The conductor is our view into the composer’s soul.  I can only hope to be a contributing puzzle piece to achieve that vision and bring people into the moment, to extend that composer’s vision to their lives.

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