"The National Arts Centre Orchestra have graciously put themselves at our disposal," David Zinman, "renowned international conductor and pedagogue," announced to the audience attending his "workshop for young conductors" in Southam Hall at the NAC this Monday. The audience, including a row of music students at the back, didn't have to buy a ticket for this open rehearsal. As we took our seats, the orchestra was practising like mad, in mufti, most of them wearing jeans, and when the rehearsal got going they played for four hours.
The first turn was taken by the young man from Japan, So Awatsuji of Japan, who brought in the orchestra in dramatic style, using big arm movements. He was good! The maestro was sitting in the orchestra at the back of the 2nd violins, wearing a microphone, advised him on his tempi and told him to relax.
The second participant, Georgios Balatsinos from Greece, conducted the same music but more sedately, using a baton. More criticism from Mr. Zinman here: "Why don't you help the basses a bit? Look at the basses to keep them moving, because they're pulling it back." He complained that Mr. Balatsinos was giving three different tempi, when there was no need for that. "If the modifications are too big, you can get into trouble," he warned him.
The next item, Haydn's Symphony No. 88, has running passages for the double basses that would be easy to lose control of. Vinay Parameswarvan (assistant conductor of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, although he said that he came from San Francisco) whose name Mr. Zinman couldn't quite pronounce, was the conductor on the podium this time. He too used a baton.
"You're still holding the stick up!" his tutor protested. "Give more energy to the upbeat."
Again there were difficulties with tempo. "The problem for me is that you're not quite sure what tempo you want. You're kind of hedging your bets. Make your upbeat crisper. That's what's slowing them down."
He stopped the music again. "What would you tell the strings here?" he asked. "How should they articulate? It's a technical question."
The young man was flummoxed and didn't know what to say.
"Come off the slur sooner!" was the answer.
To me, watching the masterclass, the key component in good conducting seems to be self-confidence, but how can you acquire that until you've become utterly familiar with the music and have mastered the technical skills required? The trouble is, music being a non-verbal art, it's extremely hard to describe what's required for a great performance in words. Therefore Mr. Zinman could only convey an approximation of his ideas. At one point he took the baton from the young man's hand and demonstrated what he wanted.
"There has to be more contrast in what you're doing, otherwise the orchestra just doesn't watch any more."
The last participant in the workshop, Francesco Lecce-Chong, an associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, had an elegant style of conducting, making circular rather than straight up and down movements with his hands. But this conductor, too, was encouraged to relax more: "If you have the right tempo, just let it happen, let them play!"
He required "a little more 2nd oboe––just look at her, to say this is important." But later the woodwind section needed to be "less espressivo, so that all the focus goes to the 'cellos."
Difficult parts of the music had to be repeated over and over, but the maestro made encouraging remarks: "They're playing it better every time."
They took a much-needed break half way through the rehearsal and I bought a coffee in the foyer with one of my NAC coupons. Then we watched the promising Japanese conductor again, dancing with his arms through the 3rd movement of the Haydn. Mr. Zinman said that in the trio section the bassoons ought to sound more "like bagpipes. Bring out the raw sound." He was asked to "make it crisper ... do you know what that means? Like rice crispies!" The young man laughed and nodded. "Add spice to the sound!"
Sometimes he wanted the trainees to more explicit to the orchestra about their performance. "They're using too much bow here; they can't stay together." Or, "They're not playing the rests."
"When you start this movement [now the last movement of Haydn's 88th] you must look at the bassoons. They're not quite sure what you're doing, so they do their best, but ..."
"Are you happy with this tempo? The bassoon's not with you ..." The bassoonist was coming in for a lot of attention so Mr. Zinman mollified him by saying, "He's a wonderful player, actually." He explained what he meant about the problem. "The strings are pushing, the bassoon's pulling––split the difference!"
The expert was clearly fond of Haydn's music and wanted perfection. "This has to be furioso, so keep them furious!" ... "Haydn would shoot you for that! It doesn't make sense to slow down!"... "The strings could play twice as loud––get them to play their guts out! Bring the house down!" And finally, at an easier passage, the music was allowed to happen by itself: "When you get there, don't beat at all, just let them play, like kids let out of school."