"Mummy, who is that man standing in front of the orchestra having a public fit"? And how important is what we see the man on the podium doing, as opposed to what we hear.When I asked Leopold Stokowsky the latter question, he of all people, answered that music was for hearing, not seeing, the look of the conductor was not important.
We concert-goers spend a lot of time watching the conductor and his movements and behaviour, so I think it matters how the conductor looks. Perhaps Stokowsky had got hold of the wrong end of the stick!I wish I could make a film of several conductors giving the upbeat to, say, Beethoven 5 or Don Juan of Strauss. They would all look different: lunges, swoops, all sorts of movements, Richard Strauss might just lift a finger, Beecham slashes from his knees upwards, Harty might nod or wink, Albert Coates lead with his backside, Furtwangler's hands wobble towards the penultimate button of his waistcoat, Gergiev look like a sufferer from Parkinson's disease - they would all look different for sure. If you asked all these conductors how they would get the orchestra to start, I don't suppose they could have told you.
Orchestras with resident conductors get to know their various methods and gestures, sometime painful to watch, like Rudolf Schwarz whose body had suffered in a concentration camp. His upbeat could come from behind his back or under his armpit. As a guest conductor at Bournemouth, Charles Groves stood with arms wide apart about to conduct the overture to Euryanthe; a fly settled on his nose so his left arm moved to wipe it off. The orchestra started.
The gestures of the man on the podium can means a lot to the audience. Beecham's courtly movements in Mozart or Haydn could let the audience see how a phrase should go. Strauss was quite undemonstrative but I remember that when he opened his arms the sound in the Albert Hall nearly caused the roof to cave in. Certainly if the conductor gives no indication of a climax the audience can feel disappointed.
On the other hand showing too much emotion can be boring and an audience quickly senses if a conductor is insincere or playing to the gallery. Sargent sometimes gave this impression with an orchestra although with a choir he was thrilling and at his best.
These thoughts were brought to light by a performance of the suite from Prokofiev's War & Peace, LPO under Vladimir Jurowsky. In more than sixty years concert going I have never seen a conductor whose body language showed such pleasure in what he was doing. Jurowsky positively adored Prokofieve's score. It was not distracting but enchanting; his joy was contagious. I felt 'I could have danced all night'.
Blake proclaimed 'Damn braces: bless relaxes' so it is never Peace and War, always the other way round. And so, October 3, 4 and 5 we had programmes in a mini-series called War and Peace, the battlefield being the Royal Festival Hall and there was a brace of orchestras being doves and hawks, The London Philharmonic and the Russian National, the whole thought up and conducted by one man, Vladimir Jurowsky. He was late musical director at Glyndebourne and now continuing to be a frequent visitor on the podium of the LPO. Still youngish he is absolutely first-class and imaginative as a builder of programmes.
Britain was at war in 1940 when the young Britten (27 years old and living in the USA) submitted his Sinfonia da Requiem - written in memory of his parents - in response to a commission from the Japanese for a work celebrating the 2600th year of the states founding. It was naïf of him of course it was not acceptable. But the work is a masterly piece, full of new wonderful sounds.
This opening salvo was followed by Walton's first master work, his 1929 Viola Concerto, written by a young man in love with an older woman, well-constructed (the concerto and, who knows, possibly woman too) and full of a beautiful poignancy and bitter sweetness. Lawrence Power lived up to his name and added tenderness. The first of the programmes was topped off by a suite for orchestra of excerpts of Prokofiev's War and Peace, first and welcome performance in this country, I think. Jurowsky conducted it with evident and youthful relish, positively caressing the delightful music.
Next evening the Russian Orchestra took over, beginning with the Sixth Symphony of Vaughan Williams, first unleashed in 1947 when the composer was over seventy years of age. Aggression is present in this work, although it is utterly different from the aggression of his Fourth Symphony. The fingerprints of RVW are there too but the music sounds as if it might come from another planet. The effect was overwhelming I found hearing the symphony after a twenty year gap. The RVW was paired with the Symphony No. 5 by Prokofiev. He conducted his work himself in 1944 and it contains at least fifty good tunes. Curious that Prokofiev and Stravinsky who rarely composed tunes were often bracketed together in name.
On the third night the platform was crowded with over 125 players as the Russian National and LPO joined forces, first of all taking a whack at the 1812 Overture. It was a joyful shindig that could probably be heard in Nizhny Novgorod. Tchaikovsky was in two minds about the overture. First he said he thought it was a poor piece then changed his mind later. True it is episodic - but it works and the moment where the tubular bells enter was truly gala (no cannons incidentally).
It was strange to follow 1812 with Brittan's Dowland take on Lachrymae, rather like putting a thatch cottage beside the Taj Mahal.The giant finale was the Leningrad Symphony of Shostabovich; nice bits but OMG is it long, brilliant playing but it was a relief when Dmitri hammered home the prolonged series of final cadences (he always made the sensible point of waking up the commissars with a bang or two.)