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May 16, 2014

Baton Conducting, the Conductor, Magicians and Charlatans – Classical MusicNotes

Baton Conducting
Baton Conducting

For many people, those who do not regularly attend symphony concerts or opera productions, as well as, those who love opera and classical music, the role played by the individual dressed in tails (no, not the violin or clarinet players) and holding the little baton in his or her hand is, for the most, quite strange and incomprehensible.

For, while conducting almost a hundred and sometimes even two hundred people on a concert stage or an opera house theatre, the conductor’s baton is not a “magical” prop used to perfect of this mystical craft. This instrument is, to a greater or lesser extent, necessary. But, instrumental to the success or lack of communication that must transpire between the conductor and the orchestra, choir, soloists, it is not.

It is with fond humour that I recall a newspaper article, from the days of my youth, about a colleague entitled The Maestro’s Magical Baton. For the reader of this particular regional newspaper, it conjured images of hocus-pocus amulets. The musicians greeted this kind of description with open irony for they succinctly knew whether or not their “magician” was up to tricks that particular night or whether his baton had indeed been magical during the evening’s performance.

In all truth, the skill or lack thereof of the person standing at the conductor’s podium is not due to his or her baton. For if he or she is not a true musician, then even a golden baton will not help. On the other hand, a true conductor can even do completely without a conductor’s baton.

Personally, there have been many occasions where for one reason or another, I have had to conduct without a baton. My first encounter with this was at the Kirov Opera and Ballet theatre (now Mariinski Theatre) in Leningrad in 1958 when I was going through an apprenticeship under Yuriy Temirkanov. I “caught the bug” of conducting without a baton from him.

I must immediately point out that conducting an opera performance or a symphony-cantata without a baton is possible and comfortable, if and only if, the orchestra is of an incredibly high calibre and does not require constant assistance and stimulation in keeping to the established rhythm, as well as, other basic essentials of the musical process. Without a baton, you don’t conduct, you only encourage the orchestra in this strange and, to some extent, mystical process of making music. When working with an orchestra of a somewhat lower rank, which doesn’t mean inadequate, it is difficult, even impossible, to work without a baton.

In my conductor’s experience, I have used many different batons. I can still clearly remember the thick, dirty-grey Soviet-era batons with their vaguely inked 30коп (the price). I was a student at the Conservatory during the period and I would file these batons, narrow them down and sometimes even paint them using oil-based white paint. This was very churlish process because these batons would easily and frequently break. In time, it became more convenient to order 10 or so light-weight baton’s (made from pine or lindenwood) from the opera theatre’s woodworking carpenters and then file them down to the desired feel. At that time, I was already working as a prompter at the Lviv Opera House and this request would cost me a 0,5L bottle of “Moskovskaya” with a price tag of 4руб12коп. I recall how once during the early days of Ukraine’s independence, while on tour, I took chopsticks form a Chinese restaurant, adjusted them to fit my needs and got wonderful batons – light and very strong.

The first “designer” baton (in a specially designed case!) I received as a gift from Semen Arbit, an old theatre colleague-conductor in the early 1980s. He had brought it from Paris, where he had spent almost 2 months undergoing medical treatment. I had stayed in Lviv where, in addition to my productions, I had conducted his productions (and this without any additional pay). Ironically, I never liked this skinny baton made of synthetic material. For me, it was extremely long, heavy and cumbersome. From time to time, I would conduct with it, but then, finally one day, I gifted it to a violinist, who dreamed of one day becoming a conductor. Interestingly, he did reach his dream. Did the baton help? Maybe ?

Personally, I just don’t like long and heavy batons. I don’t want to feel the baton in my hands. When I am conducting, the baton needs to become a part of me.

The conductor’s profession is surrounded in secrecy. It is an enigma. To some extent this is justified. It was not for nothing that the great conductor Arturo Toscanini had a very sceptically view of attempts to formally teach this elusive profession.

There have been in the past, there are in the present and there will be in the future many conductors. Consequently, those conductors, who have that something extra, a given talent, which is precisely what the audience, as well as, the musicians and members of the orchestra want to see and hear, are few and far between.

Not too long ago, by accident while reviewing YouTube, I chanced upon a conductor who was conducting my favourite overture from La forza del destino by G.Verdi. To my horror, he was jauntily holding a toothpick in 2 of his fingers. This, while the orchestra was “hammering out” the unfortunate Verdi.

It would seem that you can do it with a baton, without a baton, even using your nose or just your eyebrows… but only if you perform piu animato (more animated) which G.Verdi had requested in writing 23 beats before the end of the overture. Unfortunately, in the case of the toothpick wielding conductor, this was not done. Would a regular baton have helped? I doubt it.

March 15, 2014

Kavkaz (The Caucasus) – Words by Taras Shevchenko and Music by Stanislav Lyudkevych

Kavkaz (The Caucasus) – Words by Taras Shevchenko and Music by Stanislav Lyudkevych
Kavkaz (The Caucasus) – Words by Taras Shevchenko and Music by Stanislav Lyudkevych

Back in my student days, when I first came across the monumental work Kavkaz (The Caucases) by S.Lyudkevych (Liudkevych), composed in 1905, I was overtaken by disbelief that such a work was almost completely unknown in the world of music and I cherished the dream and staunch hope that, one day, I would have the opportunity to perform it. And so it came to be!

Both the energy with which the work Kavkaz (The Caucasus) is infused, as well as, the technical prowess of the composer are, without exaggeration, examples of the highest reaches in the world of music, not just for the 20th century, but beyond. For me, in particular, it is pleasant to realise and to claim this because, when I speak about the symphony-cantata Kavkaz, there is no need to resort to epithets or outpourings of sentimental patriotism.

Kavkaz is truly a work of genius. It is possible to claim this not because of locally established criteria for "patriotic" music but, indeed, according to global standards. And so, I believe that every professional conductor who happens to get a hold of this score will dream of preparing and performing this work, akin to the desire to perform L.van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, D.Verdi’s Requiem or something at this level. The time spent devoted to the preparation and performance of this type of work becomes a milestone not just in the creative sense but in many aspects in the life of a musician.

When I became acquainted with the literary lines of Shevchenko’s Kavkaz, I found myself realizing that his thoughts, his irony, his sarcasm and his postulates sound completely relevant today and it feels uncanny, even bitter, sometimes embarrassing ... Interestingly, the problems addressed over 150 years ago by Shevchenko in Kavkaz, are relevant today not only in their direct content, but strangely, even in their phenomenon as a whole.

The work’s themes are terror, violence, national oppression, humiliation while the theoretical underpinnings presented are that of “empire”, albeit in a modified or disguised form. And today, two centuries later, the same "fiend" continues to want to implement this awesome content and "plow a field on the ocean floor".

I conclude that Kavkaz, the words by Shevchenko and the music by Lyudkevych to "Champion and Overcome!" should be heard by all. And by this I mean not only in Ukraine, but all over the world.