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Music as Alchemy - review

The age of the super conductor.

Music as Alchemy: Journeys With Great Conductors and Their Orchestras
Tom Service
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £18.99

At every orchestral concert there is a lone figure standing on a podium. He communicates only through gestures and facial expressions, turning a series of notes on a page into an immersive sonic experience. For a performance truly to come alive, it needs someone who is both separate from yet also part of it, able to weave a multitude of musical voices together into a coherent whole. That someone is the conductor.

For as long as people have made music together, there have been conductors and the practice of conducting has changed little over time. For instance, documents from Sumer dating from 3000 BC list 64 female slaves at a temple, with one girl “in charge of supervising the choir” and another who rehearses the singers. In the Middle Ages, cheironomy was the name given to the art of directing music through hand movements, indicating the shape and flow of a melodic line to singers.

Gradually, conductors began using tools to communicate – rolled-up scrolls of paper, sticks and long staffs. The 17th-century French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was perhaps the most celebrated practitioner of beating time on the floor, which he did with such zeal that on one occasion he punctured his foot with his conducting staff; he subsequently caught gangrene and died.

As composers emerged from the shadows of their patrons in the early 19th century, conducting became a celebrity activity. Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Liszt were not only famed performer-composers, directing orchestras from behind a piano; now they also stood in front of their players as the focal point of musical activity. Then, with the birth of the recording industry came a new breed: “super conductors” such as Otto Klemperer, Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler, who ruled with total authority. The conductor was king.

Tom Service aims to show us how conductors and their orchestras weave their brand of musical magic. He is a classical music journalist and broadcaster and Music as Alchemy, his first book, is brimming with enthusiasm. Service’s passion is evident from the opening page, as he feverishly recounts the first orchestral concert he attended, aged seven. Taking that initial love affair as his starting point, he explores six of today’s great conductor-orchestra pairings, from the painstaking, finely honed genius of Simon Rattle and his Berliner Philharmoniker to the madcap, seat-of-the-pants electricity of the performances of Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Orchestras, argues Service, are not onlymusical machines for reproducing the canonof western art music for the audience’s gratification. They are also barometers of social andpolitical change. A ruthless maestro such as Herbert von Karajan was a product of the Nazi era, shouting at his musicians from the podium at the same time as Hitler was screaming hatred to the wider world.

Now that we like our politicians and our societies a little less totalitarian, conductors and orchestras have had to change, too. The players of Berlin, for instance, have had to embrace 21st-century repertoire, unlocked from the stranglehold of their Austro-German past by Rattle. The musicians of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam declare that they will not put up with back-breaking schedules or bolshy egomaniacs on the podium. Ina post-deferential era, conductors must engage with their players and with society, through education and community projects. Today, a maestro must earn respect, not demand it.

The one quality all six of Service’s subjects share is a tendency towards obsession and workaholism. Gergiev is a human whirlwind, rehearsing in one country in the morning and conducting in another the same evening. He requires private jets as well as commercial flights to fulfil his schedule. Mariss Jansons, we discover, once had a heart attack on the podium in Oslo but kept conducting Puccini’s La Bohème even after he’d collapsed.

These insights, though, are not from the mouths of the conductors themselves. Despite Service’s best efforts to coax his maestros into demystifying their art, none of them elucidates the fundamental question of what makes an exceptional, alchemical conductor. “If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music,” said the composer-conductor Gustav Mahler.

But this is an isolated disappointment in an otherwise excellent book. Service blends in-depth musical understanding and analysis with an armchair conductor’s enthusiasm and VIP access to rehearsals. The result is fascinating – part concert review, part interview series, part philosophical quest, as Service explores why orchestral music has such power and how a group of musicians can harness it.

At the centre of it all is the conductor: the only silent participant in the noisy adventure of live orchestral performance. He has perfected
a kind of timeless choreography that plays out night after night. This book shows us how, through the efforts of this shamanic figure, live music can be simply good enough or, sometimes, utterly electrifiying.

Suzy Klein is a presenter for BBC Radio 3

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future