Must great conductors be control freaks?
After the first of two Proms by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, last night at the RAH, I'm wondering about what a great conductor can teach us about how to run things.
Because running things, in general, is not the strong point of the planet right now. As you know, institutions of all kinds are mired in hesitation, disagreement, argument, ideology, trumped-up fears re political correctness, and so forth – a situation that puts our ideals and long-established triumphs (like the NHS and the BBC) in jeopardy. We need some life lessons from music: when it works as wonderfully as this, why does it do so? What are they doing right? What general principles can we extrapolate from that that might give us a helping hand somewhere else?
There is no other orchestra that I run to hear, whatever they’re doing, wherever they’re doing it. With the Budapest Festival Orchestra I don’t look at the programme; I just go. Because it’ll be fantastic. And they’ve never let me down yet. Their founder and conductor, Iván Fischer, has a mesmerising platform presence, like Kastschai the magician, and a feel for both the bigger picture and minute detail that is many cuts above your average concert experience.
The Schubert was dark as night, with hushed tremolandi through which one held one’s breath and soft solos peering over the edge of the emotional ravine. Each section of the orchestra is so unified that it sounds like one super-instrument, whether the double-basses – ranged in a row along and above the back of the orchestra, providing a wonderful solid foundation for the sound – or the most delicate of first violin sections, poised in the long notes of the second movement as if hanging suspended in outer space (a notorious bow-shake moment, but not a hint of that here). They even went on to play the fragment of scherzo that Schubert left behind – fascinating indeed, though it proved to be an idea that doesn’t share the quality of the existing movements and was possibly abandoned for a good reason.
The control was absolute, as if Fischer were a pianist, playing the ensemble the way a deep-thinking virtuoso would the finest Steinway. The BFO seems to be Orchestra Fischer in the way that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is Orchestra Barenboim: an ensemble so finely attuned to its conductor that every flicker of thought is noted and responded to, the understanding entire and unanimous. When tiny things did go wrong, as happened perhaps once or twice (possibly thanks to the awkward acoustic on the RAH stage, which can take some getting used to), it was audible because everything else was, to put it bluntly, perfect.
Now, this sort of near-perfection doesn’t happen by itself. This is a conductor in utter control of every last detail. Only by being, essentially, a control freak can a musician achieve this degree of finesse and unanimity. Take the true greats, like Carlos Kleiber: those who have seen his scores tell me that they are minutely annotated, with phenomenal detail and exactitude. Take Debussy’s manuscripts: to create that glorious whole, full of colours and atmosphere, takes vast and analytical precision during creation.
So to do something worthwhile, to say something worth saying, to put across the message that is worth hearing, takes two things: the vision to create it, and the control to make it happen. A great conductor, therefore, is of necessity a visionary control-freak. A benign and hopefully enlightened dictator. One who works his players very, very hard – with players who are willing to work as hard as that. It can’t be otherwise if you want the results to be as good as what we heard last night.
More than one conductor has said to me in interviews, when I’ve asked them about this aspect of their profession, that the idea of a democratic model in musical interpretation just doesn’t work. I still hope someone will come along and prove them wrong – later this autumn I’m hoping to visit Spira Mirabilis in Italy, for example, to see how they have built their alternative model.
But until someone can prove otherwise, the evidence is that great interpretations come from musicians of genius, and that if such a figure is to get his/her message through an orchestra, he/she has to persuade the players to give, and to surrender.
I think that is what happens in the BFO. Of course, it is also unique in another respect: its players are mostly Hungarian and share a specific background and training with one another and with Fischer. (There seems to be one exception: a name in the brass section that can only be Irish.) This is the exact opposite of an organisation such as the World Orchestra for whatever-it-is – somehow I can’t buy into the Peace thing right now – which now and then brings together players from all over the world who do not usually work together, with end results that can be exciting one-offs in their own way. The BFO, by contrast, is as tight an ensemble as a top string quartet. The two approaches are like the proverbial chalk and cheese.
Conductors of Fischer’s calibre do not grow on trees, of course, and he is one of just a handful of living conductors whom I, personally, would run to hear at every possible opportunity (the others are Barenboim, Jansons, Nelsons and Rattle). But can these visionary, galvanising, strong-willed characters set a model for world leadership? Dictators in politics tend to be a very bad thing indeed, because they are rarely benign, rarely functioning as they do for the sake of something greater than themselves. Our maestri have (we hope) the composer’s interest at heart, rather than those of their wealthy cronies or crooked party donors – yes, you have to please the sponsors when you’re off the platform, and don’t we know it, but once you are doing your job, that must be left aside. If you are performing great music, you won’t be cornered into using your own strength to push someone else’s dubious agenda when actually in the flow of your artistic creation. There’s room on the concert platform for visionary thinking and the realising of its finest dreams. We could use something similar on the world stage too: leaders with altruistic vision and control-freakery to devote to making it a reality.
Dream on… But meanwhile, come and hear the BFO and Fischer tonight, when their second Prom involves Brahms’s third and fourth symphonies.