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Music as Alchemy [Englisch] [Taschenbuch]

Tom Service

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4. September 2014
How are conductors' silent gestures magicked into sound by a group of more than a hundred brilliant but belligerent musicians? The mute choreography of great conductors has fascinated and frustrated musicians and music-lovers for centuries, from Toscanini to Karajan, from Carlos Kleiber to Gustavo Dudamel. Orchestras can be inspired to the heights of musical and expressive possibility by their maestros, or flabbergasted that someone who doesn't even make a sound should be elevated to demigod-like status by the public. This is the first book to go inside the rehearsal rooms of some of the most inspirational orchestral partnerships in the world. It's the first to see how Simon Rattle works with his musicians at the Berlin Philharmonic, how Mariss Jansons deals with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, and how Claudio Abbado creates the world's most luxurious pick-up band every year with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. From London to Budapest, Bamberg to Vienna, great orchestral concerts are recreated as a collection of countless human and musical stories. The book reveals how the catalysts of place, time, and personal history are alchemised into the indelible magic of life-changing performances.


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Tom Service writes about music for the Guardian, where he was Chief Classical Music Critic, and broadcasts for BBC Radio 3. He has presented Radio 3's flagship magazine programme, Music Matters, since 2003. He was the inaugural recipient of the ICMP/CIEM Classical Music Critic of the Year Award, and was Guest Artistic Director of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. After years practising in the mirror, he once conducted Bruckner's Ninth Symphony.

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5.0 von 5 Sternen interesting and insightful look at conductors and their orchestras 5. August 2012
Von John K. Gayley - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe|Verifizierter Kauf
This is a fun and informative book. I initially read about it through a review in the "Economist" magazine. The book starts with an obsession of the author to answer questions "how do conductors do what they do? How do they create magic on the podium by conveying their interpretations of the music to the orchestras (and then to us as the audience?)".

What we learn is a fascinating combination of the art of vision...and (more importantly) the art of communication and empathy. By the end of the book, your view on what creates the "alchemy" has been balanced to reflect both the efforts of various conductors as well the enormous part played by the the traditions, organizational stucture and temperments of individual orchestras. Indeed, in an age where all (or most) of the marketing focuses on the guy on the podium, the role of the orchestra was the most important corrective I found in the book. Conductors can wave their arms all they want, but if they can't get the orchestra to go along with them...who cares about their charisma?

Service does a good job in intermixing his firsthand observations, interviews with conductors, and interviews with orchestra members. Understandably, much of his description of this interaction centers on the rehearsals. I found it fascinating. I once heard an interview with Sir John Barbirolli in which he said aspiring conductors need to reconcile themselves to lives that are " an inexorable grind", as they learn the music and develop a point of view and then figure out how to convey it to orchestras. (although perhaps more politely expressed), there is nothing here to refute what Glorious John said those 50 years ago.

The 6 conductors and orchestras Tom Service chose as the focus represent a fair bandwidth of the current greats, as well as one (relative) up and-comer:

--Valery Gergiev, London Symphony
--Maris Janssons, Amsterdam Concertgebouw
--Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic
--Jonathan Nott, Bamberg Symphony
--Ivan Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra
--Claudio Abbado, Lucerne Festival Orchestra

For me, some of the most significant 'a-has' were in his descriptions of how the orchestras were organized, their traditions and their governance, and how that impacts their relationships with the conductors. Unless you've really paid attention to this aspect of music-making, this is not something you'd especially be attuned to, but it clearly does make a difference. One of the more striking points made is the difference between "ongoing" orchestras with a very long tradition, and "festival" orchestras that are in effect glorious pickup bands. He may not have intended this, but some of his most ironic comments (if I can call them that) come from describing the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, and the seeming difficulty they had getting their collective heads around Sir Simon Rattles' desire to play all 7 of the Sibelius symphonies (i.e., music insufficently in the mainstream of the German tradition, Finns inscrutable anyway, etc etc).

If there is one cavil I have about the book (as a yank) its the Euro-centricity of his chosen subjects. True, these are some of the most prominent, and famous organizations with some of the longest traditions among orchestras operating today. However, Service makes a number of veiled (as well as explicit) references to how US orchestras are different from their European counterparts. Why not flesh these out? Even if the conductors are still mainline European, I would have been very interested in (say) how a Riccardo Muti feels he operates best with the Chicago Symphony (not without its own traditions) does it differ from how he's had to tackle relations (often contentious) with the European Orchestras with which he has worked? Osmo Vanska has been a superhero with orchestras both in Skandanavia and Minnesota...contrasting the two experiences would have been fascinating. Lastly, Service describes with admiration the artistic and social benefits of "Sistema" in Venuzuela; what better way to end the book than with a longer section on Gustavo Dudamel and how he works his magic with the Simon Bolivar Symphony?

That aside, I found this a fascinating book, and was able to read it (almost) in one complete sitting. Highly recommended.
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4.0 von 5 Sternen CAUSE AND EFFECT 20. Januar 2013
Von DAVID BRYSON - Veröffentlicht auf
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Half a century and more ago there used to be a book on British conductors by an orchestral viola player called Bernard Shore. I remember reading it for the witticisms of Beecham, but unless my memory is deceiving me I think it was a fairly superficial treatment of the question that Tom Service poses here `What is it that conductors do up there?' Beecham knew what he did - `They make the notes and I make the music.' You could leave the issue at that; but if you want a serious attempt at defining a conductor's role in greater depth I can recommend this one.

Tom Service selects six contemporary conductors, all still living (so far as I know) as I write this notice in January 2013. In his Introduction he offers one generalised statement `If conducting is about anything, it is about communication.' He keeps his insights at the fully general level only in the first chapter (on Gergiev) and the last (Abbado). Very reasonably, he looks at conducting as practised by the other four maestri from more restricted viewpoints. With all six, he is concerned with the relationship between conductor and orchestra, not conductor and audience, but I can go along with that. He has bitten off quite enough to chew as it is. Both the histrionic Gergiev and even the restrained Abbado obtain the effects they want by force or charm of personality. The age of podium dictators seems to be over (to the chagrin of Ivan Fischer) but leadership is still leadership, and although democracy has advanced among orchestral players, there are realistic limits to what can be done on a strictly consensual basis among 30, 40 or more musicians.

It has to be the same story, basically, when it comes to the other conductors, but Tom Service wisely changes his camera angle each time. I was fascinated by his account of the efforts that Simon Rattle has had to put into reconciling the (very democratised) Berliner Philharmoniker with Sibelius. In the first place I myself am such an aficionado of Sibelius that the German players' discomfort with his music is nearly unintelligible to me. In the second place Karajan (conductor for life prior to Abbado who was Rattle's own predecessor) had played and recorded much of Sibelius with this very orchestra decades ago; and thirdly an increasing proportion of the players are not even German now anyway. However, it seems there is still a hill to be climbed, and we get some glimpses of maestro Rattle climbing it. I hope he persists with the attempt: fine though Karajan's efforts were in some ways, both his general approach and the tone of this orchestra are surely rather too upholstered for Sibelius.

In some ways the most interesting chapter, although certainly the most unsatisfactory one, is the rather dry narration of Mariss Jansons coaxing what was apparently a well-received performance of Dvorak's Requiem out of the Concertgebouw. Tom Service does not choose to tell us what he thinks of the composition, but he drops enough hints that it is not exactly a crowd-puller. That is with good reason, as much of Dvorak's Requiem is in my own opinion tolerable only to the corpse. The scenario is actually rather a fascinating one - `selling' such a composition to the concertgoers of a sophisticated European capital. We do not lack for detail, as much of the players' reactions as of anything the conductor does or says, but I was still left wondering whether the seemingly enthusiastic audience was applauding the attempt as much as the music.

The chapter on Jonathan Nott is in effect just an interview, and the lengthy responses of this talkative maestro are certainly illuminating up to a point if not quite amounting to revelation. More interesting to me were the views of Ivan Fischer, who is out of sympathy with the idea of orchestral democracy and one-player-one-vote. I had not got the impression that this bothered Rattle, but perhaps he just conceals his feelings about it. Fischer thinks, not unreasonably, that anything less than wholehearted unity of purpose between band and conductor will lead to indifferent music-making, and I guess the answer is that the players have to be convinced rather than `led' in the old sense. It is bound to be the case that the playing we hear originates in the minds and hearts of the players to varying degrees and can't all be ascribed to the conductor. In the course of letting us know his philosophy, Fischer gets on to the dangerous concept of `the piece itself', which he contrasts with `interpretations'. He ought to know better. Any performance whatsoever is an interpretation, and `the piece itself' is something that can only be defined via contradictions, such as that such-and-such an interpretation is false to the spirit of the work.

However I have one recent example in mind that proves to me how a great conductor's mind and spirit can dominate a performance. What do you think of the trio of the scherzo from the Great C Major symphony? Tovey called it `one of the greatest and most exhilarating tunes in the world', which struck Arthur Hutchings in his Master Musicians volume as going over the top. Now hear Rattle do it, and you are hearing the barrel-organ from heaven itself - for all his conservatism and fixation with sonata forms and whatnot Tovey was often generations ahead of most of us in sheer musical insight. It took Rattle to show me what this passage amounts to, and you can't tell me that this insight was any joint or collective process. Well done Tom Service for this brave and sensitive effort in sharing insights with us, his own as well as his subjects'.
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5.0 von 5 Sternen Deep, fascinating book! 2. Juli 2013
Von Argpolymath - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Kindle Edition|Verifizierter Kauf
Without exaggerating, I have to say that this is the one best books about conducting, really about music in general, that I've ever read. I have a doctorate in orchestral conducting, so I'm inclined to be rather critical of people who try to explain how music works. Mr. Service has a profound understanding of music and he writes with eloquence and passion. I recommend this book to anyone (including professional musicians) who wants to understand music, music-making and the role of the conductor.
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5.0 von 5 Sternen Insight into the mysteries of orchestral conducting 14. April 2013
Von Anne French - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Kindle Edition|Verifizierter Kauf
What do conductors really do? If you've never played in an orchestra, you have probably wondered. Tom Service introduces us to a handful of interesting to great conductors (including Gergiev, Rattle, Jansons, Abbado) to shed some light on the question. He has sat in on rehearsals, interviewed the conductors themselves, and talked to a bunch of players as well to get a well rounded view. Naturally the players don't always agree with each other, but a picture emerges nonetheless. Well written and insightful. Recommended for people who go to concerts and have always wanted to know just what conductors do (and what difference they make) but have not had anyone authoritative to ask.
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5.0 von 5 Sternen Valuable 27. Januar 2013
Von Ken Nielsen - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Kindle Edition|Verifizierter Kauf
If you have ever wondered how orchestra conductors make music, this book will take you a long way towards understanding. To me, the most interesting aspect was the different approaches: some make sure the band gets it right in rehearsal, others leave some surprises for the performance.
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