Monday, May 6, 2013

Conducting My Life

Conductors have had a huge impact on my life.  Other musicians generally have focussed and defined me, but interactions with conductors have caused pivotal moments of startled recognition.  Not the kind of dutiful, obligatory and of course always appreciated recognition that occurs via post-concert bows and congratulations, but something more visceral and immediate that stands alone in my memory.

When I was much younger and in the Montreal Symphony, I was playing principal bassoon during a week when the two principals were away... the programme included the Brahms Double Concerto (names of soloists long forgotten) and Schumann’s Spring Symphony and something else (also long forgotten).  

Our concert was moved to a church because of a stagehand strike at Place des Arts and our guest conductor, John Elliott Gardiner, was more than a little bitchy.  He was patronizing (I thought) towards me... his main crime was thinking that I had played a wrong note and it took the prompt confession of the principal clarinetist to rectify that.  This  fired me to vengeance, which took the super-nerd form of memorizing the solos and glaring at the conductor.  I was made even crosser by the fact that he was extremely musical and quite wonderful to watch.  

After the first performance, I was leaving the church with my best friend (cellist) following closely behind me. Gary Russell had endured my blistering tirades about this arrogant bastard of a conductor who had the temerity to also be superbly musical (so much easier to hate someone who is both a brute and incompetent) and had spent our rides alternately goading me, sympathizing and occasionally wondering if there were any other topic that could perhaps be also be exhausted (a true friend). 

The curved hallway of the church was narrow and there was a bottleneck of musicians  and to my annoyance, I realized I was going to have to directly pass Maestro Gardiner.  Luckily his back was turned and I thought that I could brush through like a hot, angry wind... unseen but felt.  Just as I passed him, he spied me, and spinning around, caught both my hands in his (my bassoon was on my back) and exclaimed that I was such a musical person and how much he enjoyed working with me during the week.  Momentarily speechless, I recovered my equanimity enough to thank him and to say, in all truthfulness, that his musicality was wonderful to me too.  Meanwhile, my friend Gary was prodding me ruthlessly in the back with his umbrella as I sputtered and dealt with a complete turnaround in my perceptions of this conductor.   

Fast forward many many years, and this week I am an older, blue-haired player under the baton of a fiery, joyful young conductor with an impossible mop of strawberry-blonde clown curls.  I am playing extra with the Toronto Symphony (second in Après-Midi d’un Faune and fourth in Symphonie Fantastique) and enjoying every second.  Every word, every gesture of the French wildman Stéphane Denève is a musical and linguistic delight.  He is the epitome of deeply expressive, powerful and flexible musicality along with highly appropriate metaphor and elegant delightful vulgarity.  In short, I am just happy to be on stage.  Of course I want to tell him that he has unleashed joy in my somewhat jaded heart, but somehow I resist the temptation to gush, and simply beam from my seat in the middle of the gleaming orchestra.  

On the final night of our 3 show run at Roy Thomson Hall, I put my bassoon in the case and rushed out to the hall to hear the Poulenc  Double Piano Concerto.  As I pass the backstage, I see Stéphane waiting in the wings with the two wonderful soloists... I see him and sweep past, not wanting to interrupt in the moments before this powerful piece.  As I am about to push through the large double doors, I hear him call out, and turning, I see the tall redhead walking quickly towards me.  He extends his hands, takes both of mine, and I instinctively offer my version of the french air kiss, but he has something to say... he thanked me for my good energy during the week of rehearsals and concert.  Such a heartfelt and kind thing to say, and somehow urgently delivered.  Of course, this had the unexpected (for him) effect of unleashing my gratitude and I rather overwhelmed him and slightly mortified myself, yet it ended well and I felt as if a treasure had been given to me.  I went out and listened to the brilliant Poulenc with increased sentience and happiness. 

Conductors do transmit energy in the most immediate ways... it always changes the lives of the musicians under their batons for better or worse, but how amazing to me that we, the players, are in turn conducting palpable energy back to our leaders. These moments stand out in a lifetime of training and interaction with conductors, most of which is printed in my unconscious reflexes and reactions... these two particular moments live as vivid memories of sight, sound, touch and the invisible rush of happiness (ecstasy) that comes from playing.

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