By the Way • March 24, 2014

Gustavo Dudamel: Stardust from El Sistema Heaven

This is how we make music in Gustavo Dudamel’s world: intense focus, intense fun together. For 60 minutes or so, El Sistema-trained teenagers from public schools in Boston, Somerville and nearby worked several times through Bizet’s “Farandole” and the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the mesmerizing maestro of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“I’m not a great singer,” Gustavo Dudamel told the kids in a teaching aside on Saturday in an El Sistema rehearsal with the Longy School at MIT on Saturday. “But of course I sing in the shower,” he said, working up a conversational lather. Here was the point, in spirit and in so many words: “We sing in the orchestra, same way we sing in the shower. You know how you get to love that big, long line you’re singing — clearer and stronger when you’re into it. We want to take it right to the point where the people in the next apartment start banging on the wall and shout: ‘We get it! Now shut up.’”

This is how we make music in Gustavo Dudamel’s world: intense focus, intense fun together. For 60 minutes or so, El Sistema-trained teenagers from public schools in Boston, Somerville and nearby worked several times through Bizet’s “Farandole” and the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the mesmerizing maestro of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Not once did the conductor speak of tempo, articulation, or even being in tune. But he kept offering the kids images: the difference between a dancer with long legs and someone marching on short legs, for example. Every coaching point was about adding colors for the listeners, making the musical experience more dynamic in the ensemble, a life lesson closer to home for the young players.

The life lesson was humility in triumph for the surprise star of the rehearsal show, the 9-year-old timpanist Francis Puente from the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton. With his broken left wrist in a cast, Francis was working his kettle drums with just his right hand, ever with style and effect. Maestro Dudamel singled him out for recognition, and Francis smiled his thanks. His mother Maria Puente emailed the next morning: “But you know what was even more admirable with our son? While we were in the car, I asked him how he wanted to celebrate his wonderful achievement — maybe eat out in some nice restaurant, I suggested. He said he wanted to celebrate by just going home and having a quiet evening with us. He said, ‘I like being acknowledged and then being able to go back to the ordinary pace of life, like going into oblivion.’ What a blessing, too, for him to remain unaffected by all the attention he gets.”

Next day at Symphony Hall, under a thundering, tearful standing ovation, Maestro Dudamel took credit with Francis Puente’s taste for oblivion. Dudamel saluted his Los Angeles Philharmonic stars, embracing his horn soloist, his woodwind section, his brilliant cello duo who’d outdone themselves in the full Tchaikovsky 5. But to the end he stood hand in hand with the ranks of his first violins and violas. The most celebrated young conductor in the world today, the man we came to hear, never mounted the podium again after the music stopped. He declined to take a solo bow.

Podcast • March 8, 2011

Anthony Burgess: Language as Music, and Vice Versa

Paul Phillips is leading us here in a long digression — a step into yet another alternate universe of the odd genius who wrote A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess thought his famous tale (and movie!) ...

Paul Phillips is leading us here in a long digression — a step into yet another alternate universe of the odd genius who wrote A Clockwork Orange.

Anthony Burgess thought his famous tale (and movie!) of mindless mayhem was perhaps the least of his efforts, but what he really wanted apart from his endless book production — essays, plays, criticism, and novels of all sizes and styles — was to be understood for the music he wrote. The bet here is that the Burgess symphonies, songs and chamber music that Paul Phillips is sharing will not make the world forget Burgess’ Enderby series of novels, or his fantasy on Shakespeare’s sex life, Nothing like the Sun, or his all-encompassing “life” of a 20th Century expatriate English writer, Earthly Powers. But let’s hope anyway that surprise and delight are reason enough to digress on multiple senses and gifts — reason enough to grant Anthony Burgess’s heart’s desire. “I wish,” he said, “people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side.”

Anthony Burgess never forgot being stricken by music as a tot — by “a quite incredible flute solo” he heard on the radio, “sinuous, exotic, erotic.” It turned out to be Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” It was a “psychedelic moment… a recognition of verbally inexpressible spiritual realities,” and it triggered Burgess’s self-education at the piano, then in composition and orchestration. His family persuaded him that there was no money in music, but his artistic life became a synesthetic web of words and music — much as Thomas Mann rendered the experience of Adrian Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus: “… music and language, he insisted, belonged together, were fundamentally one. Language was music, music a language, and when separated, each always recalled the other, imitated the other, made use of the other means, always to be understood as the substitute for the other.”

Anthony Burgess by David Levine, from The New York Review of Books

I agree that the musico-literary analogies can be pretty tenuous, but in the widest possible formal sense — sonata form, opera, and so on — we’ve hardly begun to explore the possibilities. The Napoleon novel I’m writing apes the Eroica formally: irritable, quick, swiftly transitional in the first movement (up to Napoleon’s coronation); slow, very leisurely, with a binding beat suggesting a funeral march for the second… As for the reader having to know about music, it doesn’t really matter much. In one novel I wrote, “The orchestra lunged into a loud chord of twelve notes, all of them different.” Musicians hear the discord, non-musicians don’t, but there’s nothing there to baffle them and prevent them reading on. I don’t understand baseball terms, but I can still enjoy Malamud’s The Natural. I don’t play bridge, but I find the bridge game in Fleming’s Moonraker absorbing. It’s the emotions conveyed that matter, not what the players are doing with their hands.

… I still play jazz, chiefly on a four-octave electric organ, and I prefer this to listening to it. I don’t think jazz is for listening but for playing. I’d like to write a novel about a jazz pianist or, better, about a pub pianist, which I once was, like my father before me. I don’t think rock leads on to a liking for jazz. The kids are depressingly static in their tastes. They do so want words, and jazz gets along very nicely without words.

… I enjoy writing music precisely because one is divorced from “human” considerations like belief, conduct. Pure form, nothing more. But then I tend to despise music just because it is so mindless. I’ve been writing a string quartet based on a musical theme that Shakespeare throws at us, in sol-fa notation, in Love’s Labour’s Lost (the theme is CDGAEF), and it’s been pure, bliss. I’ve been thoroughly absorbed by it, on planes, in hotel bedrooms, anywhere where I had nothing else to do and there was no bloody Muzak playing. (Don’t the Muzak purveyors ever think of the people who actually have to write music?) Now I’m a little ashamed that the music engages nothing but purely formal problems. So I oscillate between a hankering after pure form and a realization that literature is probably valuable because it says things.

Anthony Burgess with John Cullinan, from the Paris Review Interview, Spring 1973

Composer-Conductor Paul Phillips, Senior Lecturer in Music at Brown University, is leading the Brown Symphony Orchestra in Anthony Burgess’ “Mr. W. S.” this winter. With the Manchester University Press and Macmillan, he has just published A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess.

Podcast • January 21, 2008

The post-imperial maestro: Sir Colin Davis

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Sir Colin Davis here (47 minutes, 22 mb mp3) Sir Colin Davis, at play Sir Colin Davis — “the reluctant king of English music making,” the FT calls ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Sir Colin Davis here (47 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

colin davisSir Colin Davis, at play

Sir Colin Davis — “the reluctant king of English music making,” the FT calls him — recounts in conversation a turning point in his life that sounds like a parable for each and all of us and maybe for great nations, too. The year must have been 1962. Davis, who’s now 80, was then 35, a tempestuous young superstar conductor with the BBC and other symphony orchestras in London. He had just come through “the last night at the Proms,” the traditional spring revels, when…

… suddenly I realized I didn’t want to do it anymore. I really wanted to be a musician, not a success. I wanted to make the most beautiful music possible.. That maybe didn’t happen in five minutes. It was a big crisis in the middle of my life. I didn’t like the life I was leading. My first marriage had gone to pieces. I had to start again. And one of the things I did was: I talked a lot to my mother and my sisters, and I went back to the places I remembered as a kid, because they told me I was a very jolly child, up to the age of five. So that must be there somewhere: things like that don’t disappear; they lie at the bottom of a pile of rubbish you’ve thrown on it. So I went back to try to find that spring of natural good nature, natural peace with the little world of a child of five. And I got married again and had five children — and they all play musical instruments. It really dates from then. And even then there were still remains of the fiery intolerant bad-tempered fellow. But the one thing I hung onto was music. Not to exploit music but really to try to get as far as I could to the essence of it.”

Sir Colin Davis, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 17, 2008

You must picture, to get the sense of this rambling, riffing exchange, a notably relaxed, handsome Englishman — supple on the podium, soft-spoken off it — who could make you think at different moments of Peter O’Toole or Noel Coward but also James Bond. He received me on the morning after an open rehearsal of Mozart and Schubert with pianist Mitsuko Uchida and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This week he is conducting Edward Elgar’s oratorio, based on Cardinal Newman’s poem, The Dream of Gerontius. Gesturally, Davis’s manner with orchestra players reminds you that not for nothing do they speak of “playing” music. In person he is almost continuously laughing quietly. His physical ease, he says, “may have something to do with the fact that I sleep with my Alexander Technique teacher.” He introduced his wife to the art of focused mind-body relaxation, and now she coaches him and others. Alexander Technique, he observes, can save musicians from an early, spastic end. “When you let things happen,” as he says, “there’s a chance that you might hear the music.” Colin Davis is a prodigious knitter — yes, as in the flowered cardigan he was making for Ms. Uchida (the only woman beside his wife he knits for). And he is an incessant reader. “I think if you stop reading, your mind just closes down.” 2007 was a big reading year: all of Dickens, and a start on Balzac’s four-score-and-some novels. “One is pushing one’s ignorance as far as it will go,” he says, laughing again. So we speak also of an obscure modernist classic he swears by, Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil (1945), which I’d read under his influence. The book details the deathbed consciousness of Augustus Caesar’s court poet in his final hours, despairing of art as well as power and eager to destroy his epic Aeneid before he dies. Broch’s is a book, to Colin Davis’s mind, that is “trying to say what only music can say” and what Mozart in particular does say– about twilight mysteries, the organic “humus of existence,” the breath, in and out, of melancholy and consolation in life, about laughter and death, childhood and loss. Broch’s Virgil, in his last conversation with Augustus, says his life as a writer was wasted and wishes rather that he’d made “one useful human gesture.” And how did Colin Davis fix on his own “human gesture?”

To begin with, my passion for music was so intolerable that it was only gradually that it turned around from domination and telling people what to do, to trying to make this have nothing to do with tyranny and fear, because no good music ever came of any of that.

You listen to the great dominating maestros, like Toscanini in Verdi’s Requiem: it’s amazingly disciplined but it’s completely heartless to me. It’s a fantastic piece, and all that’s in it cannot come from the will to dominate other people. So that had to go. When it’s a big problem for yourself, you can only nibble away at it gradually, like a sort of miniature beaver, until the edifice collapses. And you don’t want anymore to do with that. But of course there are a lot of people who wouldn’t accept that, but I’m still there. There are some people who have a kind of Jehovah complex. They want to be dominated. They want to be told what to do, so they don’t have to be responsible. Now I don’t think great music is made like that. When everyone in the orchestra feels responsible for this piece of music, that’s when life begins.

Sir Colin Davis, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 17, 2008

How much of this can be translated into public life?

… These two demons — power and money — are running the show, and they’ve gone mad. They’re just false values. Those are the two things you really have to tackle if you want to be a human being. You’ve got to come to grips with not wanting power over other people and not working for money… Q. And how do great nations come to grip with that idea? A. Well, they don’t, do they? And the more you read, the more you realize it’s never been any different… For the private person to strut around the town, and to admire yourself when you shave in the morning is really a catastrophe for a human being. Q. Can the world at large ever taste and share the fruits of a lifetime in music? A. The attention of the world is not focused on the potential message of music. It’s all in The Death of Virgil and Augustus’s bread and circuses… That kind of world has no interest… Evolution hasn’t been kind. Brains can’t organize the world. It’s a bad business, and what can poor little Mozart do about that?

Sir Colin Davis, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 17, 2008

And what is his account of that post-imperial Englishness I sense in Davis’s music and his gab? “Perhaps,” he said, “it’s a curious mix of skepticism, lust for reading, and trying to follow Broch’s advice that the most important thing in the end is common decency.”