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Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and Their Orchestras Hardcover – June 1, 2012
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"Service's passion is evident from the opening page ... he blends in-depth musical understanding and analysis with an armchair conductor's enthusiasm and VIP access to rehearsals. The result is fascinating ...This book shows us how, through the efforts of this shamanic figure, live music can be simply good enough or, sometimes, utterly electrifying." -- New Statesman --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
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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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)...how 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.
The material is presented at the intermediate level, though classical music lovers in general, I think, and professional musicians, will find much of interest. With Kindle you can check or recheck musical terms. At $ 9.99 this is a bargain.
There’s a lot of verbal glad handing and PR posturing which add redundancy to the text at times, though there are numerous pearls of wisdom interspersed throughout the text. Acoustics for (and adjustments to) the various concert halls, rehearsal-performance dynamics, orchestral sociology or subculture, classical music history (including period performance theories), and lively, sometimes outsized personalities, make for interesting reading. While the degree of access varied for the writer based on conductor, the insertion of Q & A format in places helped to break up the monotony of the narrative.
This is a generally well written (typos aside) often passionate account of the classical music scene, which I am looking forward to rereading. 4+