music the orchestra world

thoughts on two concerts down, two to go

UPDATE: Oregonian music critic David Stabler gives his expanded list of Poets/Scientist conductors here.

Last night we played our second of four iterations of the Classical 6 program (three in Portland and a run-out to Salem on Tuesday night) under the direction of Finnish guest conductor Hannu Lintu. I was recently reading another blog which explored the nature vs. nurture conundrum in the area of young musical talent, and was struck by a similar dichotomy in the world of symphonic conductors.

It seems that there are (at least amongst the talented few in this field) two basic types of conductors: The Poet and The Scientist. Many conductors start out as The Scientist, but end up in their old age as The Poet. Some stay at either end of the spectrum for their entire career. Examples? I’d say that Herbert von Karajan started out as The Scientist and ended up as The Poet. If you’ve heard his amazing recording of Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Metamorphosen, you know what I mean. Pierre Boulez has been and ever shall be The Scientist. And Carlo Maria Giulini (a violist, natch) was born as The Poet.

Our guest conductor this week, Hannu Lintu, is decidedly The Poet. Everything about him is lyrical. His long arms flap sometimes to indeterminate effect if you’re looking for where beat three is, but you know where the phrase is going, and what the underlying emotion of the entire movement should be. I had suspected that Lintu was The Poet last time he came here, when he spoke of Sibelius and his love of the swans outside his home on the edge of the forest, and of the great “swan theme” that emerges from the depths in his Fifth Symphony. Now I am certain of it. He seems to be a deep thinker, perhaps prone to melancholy, but with flashes of impish humor – just like the composer whom he understands so well, Jean Sibelius. A most interesting conductor who I hope we will see again and again over the years.

By contrast, Carlos Kalmar, our music director, seems very much to be The Scientist – but I can see The Poet trying to take control every now and then. He’ll be very interesting to watch down the road about 20 years. His repertoire will be vast, his control of an orchestra will be beyond conscious thought, and he will have learned to let the reins down a bit more and reap the enormous rewards that bit of freedom will bring forth from the right orchestra. Don’t get me wrong – I very much admire the control and intricacy of how Carlos dissects familiar pieces, giving them new life. I also like the clarity and knowledge that he brings to new works, either from centuries past or from our own time. His musical intellect is really like a powerful laser, able to find minute changes in balance and tempo that produce remarkable new interpretations.

But I also like to play my heart out, and that’s what I’ve been doing this week.

By Charles Noble

I'm the Assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony.

3 replies on “thoughts on two concerts down, two to go”

Don’t forget the other categories of conductors.

1) The Flailer: Thinks they are The Scientist, but upon realizing a lack of actual knowledge of the score, content themselves to flail away, occasionally imparting misinformation and ill timed emoting. Sometimes uses techniques such as the “Make The Voices Go Away!” method, where hands motion about the head, as if warding off flies, and “The Shovel” where upbeats are scooped from some nether region below the music stand.

2) The Rambler: Waxes Poetically, generally about nothing. No actual technique is required aside from unwelcome verbosity.

3) The Mad Scientist: Has difficulty imparting their wealth of knowledge through good stick technique, so they fume throughout the entire rehearsal process, blaming everyone but themselves.

You are so right, viola8 – but I was only referring to sub-categories under the “good” conductor rubric. The “bad” category includes many variations (diabolical in scope) on the basics that you describe – *shudder*…

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