Well, that’s what the great Leonard ‘Lenny’ Bernstein is doing here with the Vienna Philharmonic. He’s employing a minimalist method of conducting – but he still is conducting. He’s using his most important conductorial attributes: his eyes and face. All the great ones do – and it’s what makes for almost telepathic communication between conductor and orchestra. Now, I should warn inexperienced conductors, maybe don’t try this with just any orchestra. It has to be an orchestra that can play chamber music together – all very good to great orchestras can do this – and then the conductor is something akin to the ‘secret sauce’. Enjoy! This is Leonard Bernstein ‘conducting’ the Vienna Philharmonic.
There is a fantastic multimedia article in today’s New York Times about the venerated Vienna Philharmonic and what makes its sound so unique in a world full of sound-alike ensembles. Well worth a read/look/listen!
“Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony” was the moniker assigned (by the noted conductor and pundit Hans von Bülow) to Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony, which was some twenty years in its gestation, such was both his own penchant for draconian self-criticism (it’s said that he destroyed at least six completed string quartets, allowing only the three extant works to survive), and his respect for the enormous shadow cast by Beethoven’s genius and body of work, and the “tramp of giants” – the body of work of those great composers who had gone before him.
I cannot remember the first time that I became truly aware of the first symphony of Brahms, but I would bet that it was at some point during one of the summers I was a camper at the Evergreen Music Festival, put on by the Tacoma Youth Symphony. The music director of the TYS and the upper orchestra at camp was Harry Davidson, and he was a huge Brahms fan. He was perhaps even more a Leonard Bernstein fan. Highlights of his afternoon lectures on music and music history were (aside from him saying in his trademark accented voice “Bottom had the head of an ASS” during a lecture on Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) the videos that he would show of live performances by various great maestros and their orchestras. One such video was of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (from a live 1981 performance).
I was a pretty impressionable young musician at that point, and seeing Lenny get all physical all over Brahms’ First Symphony with the mighty menschen of the Vienna Philharmonic had my knickers in a twist for weeks afterward. First of all, what an incredible string sound the VPO had, and under Lenny, it may have been at its most luscious and vivid – certainly it was almost lurid in its sheer color. Then, there are those Vienna horns. Massive, rich, cutting monsters of the corno. That mighty chorale theme that Brahms wrote down while on a hike in the alps (which was played upon the alphorn that day), blasted out with both power and grace by whoever was the lead horn in the VPO that night. It made a lasting impression, and though I have listened to a good many Brahms Firsts over the intervening years (by Haitink, Dohnanyi, Muti, Solti, Giulini, Harnoncourt, etc.), it still remains one of my sentimental favorite recordings, and the First Symphony itself one of my favorite compositions.
Tuesday we begin rehearsals on Brahms’ First with the Oregon Symphony, and as time allows, I’ll fill in more of my thoughts on the four movements of this wonderful (and most often performed of his four symphonies) work. In the meantime, here is a video of Lenny himself talking about the First Symphony, including footage of that video that captured my heart all those years ago: