Feb 8, 2004

On time performance

One of the other important facets of my musical life is conducting; and I do a lot of it. For the past seven years I have served as the Music Director of the Symphony of Oak Park & River Forest, guest conducted other groups in the US and Europe, as well as being guest conductor for the past 5 years with my alma mater, the Chicago College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University. Right now the CCPA orchestra and I are working on Heldenleben, and they are going to do a very fine job.

One thing that I have noticed in the time I have been conducting is how naturally late brass players are in responding to the pulse that is established in a piece of music by the conductor and the ensemble. It is not that the instruments themselves are late in speaking, it is that we are not aware of how it sounds out in front when we are not on top of the beat. It's as if the orchestra is trying to soar high above the scenery but is being held down with chains from the brass section. Unless you are constantly and consciously attempting to be on top of the beat you are probably going to be late. It would be good for every brass player to go up in front to the podium to experience the effect of lateness in the brass section, especially the low brass. Of course, I am talking about rhythmic figures that move at a moderately fast or faster pace.

On the flip side of the coin, we never want to be early on music that moves at an adagio tempo. We want to play at the very bottom of the beat, rather than the top. This will give maximum sostenuto, which is essential in playing music of great breath. Nothing is more unmusical than being the first one in the ensemble to enter on a downbeat when the music is slow and stately. This includes the interior of phrases as well the beginnings. Players can make a fast tempo sound slower than it actually is by being late and conversely make a slow tempo sound faster by constantly being early. Smart conductors would be wise to train an orchestra to play on top of the beat in fast tempos so that the conductor wouldn't have to take a tempo that was faster than intended in order to make up for the orchestra's lateness. Again, they also wouldn't have to take slow tempos quite as slow in order to make up for the players tendencies to be early on sustained music. Orchestras playing behind the beat has become a world-wide epidemic and needs to be addressed world-wide. Constantly playing behind the beat inhibits the possibilities for the variety of style and expression that is available to an orchestra. Of course, playing behind the beat has its place, but like everything else, NOT ALL THE TIME. We should be adding colors to our musical kaleidoscope, not eliminating them.

Now for some very personal observations and opinions (after all, this is my website). I am not much for flags. I don't like it, for example when someone wins a gold medal in the Olympics or turns in a great performance of any kind and the people in the audience hold up flags and start shaking them as if to say," You see my country, is better than your country." Aren't we citizens of the planet? Can't people just enjoy events for the skill and beauty of the person who accomplishes a great feat? Flags are a bad thing in my opinion. They make us look down on other cultures. All cultures are great. Flags are fascist symbols designed to separate people into groups who will tend to oppose each other. The earth is round, which means no beginning and no end. We can travel forever and never reach the end of the earth. Borders are man made, not something that came with the planet. Flags should never be used for the alienation of other cultures. A person should be perfectly able to love their homeland and never lay eyes on a flag, or hear a national anthem. Some things need to come from within. I am a citizen of the planet and want to experience the best of as many cultures, musical or otherwise, as I possibly can in my lifetime.

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