The concert last night – François-Joseph Gossec’s Grande Messe des Morts, which received its first performance in this country in 35 years or so – was apparently a success. The singers in the Burlington Choral Society were excited by the level they achieved in performance, and it is their reaction that is most important to me as it is for them that the organization exists. They were thrilled and vocally inspired to be onstage making music with the fabulous vocal soloists Mary Bonhag, Matt Anderson, and siblings Melissa and Ben Dickerson. The Burlington Chamber Orchestra, which included in this performance three local high school players who play in the Vermont Youth Orchestra, sounded terrific.
As the conductor, my world during a performance is surprisingly intimate. It does not include the audience, except to the degree that I want the music-making onstage to be heard out in the hall. Closest to me is the musical score, with (the usually ghostly specter of) the composer never far away – and always dissatisfied. (The composer and I hear an idealized version of the music, which is never fully realized.)
The vocal soloists and I are in a kind of two-person sailboat, constantly responding to changes in musical wind direction and intensity, trying to maneuver our musical boat to push forward, or beat against the wind, come about, or run with the wind, as the situation requires. There is a constant stream of musical orders subtly being issued by both parties as the music is being sung and played, but there is no clear hierarchy. It’s a case of adapt or die for both parties, which sounds awful but is in fact one of the most compelling parts of making music.
I am absolutely in bed with the concertmaster or mistress, with all the vulnerability and potential thrill (or disaster) that that entails. The leader of the orchestra makes a huge impact on how the rest of the orchestra plays. Of the remaining players in the orchestra I concentrate on the principal players for the simple reason that those players who are not principals are trained to follow the principal players more than the conductor.
In an 80-voice chorus it is impossible to communicate one-on-one with each singer, so I have two basic strategies there: when things are going well I will look to the section as an entity. When things are out of kilter, or when an important entrance is coming up, I will look as directly as possible at a strong, reliable voice within the section.
The audience last night was gratifyingly into the music. There were times during the performance when I could hear murmuring or a kind of group respiration that indicated that they were really engaged in the journey that the music was taking them on. Their enthusiastic response at the end of the concert was genuine.
And yet. (And yet.) Regrets – I’ve got a million of ’em. I make so many mistakes in a performance! Most are imperceptible outside the triumvirate of the score, composer, and myself, but in my imagination (and to a varying extent, in reality) those mistakes ripple through the musicians on stage and send the wrong sound waves out into the world, for which I am regretful and embarrassed. (The good news, strangely enough, is that if you make a big enough mistake, the musicians on stage will often be able to cover for you. That, too, happened a few times last night.) But the mistakes infest your memory. I can literally remember musical mistakes from 40 years ago.
So, in my experience, one of the occupational hazards of conducting is assuming that you are more important than you are, that every mistake you make is one that rocks the world in some significant way, and that you should never, ever, forget a mistake because to do so would be deny your well-deserved guilt. Sheesh. It is very hard not to dwell on mistakes.
But last night I heard of another occupational hazard for an orchestra musician: the threat of being bitten on your index finger by your two-year-old. Jane Bearden, the wonderful violinist who served as concertmistress of the orchestra last night told me that two weeks ago she thought she might have to cancel her involvement in the concert because in a panic to remove something nasty from the mouth of her two year old son, he bit her quite hard on the index finger of her left hand – the most frequently-used finger by a violinist – and made it impossible for her to play for several days.
Clearly what is needed is for OSHA to draft some new regulations, tailored to classical musicians, about some occupational health and safety issues specific to our business: 1) Mistakes made in pursuit of beauty are forgivable. 2) Beware your two year-old.