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So what makes a great conductor?

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
10/19/2017 -  & October 20, 21*, 2017
Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 80 in D minor
Béla Bartók: Divertimento for String Orchestra, BB118
Johann Sebastian Bach: Keyboard Concerto in A major, BWV 1055
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, opus 54

New York Philharmonic, Sir András Schiff (pianist and conductor)

(© Chris Lee)

It must have been more than fifteen years ago when I played for two of my friends a bootleg recording of the Schubert Symphony No. 8 in B-minor. At that time one of them was a violinist in the famed Met Opera Orchestra, the other was composer; in other words, both were highly professional. They both recognized immediately that the orchestra is excellent (it was, after all, the Philadelphia Orchestra) but were not able to guess the conductor. All the famous names were mentioned, both those still alive and those no longer with us. To their enormous surprise the name of the conductor was András Schiff, as yet not yet knighted and not yet enjoying the conducting career he has nowadays.

Of course that led us to a discussion on the subject of conductors and what, in the end, makes a successful, memorable performance. Is it baton technique alone? Is it the ability to show the proper clues? Is it the ability to explain what one wants? To a degree all of those aspects are important, but in my mind there was one quality in Sir András’ music making more important than the others. At that time he definitely didn’t possess the baton technique of Lorin Maazel (not many conductors have equaled it before or since) neither was his knowledge of symphonic literature all-encompassing (to this day he declares that some composers, such as Mahler, will not soon be listed in his programs).

What I thought of that makes Sir András an important and respected conductor both then and even more so today is his vision and imagination. In order to achieve something you first need to know what you want to achieve. His recent subscription concert with the New York Philharmonic, already his second time there as a conductor and pianist, proved my point beyond doubt.

As always, both in recitals and in the symphonic repertory, he opted for a fiercely demanding and ultimately very rewarding program.

The first work performed, Haydn’s Symphony No. 80, is seldom heard. It is a quirky work, full of surprises and humor, all of which suited our maestro quite well. Generally he approached the symphonic Haydn in a manner similar to his piano performances. With the exception of Bartók’s Divertimento, he conducted all the scores by heart; that alone must have made a huge difference to his colleagues in the orchestra. I purposely use the word “colleagues” because it was both audible and visible that he treats them as equals and the whole program had that unmistakable feeling of chamber music, of which I will talk a little later. Even his bows to the audience are taken from the stage level, not from the conductor’s podium: a small detail but telling. Just as he eschews the use of “period instruments” in an “historically-informed manner”, here he used the full orchestra, even in the Bach concerto and Bartók Divertimento, works which often are performed with fewer players. As some European conductors do, Sir András positioned the double basses and cellos to his left and spread first violins and second violins antiphonally. As always, he also observed all the repeats, which led the audience to burst into applause before the end of Haydn’s symphony. It was big-boned Haydn, vigorous, robust, and when necessary, charming. This symphony could definitely find itself on the list of works best illustrating the idea of “humor in music”, notably the long rests which purposely disorient and amuse the listener and the irregular rhythms and syncopations which open the Finale: Presto. Its off-balance rhythms create a mischievous character that makes the music oscillate between madcap stop-and-go and constant dynamic extremes, all of which make the listener smile. Listening to this symphony, I wondered if Beethoven knew that symphony when he wrote the finale to his own Sonata in D major opus 10 No. 3. As with his piano playing, Maestro Schiff brings out the dance qualities whenever he hears them in any music. Here we observed them in the rustic Menuetto, later in the outer sections of Bartók’s Divertimento. In those moments our conductor – not unlike another maestro, who for many years stood in front of this beloved ensemble and whose 100th anniversary we celebrate this year, Leonard Bernstein, of course – danced together with the music.

At the end of every work, Maestro Schiff made sure to thank each section of the orchestra and shake hands with as many musicians as possible. I guess that alone encouraged them play their hearts out for him, and that evening the whole group was in damn good shape.

As I indicated, in the Bartók Maestro Schiff utilized the whole string section. But this work is conceived as interplay between the whole ensemble and its first desk players as soloists, not unlike the interplay in a Baroque concerto grosso.

It should come as no surprise that we heard a masterly conceived version, since for András Schiff, pianist and conductor, Bartók is one his idols and therefore certain characteristics of Schiff’s own piano playing were evident in his reading of the Divertimento. I mentioned earlier that great attention – in practically anything he interprets – is paid to the element of dance; here we also witnessed a tad more deliberate tempo which allowed for more swagger and elegance. The slow movement, a dirge-like Molto Adagio, was incredibly touching and it stood in dramatic contrast to the lighter-vein outer movements.

The second half of the program featured Maestro Schiff at the piano. His ensemble for the Bach Keyboard Concerto in A major was quite large and here I would question whether the full-size string section is really an ideal partner even for the large piano, which on this occasion was new model of Bösendorfer. Luckily for this concert our soloist avoided a mistake that many pianists-conductors make – positioning their pianos with the keyboard facing the audience and the lid off. This time the instrument was placed a bit askew, which allowed for the soloist to see more of the orchestra and for the audience to see a bit more keyboard. The piano had a bright enough sound but I was not totally convinced that a good German Steinway would not sound equally well. However, the comfort of the artist is paramount and apparently this instrument was sufficiently liked that it was even mentioned in the program booklet.

But as expected, this was a masterly interpretation, the only hand-gestures given, those at the entrances to each of the three movements. With Schiff at the keyboard, immaculate finger work is almost taken for granted, but what impresses even more is a varied range of articulation and that ever-present sense of a dancing left hand. The piano sang beautifully in the slow movement Larghetto, which convinced this listener that the oboe d’amore was indeed an original solo instrument for that concerto.

And then came the Schumann Piano Concerto which I have never seen played and conducted by the same person. When asked a few days earlier about the difficulties of conducting this work from the piano, Sir András gave a rather puzzling answer: he declared that the real difficulty for the orchestra, especially in the rhythmically complex places of the Finale, is the presence of a conductor. An enigmatic statement perhaps, until one saw with one’s own eyes the total freedom our soloist left to his orchestra. Led by the concertmaster Frank Huang, it stayed with the piano even in those proverbial rhythmically difficult moments.

The interpretation itself was unusual inasmuch as Mr. Schiff adopted a rather unified tempo to the first pages of the opening Allegro. Rather than advancing the tempo later, as many if not all performers do, he had the oboist – the wonderful Liang Wang – play the opening solo much faster than usual. It soon made sense, but it often is a recurring concept behind Schiff’s interpretations: keep the tempos as the composer indicated in the score. The lively character was continued in the Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso, in which the musical stress was placed on grazioso (gracious). The Finale was one of the most joyful, uplifting, thrilling, exhilarating interpretations in recent memory. Sir András has an old-fashioned way of playing where the hands are not always together, somewhat similar to Paderewski, an easy-to-take and quaint mannerism seldom encountered today. What one can always count on with this pianist is his ability to find details that escape other musicians and conductors. In the first movement there were, for instance, clarinet phrases that I have never heard before; in the last movement there were details in the piano part – a rarely encountered spiky, pointed articulation – that made the music sound fresh. Only right before the coda did the soloist get up from his chair to show a few gestures to the orchestra; the rest was pure chamber music, which is to say everyone was listening to each other. Simple, but how effective!

At the end, not only did the audience erupt in a standing ovation, but the musicians applauded their maestro with the kind of vigor almost unheard of from this hard-to-please orchestra! The visibly pleased Schiff reciprocated by singling out practically every member of the orchestra who, one must admit, had fully earned the admiration of their amiable soloist.

In a video interview given last year at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, Sir András was asked about the qualities he values in a great conductor. He listed a few: a great conductor has to be a psychologist, for he constantly deals with many different souls in front of him. It is not only important what you say, but also how you say it. The less you talk, the better; show the orchestra what you want with your eyes, smile, hand gestures.

I did not attend any of the rehearsals during which the majority of the work is always done. But I have a suspicion that in the case of Maestro Schiff, he practices what he preaches.

Roman Markowicz



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