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Ensemble evening

Print edition : May 07, 2010 T+T-
Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Istanbul, Turkey, in August 2006, with the only Turkish member, Orhan Celebi, on the left playing the viola. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is composed of Israeli and Arab musicians and was founded by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim in 1999 with the aim of developing peace and intercultural dialogue in West Asia.-MURAD SEZER/AP

Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Istanbul, Turkey, in August 2006, with the only Turkish member, Orhan Celebi, on the left playing the viola. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is composed of Israeli and Arab musicians and was founded by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim in 1999 with the aim of developing peace and intercultural dialogue in West Asia.-MURAD SEZER/AP

THE symphony orchestra is probably unique among musical institutions. In some senses it represents the apotheosis of western classical music: bringing together so many different instruments, in groups that reflect symmetry and yet distance; bridging the complexities of harmony with the interaction of varying sonorities, to create what then seems to be one consistent sound. At another level, it can be taken as a metaphor for the successful coexistence and productive collabo ration of disparate entities, so providing lessons for other arenas of life.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the symphony orchestra evolved from being simply an extension of string and woodwind ensembles into a much more ambitious undertaking. Beethoven expanded the scale and emotional range of the symphony, thereby requiring more orchestral forces. At its peak, these became impossibly gargantuan. Mahlers Eighth Symphony required as many as a thousand performers, vocal and instrumental. But in general the size of orchestras and, therefore, of the music composed for them has tended to be determined by economic considerations and the purse strings of patrons, whether they be feudal lords or private philanthropists or government bureaucrats or publicity-seeking marketer-sponsors.

No matter how small or large, all orchestras face the same challenge of bringing together different parts in a cohesive way and can, therefore, achieve the same sense of satisfaction and completeness when it is achieved. This makes the experience of listening to an orchestra quite different from that of a solo performance of any instrument since it can become a subconscious celebration of the power of combining and the joy of interpersonal exchange.

These thoughts sprung from a recent experience of listening to one of the worlds fine and venerable orchestras the Boston Symphony Orchestra in enviable conditions. Thanks to a generous friend, I was seated so close to the performers as to be nearly on stage. It was not, perhaps, the most desirable seat from the point of the greatest acoustic appreciation, but certainly one that provided an extraordinary insight into what it is like to hear the music almost like one of the players.

The music played that night was challenging and complex: a contemporary composition along with a late Romantic stalwart. The performers conductor and musicians were additionally challenged in that the music director of the orchestra (James Levine) had been forced to withdraw due to illness and had been substituted at short notice by Carlos Kalmar, who came from Oregon to Boston. Conductors are known to bring their own very personal interpretations to the music, and when an orchestra is used to working with a particular conductor, it can be hard to change suddenly, especially for pieces that have been prepared.

This is especially so because the conductor is so essential to the creation of the single sound that must come from the motley crew of musicians. Harold Schonberg, the former music critic of The New York Times, described the role of the conductor thus: He is there because somebody has to be the controlling force. Somebody has to set the tempo, maintain the rhythm, see to it that the proper ensemble and balances are kept, try to get out of it what the composer of the score put into it. From his baton, from the tips of his fingers, from his very psyche, flows some sort of electric surcharge that shocks a hundred-odd prima donnas into bending their individual wills into a collective effort (The Great Conductors; Simon and Schuster, 1967; page 16).

This perception led to the almost mythical status of some of the great conductors. They became superstars, transcending the humble beings who simply performed for them, who were seen as so much putty in the hands of the master. Federico Fellinis powerful film Orchestra Rehearsal took this even further, using the relationship between a (German) conductor and his (Italian) orchestra as a metaphor for the striving for absolute power, patriarchal control and the abandonment of individual agency. (Yet the music, composed by Nina Rota, is sublime even through this terrible message.) In general, conductors have been and are still seen as the real interpreters of the music, with the actual players in deeply subordinate roles.

If this is indeed true, and the success of the performance is so dependent upon a particular conductor and his (unfortunately, it is still usually a he) interpretation and ability to imbue it in the performers, then this particular concert should have been a failure. After all, it reflected the collaboration of a conductor who had never before played with this orchestra, with players who had to respond at very short notice to the change.

One of the pieces played was entirely new, the world premiere of a Double Concerto for Violin, Violoncello and Orchestra by the locally based composer John Harbison, in honour of a local violinist. The other was a demanding Symphony (the Seventh) by Gustav Mahler, the turn of the century Viennese composer who went in for grand, intricate and often dense orchestration. Surely, without the confirming hand of the musical director that the orchestra was so used to, the complex demands of these different pieces would not have been met, and the performance would have been below par?

In the event, it was a resounding success. Harbisons Concerto is essentially about relationships, and the violin and the cello were appropriately played by a husband and wife duo as soloists. The performance was so effective in bringing out the ambiguity of personal relationships, the moves between misunderstanding and consonance that the composer must have intended, that it really seemed that the conductor and individual players had achieved a common vision.

Mahlers Seventh Symphony is a major work, even if not one of his more commonly performed pieces. It has been described as a journey from dusk through night to the brightness of day. Images of water, of forest and other elements of nature abound as usual in Mahlers music. Sombre tones are countered by lyrical and lush interludes in the two nocturnes, and the finale is atypically jocular, almost riotous. This piece runs the gamut of emotions and requires expressive and subtle handling. Once again, these were all in evidence, with the conductor displaying a confidence and control over the musicians that seemed remarkable given the short preparation time. So what does this tell us about the possibilities of coordinated music-making even without much prior interaction? Surely it is a tribute to both the conductor and the members of the orchestra that they could produce such a coherent and convincing interpretation. But it also suggests that the obsession with star conductors moulding their orchestras over several sessions may not be so helpful.

Of course, things have changed in the western classical music world in ways that may make earlier generalisations invalid in any case. A big change is the internationalisation. Take what is happening in the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a reflection of a much wider phenomenon. The members of the orchestra were dominantly East Asian or East European in origin, the violin soloist was a talented young woman from China and her cellist husband was from Germany, and the conductor was born in Uruguay of Austrian parents. While the current music director of the orchestra, James Levine, is from the United States, his famous predecessor was the great Seiji Ozawa from Japan. Melting pots obviously make for good music.

So the news from this particular performance is good: music can be made beautifully and convincingly by people from different quarters of the world who may share little else in common, and an orchestra can sound marvellous even when there is a new and untried conductor who has not had time to work with it.

An optimist would find in this some hope for other forms of human cooperation as well. In fact, hardened optimists would go further, as Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said showed with their remarkable West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brought together young musicians from Palestine and Israel. They might even hope that the act of making music together can heal discord, or at least that musical bonding can bring about greater understanding and appreciation of the differing non-musical perspectives. Of course, it is a long shot, but with even marginal results it would be worth the attempt.