Our conductor is Bobby Valentine.
Bear with me for a second on this analogy, especially you non-Red Sox fans: the new Red Sox manager this year, Bobby Valentine, is seen as a markedly different manager than his predecessor, Terry Francona. Terry “let the players play” because he considered them professionals and figured they knew how best to prepare themselves. He managed gametime decisions and kept the clubhouse moving in the same direction, and let the players police themselves. In contrast, Bobby Valentine has implemented some new policies perceived to be harsher than during Terry’s reign. During the offseason he flew to several players’ homes, even out of the country, to establish a better rapport with them. He’s been emphasizing fundamentals, he’s been all over the place during spring training, he’s been heavily involved—some might even say micromanaging—in every aspect of the Red Sox player’s preparations.
Let’s just say our conductor is not letting the orchestra and chorus figure this out on our own, like Francona did with past Red Sox teams. In the last three orchestra, rehearsals, Christoph Von Dohnányi has:
- Stopped the chorus to correct our tuning when he felt it was going flat, to the point where he would have an entire section sans orchestra singing the same two measures until he was satisfied
- Stopped the chorus to correct our diction, because the consonants were not strong enough for him
- Asked various orchestra members, by name, to make adjustments. (“Mike, could you give me a little less on the second horn in that measure?”)
- Given specific (though inaudible) suggestions and criticisms to the soprano soloist, presumably on her diction and the timing of her entrances
- Told the harpist she was playing a chord too fast for his liking
- Asked the violists to use short focused strokes, by using his arms to wildly mimic their current bowing technique as all over the place
- Asked the timpanist to use a shorter stick [edit: other choristers have told me he said either “softer” or “smaller” but some heard “shorter” as well. Shrug.]
- Gone back to that timpanist and asked if he had anything between the two sticks he had just tried, for a darker sound
- Stopped the orchestra several times for not playing more quietly than the chorus was singing
- Asked the second bassoonist to play a little sharper to fix his chord with the first violins and flutes, which he perceived to be off. (I’m still not completely sure if he was serious or joking when he asked the bassoonist if he was tuned to 41 or 42. Later someone explained that he meant “441 Hz” which is imperceptibly above the standard A of 440 Hz that modern orchestras tune to.) [edit: I’m told the orchestra regularly tunes to the higher pitch for a brighter sound. Best guesses are that this was a polite way of telling the violins and bassoons that they’d better figure out how to stay in tune with each other.]
As a concert goer, it’s easy to forget that most of the work for a world-class conductor does NOT happen on the podium during the concert. The waggle of the maestro’s baton does not control the notes played by the strings, woodwinds, and brass—contrary to what numerous cartoons and at least one Marx Brothers routine might tell you! Sure, he’s holding the ensemble together with his “in-game management,” indicating tangibles like timing and tempo and dynamics and conveying intangibles like interpretation and emotion and drama. But most of that comes from the hard work he does ahead of time setting his expectations. And that’s built upon the foundation that John Oliver and the chorus prepare before we walk into our first rehearsal with him… call it our own spring training for a piece. By the time “the season starts” and Coach Von Dohnányi is at the podium, he’s not giving us direction, so much as he’s giving us reminders.
The result, as we’ve discovered, is a clarity of sound and a unity of purpose that few if any of us have experienced before in preparations for a concert. Our dress rehearsal last night for a small crowd of special guests (read: donors) was astounding.
When John Oliver had to take over at the last second for the Missa Solemnis, he was like an interim coach after the previous manager was fired: he pretty much had no choice but to let the orchestra players play. He had no time to stamp his interpretation and character on the orchestra; he just had what he had prepared with us in the chorus. (Fortunately, he was able to manage everything quite well from the podium.) Christoph has whipped us all into shape, from practicing the fundamentals of German pronunciation to quite specific direction on how he wants us to play and sing. Now we’re working together as a team to deliver a victorious performance.
Unfortunately for the Red Sox, the jury’s still out on whether Bobby Valentine’s hands-on style is going to improve the Red Sox’s performance this year, especially given the injuries, overpaid talent, and aging superstars on the team. (If opening day is any indication, the team may be in trouble.) Fortunately for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, I don’t know of any injuries, we volunteer so we’re not overpaid, and our “aging superstars” have only improved with experience. Looking forward to a great concert tonight!