Author Topic: The composer as conductor  (Read 2939 times)

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Offline Dundonnell

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The composer as conductor
« on: November 30, 2008, 10:21:15 AM »
Prodded(reminded) by knight that I had said that I would start a thread on the Composer as Conductor....

There have obviously been a number of composers who 'doubled' as professional conductors-Mahler, Richard Strauss, Leonard Bernstein, Howard Hanson, Pierre Boulez spring to mind.

Some other composers were prepared to conduct the works of other composers from time to time-Benjamin Britten is a notably fine example, others include Morton Gould and (once disastrously!) Alexander Glazunov.

Others conducted their own music but-by and large-restricted themselves to that only. However, as interpreters of their own compositions they frequently provide insights which mark out these interpretations and make their recordings classics.

Some 20th century examples of composers who have recorded their own works-

William Alwyn, Sir Malcolm Arnold, Sir Lennox Berkeley, Sir Arthur Bliss, Sir Edward Elgar, George Lloyd, James Macmillan, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Sir Michael Tippett, Sir William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams from Britain

Heitor Villa-Lobos from Brazil

Darius Milhaud and Andre Jolivet from France

Paul Hindemith and Hans Werner Henze from Germany

Zoltan Kodaly from Hungary

Carlos Chavez from Mexico

Witold Lutoslawski, Andrej Panufnik and Krzystof Penderecki from Poland

George Enescu from Rumania

Dmitri Kabalevsky and Aram Khachaturian from Russia

Frank Martin from Switzerland

Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Alan Hovhaness and John Adams from the USA

(This is not intended to be a comprehensive list! I know that composers like Dvorak conducted in the days before recordings.)

Of the composers listed above, some recorded a very substantial part of their complete oeuvre(Copland, Stravinsky, Penderecki, George Lloyd), others recorded complete symphony sets while some only very occasionally made it to the podium.

The questions which occur to me are:

Accepting that the composer(presumably) has a unique insight into how the music should sound-how does an orchestra respond to a conducting technique which may leave something to be desired? Tippett's recording of 'A Child of Our Time' is inspired but the playing is scrappy at times. Walton was a very variable conductor of his own music. In some instances the composer may have received training as a conductor or played in an orchestra(Malcolm Arnold), in others this has not been the case.

Is there a difference between 'traditions' or practice from one country to another? British composers seem to have been more likely to take up the baton than others. Or is it just a matter of circumstance-orchestral availability, recording opportunities, accident?

Why do some composers utterly refuse to attempt to conduct their own music? Did composers like Bartok in Hungary, Prokofiev or Shostakovich in Russia, Bax or Delius in Britain ever try to do so?

Offline some guy

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Re: The composer as conductor
« Reply #1 on: November 30, 2008, 10:58:35 AM »
Most composers have conducted at one time or other.

Berlioz was perhaps the first to really take the job seriously.

To add to your list of twentieth century folk:

Bruno Maderna
Iancu Dumitrescu
Ana-Maria Avram
Tim Hodgkinson (who is also a virtuoso bass clarinet player)
Gerard Pape
Peter Eötvös, who's been mentioned on the other thread

Some people, like Eötvös, split the jobs so evenly, they could fit in either thread. Perhaps there should be only one: people who both compose and conduct!

Offline knight66

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Re: The composer as conductor
« Reply #2 on: November 30, 2008, 12:37:55 PM »
Of course, we need to mention one of the best of all composer/conductors; Berlioz. His writings are vivid in his frustrations of trying to get the best out of inadequate orchestral players. His diaries make fascinating reading.

Below are some extracts from some long posts I made on an old thread, I have quoted below the instances I worked with some conductors who were principally composers. These performances were when I was in the Scottish National Orchestra Chorus and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. I thought they would fit in here.


Tippet conducting Child of Our Time

"Tippet conducted us in his own work Child of Our Time. This was very exciting to us. He was engaging and knew the score expertly, vital as his sight was very poor and he could not see the score unless his nose was touching it. He picked up the odd error in the orchestral parts. The performance itself was good, but he rocked us by having a sudden memory lapse and at a critically difficulty entry simply stood stock still until he came to again and the leader once again saved the day and kept things going."


Boulez conducting Mahler's 8th

"The rehearsals went OK, though we found Boulez distant and uncommunicative. The behaviour of the teacher with the Wandsworth boys caused raised eyebrows as several times we encountered him sitting on the floor astride a boy tickling him. How the world has changed; now he would be subject to rather more than dirty looks should he be so unwise as to behave in such a way.

At the performance I almost needed binoculars to see Boulez, he semaphored like a bandmaster. During the performance one of a group of us, who was going to go out after the performance for dinner, left the platform. He went AWOL and eventually I tracked him to the nearest hospital, admitted dead on arrival after having thrown himself under a subway train. All this coloured my memory of an unsatisfactory and involving performance. I have had little time for Boulez since, not enjoying his music or his philosophy…he did at one time advocate burning down all opera houses, presumably Bayreuth had him sign a contract foreswearing pyromania.

So, what of the performance on the discs. It is on a label called Living Stage, LS347.16, cost £9 from MDC on The Strand, London and has passionate excerpts from the Berlioz Romeo and Juliet as a makeweight at the start of the first disc.

I was very taken aback and have to eat a lot of hostile words. It is miles away from being the metronomic performance of my memory. It surges and is full of energy and of repose. The soloists mostly do well with one significant exception. Edda Moser and Linda Esther Gray lead the soaring soprano soloists with the brief rather forward, but beautifully poised appearance of Wendy Eathorne. Elisabeth Connell and Bernadette Greevy are first rate Mezzos and Sigmund Nimsgern and Marius Rintzler take good care of the lower voices. The blot is Alberto Remedios, ENOs famous Siegfried. He is superb in the first movement then falls apart completely in the second, he uses head voice where his voice is splintering, cracks on attempted high notes or even leaves them out, provides late entries and tries hard to gentle his way round the Jungfrau. It is a shocker.

Boulez sets off at a terrific pace and the choirs do well with the entries distinct, secure and well sung rather than shouted. The end of the first movement presses forward and the upward fountains of the choral parts come across exceptionally. The actual sound coming off the discs surprised me with no noticeable compression and forward sound, an unusually fine radio recording.

The second movement opens poetically, there is wonderful ebb and flow throughout and many textures are filigree. Very few fluffs from the orchestra, one or two ragged brass entries apart, they sound on great form. The long stretch of the second part is very well sung by committed soloists, except as already mentioned, Remedios. The ending has terrific sonority as the engineers capture the staggering noise of the Albert Hall organ in full flow.

So, I am happy to listen repeatedly for much more than nostalgic reasons and the noise you hear as you read is me eating many critical words about Boulez. On the night we had felt flat rather than elated."


Penderecki conducting his Stabat Mater from his St Mark's Passion

"We did Penderecki in that first year and I had to go to a musical friend and be trained like a dog. We did his Stabat Mater and he conducted us. I was well scared, as the music was unaccompanied and he was about three feet from me. At one point all the singers had to produce a different semitone through about three octaves. He knew exactly what notes were missing and was very impatient about it. I managed not draw attention to myself, but was never sure whether I was on the right note or had stolen someone else's. There was only about a third of the choir used for the piece and I think John, the Chorus Master took a flyer on me to study the music at home."

Mike
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Offline Dundonnell

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Re: The composer as conductor
« Reply #3 on: November 30, 2008, 04:54:02 PM »
Very interesting first hand accounts, Mike! I was particularly interested in your experience with Tippett which kind of supported what i was saying about his recording of the oratorio. Boulez I count-particularly these days-as as much a professional conductor as composer.

I know that in the 19th Century(and earlier) many composers conducted their own music but that was frequently because there was no one else to do it ;D The emergence of the professional conductor led to most composers leaving it to others to interpret their music.

Offline knight66

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Re: The composer as conductor
« Reply #4 on: November 30, 2008, 10:47:44 PM »
Yes, I was trying to remember whether Wagner conduced his own works at all. Berlioz was sometimes conducting his own work, but really I think he was substantially responsible for the whole profession; as he saw how very poor a lot of orchestras were and he basically started training them up.

It is interesting to try to understand whether the composers were able to get more across than the subsequent conductors. I have not for instance listened to RVW on his own pieces. I suspect that while it often provides insights and pointers; there were often better interpretations achieved by others; Britten and a few others excepted no doubt.

Mike
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Offline Maciek

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Re: The composer as conductor
« Reply #5 on: December 01, 2008, 12:59:26 AM »
I remember some of your fascinating notes from the old forum, Mike, but don't recognize any of these. Interesting to read about Penderecki being so impatient. He seems to be conducting a real lot these days, which seems a bit odd, given that he's not usually considered very exciting as a conductor (at least not for the audience ;D).

Offline Lethevich

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Re: The composer as conductor
« Reply #6 on: December 01, 2008, 02:28:00 AM »
Can't forget Mendelssohn, who made quite a reputation from it. One of his Beethoven 9th performances was so fast that Schumann was compelled to leave midway through from shock. Strangely, IIRC, after only one performance he withdrew his Italian symphony and it was no longer performed during his lifetime.
« Last Edit: December 01, 2008, 02:30:02 AM by Lethe »
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Offline Wendell_E

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Re: The composer as conductor
« Reply #7 on: December 01, 2008, 02:40:07 AM »
Yes, I was trying to remember whether Wagner conduced his own works at all.

He conducted the world premieres of Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser in Dresden.  I'm fairly certain he conducted Rienzi there as well, but not the premiere.  He did conduct excerpts from later operas in concert, but I don't know about complete performances.

Thomas Adès should be mentioned as a composer as conductor (and pianist) in his own works and those of other composers.
« Last Edit: December 01, 2008, 02:52:06 AM by Wendell_E »
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Offline knight66

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Re: The composer as conductor
« Reply #8 on: December 01, 2008, 08:58:37 AM »
Also Oliver Knussen, I have a disc of Mussorgsky/Stokovsky that he conducted and very good it is.

Mike
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