Saturday, November 14, 2009

Toscanini mangia l'orchestra - that's the title of this video

It makes for somewhat hilarious listening now, doesn't it? All that screaming and yelling like a coddled child too exhausted to realize how tired he is. It's like hearing about Khrushchev's shoe-banging at the UN or his tantrum when he found out he couldn't visit Disney World. You feel like you want to find a guinea pig that looks like him and pet it every so often.

But then it occurs to you that there but the grace of 'god' go you to a clownish boss like them to whom your livelihood, perhaps your life itself, depends. And only then do you begin to understand what a black joke it is. It's difficult to realize now, but until 1933 Adolf Hitler was the most hilarious punchline in international politics. Kim Jong-il is a punchline that never fails at a Washington party, yet it's all to easy to forget that the ability to laugh at people like him is still not a fundamental right for billions.

Mussolini made the trains run on time, Toscanini rid orchestras of sloppiness and exaggeration. In real life they were mortal enemies and Toscanini was one of the world's most famous anti-fascists. But what is not often realized is that they arrived at the pinnacle of their professions as close collaborators. It was only when Mussolini began to interfere in Toscanini's artistic decisions that Toscanini fled to America, a country that gave him the freedom to terrorize musicians in whatever way he saw fit.

It's ironic that the era of the podium tyrant reached its apogee in mid-century America. Serge Koussevitsky refused to let the Boston Symphony unionize for the duration of his tenure, and was shocked when musicians protested his proposal to have the entire orchestra live in the same apartment co-op with a special bell that he would ring a half-hour before he wanted to schedule a rehearsal. Artur Rodinski would arrive at New York Philharmonic rehearsals with a loaded pistol in his back pocket. George Szell would routinely fire musicians in the Cleveland Orchestra for mistakes in the middle of rehearsal. Fritz Reiner would force individual musicians in the Chicago Symphony to repeat the same difficult passages a dozen times over until they'd trip up and he could fire them publicly. And this was allegedly the Golden Age of American Classical Music.

But let's be honest here. What present-day conductor hasn't listened to the Toscanini tantrums without a twinge of envy? Hell, what conductor hasn't fantasized about taking sloppy players into the green room with a loaded pistol? Musicians are widely known as flaky inconsiderate people on their best days, and the reputation is not entirely undeserved. A conductor should never mount a rostrum without being prepared to see their musicians in the worst possible light.

But pity the poor conductor. The mentality of musicians to conductors will always be guilty until proven innocent. A conductor is like a boss who not only watches your every move but also has the responsibility to correct your mistakes in front of all your co-workers. If a conductor wants to succeed, power must be displayed without exerting it. Through a mixture of competence, psychological manipulation and insight, he must earn the players' confidence and may only get cross if he lists justifiable reasons right in the middle of losing his temper. To all the musicians who play under him, his mentality must be innocent until proven guilty. It is now the 21st century, and the age of the podium tyrant must be brought to a close.

For the legacy of Toscanini sadly lasts to this day in all too obvious ways. And any musician to ever play under a stressed-out conductor is quite likely to have seen it in practice. In the fifteen years I've played under conductors I watched a number of them reduce individual musicians to tears after the eighth repetition of the same passage. I've seen a conductor single out a fifteen-year-old violist in an orchestra of eighty at the top of his lungs for crossing her legs in the middle of rehearsal. I endured a conductor who promised to fire musicians at the third rehearsal of twelve if he found anyone better. I even went through one conductor who successfully coerced me into military style workouts for being late to rehearsal (I assure you it didn't sound that weird at the time). I'm sure that others have seen far worse than I did, and the truth was that I generally got on swimmingly with every one of them. They were all fine musicians and quite nice people away from the podium, always happy to oblige a curious music student. Toscanini was said by many to be quite a nice man away from the podium too. But his legacy is that decent people feel unencumbered by the rules of decency when given positions of power.

If you are a musician who plays under a conductor, please try to understand that your conductor is charged with a task that by definition cannot be fulfilled, and it will sometimes make him quite stressed. But if your conductor is singling you out for unfair treatment then you owe it to yourself to leave. Once upon a time, behaviors like the ones you're subjected to were used to justify far worse things than a wrong note. A field like classical music that has so many stains from collaboration with authoritarian regimes cannot allow for authoritarian practices to continue.

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