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Music as Alchemy

Music as Alchemy
By Tom Service
Faber and Faber; 284 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

Tom Service doesn’t want you to read what today’s leading conductors say about themselves…because you may actually believe what they say.

In his delightful memoir Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and Their Orchestras, author Tom Service writes of his times and trials with some of the world’s most famous orchestras. How is the conductor interpreting a composer’s vision? Or is he really serving his own ego? How do the musicians feel about his choice of music or touring schedule? And how are they getting along with the conductor, anyway?

Service begins with a brief history of the baton going back to ancient Greece and including the infamous incident in which 18th-century conductor Jean-Baptiste Lully stabbed himself in the toe with his. In each chapter, Service focuses on a single conductor and orchestra.

Service writes about the standard motions of the baton and describes how conductor Valery Gergiev of the London Symphony Orchestra dispenses with them, and the stick, entirely. Gergiev conducts with the “tremors” of his fingers, you see, along with “propulsions” of his elbows and “convulsions” of his shoulders. One would think the man is having a seizure on the podium; yet his musicians seem to follow him just fine.

Did you know that conductor Jonathan Nott of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducts without a score? Even something as maddeningly complex as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. He color-codes his notes to squeeze it all into his noggin. And why does he do this? Well, Lorin Maazel of the New York Philharmonic does it. And who wants to be one-upped by Lorin Maazel?

What about the Berlin Philharmonic’s Simon Rattle and his efforts to break the pan-Germanic hegemony of Mozart and the Three Bs? It was established by his larger-than-life predecessor Herbert von Karajan. A tough act to follow. Rattle does it by juxtaposing Anton Webern with Beethoven or Schoenberg with Brahms. He’s showing not only how the moderns looked back in time, but also how the Classical and Romantic composers looked forward.

Then there’s Iván Fischer of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. He likes to “tune” his orchestra by having his string players play their open strings together. Didactic? Sure. Annoying? Maybe. You know they do that with youth orchestras, don’t you?

And Service’s moving description of Claudio Abbado’s treatment of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony makes you want to lock yourself in a quiet room and listen to the piece yourself, preferably Abbado’s version. That’s the point of this kind of book, isn’t it? That, and to show the reader from firsthand experience the chaos and creativity, the genius and geniality, and the fascinating whirlwind of activity that goes into making the world’s greatest orchestral music.

This book review appeared in the spring 2015 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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