To what, do you suppose, might Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) – don’t you just love the name?- have been referring in the following statement? ‘It is the most wonderful of all sensations that any man can conceive. It really oughtn’t to be allowed.‘
A number of ideas may spring to mind, some of them, perhaps, unprintable. But I bet that conducting wasn’t one of them. I now have some inkling of what he meant.
There isn’t a classical music enthusiast who hasn’t at some stage picked up a skewer, knitting needle or makeshift baton and waved his arms in the belief that he or she is controlling a magnificent sound. But it is rare to have that dream realized. Through the introduction of a friend, I was invited by the conductor, Lev Parikian, to attend and conduct at one of his Monday night rehearsals with the London Phoenix Orchestra.
I was allowed to choose the music, and I’m not sure why I chose Mozart’s overture to his opera ‘The Magic Flute‘, (a prime candidate for your first opera experience) especially after someone cautioned that I shouldn’t even consider conducting Mozart, until I had mastered Mahler. Mozart’s tunefulness can lure you into the misapprehension that it ought not to be too difficult, even though I knew otherwise; and it did, indeed, take some persuasion for me to give it a whirl.
Date in the diary, I bought the score and set about learning it as best I could. There was no showing off in this resolve: there were three very good reasons why I wanted to try and commit it to memory. First and foremost was my wish to demonstrate to the players that I had put in the work; secondly, my condition makes turning pages at any speed almost impossible; and finally, I just don’t understand how it is possible to follow a score and concentrate on leading at the same time. If you go to a play or concert with the part in your hand, you cannot possibly give full attention to what you are attending.
Practising to a recording is highly flattering. Whatever you do, or don’t do, the players will all sound fantastic. Being faced with some forty people is something else altogether, and I was under absolutely no illusion as to who needed whom more in this relationship. Conducting from a wheelchair brings further limitations, sight-line being an obvious one; but it was a further incentive to look at them. Far better, in such circumstances, to have the score in my head, rather than my head in the score.
Let’s be clear. These wonderful musicians could have played this piece blindfolded, and certainly without me. But what is also clear is that they were in a very good position to make me look stupid beyond words, and that is the terrifying part. Whilst orchestras want, and are waiting, to be led, the conductor can only hope that he has his team on side: without that mutual trust, disaster awaits. It is a lesson that anyone who manages people in any profession would do well to heed.
To my enormous relief, they all came in together. (In fact, I was so thrilled that I was within a nat’s crotchet of going all maestro-ish and starting again.) I don’t imagine I will ever be asked to start the Grand National. No offence to London Phoenix, but the opening seconds can’t be so very different: you try to gather everyone’s attention, and then you can only hope that they all go off together. And the opening couple of minutes is full of fences, before you can feel remotely comfortable; because, in truth, all you want to do is to start them and then get out of the way. This is the fear at the one-minute point.
We played it right through without a stop. Goossens was not far wrong: it is the human equivalent of turning on a light switch. When you’ve plunged from the top diving board, you just want to go up and do it again. To be in the heart of that sound, to really feel it, is something extraordinary. My heartfelt thanks to Lev, whose own very generous take on this, titled Eurovision and Mozart (and other matters, especially bird watching) can be read on his excellent blog, levparikian.wordpress.com and the London Phoenix Orchestra: it was a real joy.
So this is what they played. Six minutes of solemnity and comedy rolled into one.