“…I realized that we artists actually have no idea what we are doing. We study. We think. We rehearse. We perform. The audience is the recipient of our translations, and how it perceives our actions is the only truth, whether we are personally satisfied or not.”
In Maestros and Their Music, John Mauceri gives us unique access into the world of conducting. What is the man waving with his hands in front of the orchestra really doing? How does one become a conductor? How is quality in conducting judged; what makes one better than another? And truly, why are they important in performances of classical music? All the natural questions that might arise for anyone thinking about the art of conducting is wonderfully and convincingly explored in this book. John Mauceri writes from personal experience, as well as the experiences of people he has gotten to know through the years; combining anecdotes with general discussions of the staple-parts of the job, the skill, the controversy, and the history of the conductor. He begins with giving the historical origins of the conductor, as music began to change in the 19th century and the need arose for someone to oversee increasingly complex compositions, and further gives us an overview of this invisible art form’s development and progression through the 20th century and beyond.
What is lovely about this book is that Mauceri tends not to assume that you, as a reader, have any familiarity with music history or terms that to him and his fellow artists seem second-nature. He explains the musical notation system – the language of music, that is the conductor’s source material – and continually uses the metaphor ‘translates’ as a way to explain what the conductor does. The musical notes are the composer’s original image of the music, their vision as closely presented as possible, and it is up to the conductor to translate these notes into music. Hence, each performance being a translation – and much like the translations of books, there is an important element of interpretation in it; different conductor’s valuing different things and looking to highlight one thing over the other.
With every memoir of the kind that deals with a narrow field of occupation – the specialization and its rewards comes with a price. Mauceri touches on the many issues a conductor has to face on a regular basis such as the conflicting interests between the different actors involved in creating the performance (the director, the singers, the musicians, etc); the fact that most conductor’s don’t get much time to prepare their work or become acquainted with their fellow ‘team mates’ before they have to perform in front of an audience together; or the system through which they are re-hired (or not) as basically eliminating job security. Traveling is a basic part of the job, from one place to the next – conducting with orchestras one has not even met a week before their final performance; packing one’s entire studio – basically a life – into one suitcase and hauling it the world over, getting stuck in airport security for carrying a baton, being away from loved ones, having few friends among the people one spends most of one’s time with. There’s actually an entire chapter called “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Maestro” that is in my opinion one of the best parts of the books as it deals with these rather non-glamorous aspects of a conductor’s physical reality and what is the daily prize paying for doing the work of their dreams. A conductor has so little time to wind down, you will possibly find yourself wondering how on earth Mauceri even had the time or mind to write this book.
“Over a period of a few months I wrote down what I was doing and feeling as I prepared, traveled, rehearsed, and performed [..] Slowly but inexorably, this book took shape, and each time I went on the road there were more things to add and more memories brought to the surface.”
While the author is telling his own story and sharing his own memories, it’s worth pointing out that for the most part he talks of these experiences as universal. At times, he actually writes in the first person plural; making clear both how much of this is shared experiences, how small their world is and how we as readers are invited into this mostly offstage ‘club’. It’s a thrilling feeling to see all of the building blocks of the performed musical wonder. At times, Mauceri does get lost in his own nostalgia. He will talk about a specific director, or singer, or symphony, or whatnot – either he gets lost in his own memories, or of those close to him, his mentors. While these parts can be tedious at times, and at others seem self-congratulating – on the whole, the book does not suffer for the occasional tangents. Rather, in many parts, the discussions of a more general nature are given more depth and grounding in his personal additions.
“It is a kind of wizardry world, after all, complete with a magic wand: One person, at the epicenter of as many as a hundred musicians – playing many different instruments, and sometimes in concert with singers and soloists – is the essential conduit through which music is invoked, supervised and shaped; is the overriding interpreter – and sole possessor – of runic instructions written in a complex and arcane language that indicate a series of sounds that may or may not last over four hours; is completely dependent on the craft of everyone else; and silently and uniquely delivers an invisible controlling force to its intended goal: the audience.”
I think it would be hard to read this book and think of music in general, classical music in particular, the same way again. Of course, you will not be able to look at the conductor’s role in all of this the same way – the waving won’t just be waving, the expressive face of the man standing in front of the musicians will hold meaning. But there are other things too, to take away from it – like the way we digest music now and how it changes the rules of the game – how for example, silence is used in classical music performances is vastly different in the live as opposed to the recorded kind. Mauceri describes how composer’s have noted silences as part of their music, and how it is up to the conductor to decide the length of that silence – measuring the audience in front of him, just right, to get the desired effect. Of course, this finesse and others like it are lost in a recording; the medium itself changes the way we hear classical music, too. It’s easy to take for granted the accessibility that comes with musical recordings and the digital era, but it’s worth thinking about what is lost to us in the changing times, as well as what is gained through the development of technology and new possibilities being born.
If you have ever wondered about the man – oh yes, this book highlights the fact that this is a very male-dominated field too – seemingly pulling the strings of the orchestra, what is actually happening on stage and offstage, and you are looking for a deeper understanding of classical music through a historical look-back and the music’s ever-changing form in the present day, this book is for you.
About the Book
Title: Maestros and Their Music
Author: John Mauceri
Year of Publication: 2017
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Genre: nonfiction, music