You make me happy
When skies are gray
You’ll never know dear
How much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away
There are a lot of musicians out there who want to murder the conductor.
Maestros are notorious monsters, despised by those who must perform beyond perfection, who are held to impossible standards – or lose their jobs. The orchestra conductor is a mercurial, hysterical dervish.
Arturo Toscanini is famous for screaming in four languages. He would collapse to the ground and yell: “Secondi violini, see I pray to you on my knees, give me the pianissimo I desire!” (But it’s hard not to sympathize a tiny bit with Toscanini when he called a flutist an “assassin!” for failing to come in at the right moment.)
Bernard Herrmann had a bee in his bonnet about the oboist when recording the soundtrack to the film The Trouble With Harry. “And pretty soon everybody despised him,” noted the movie’s director, Alfred Hitchcock.
Need another example? The New York Time marked the 1989 death of Herbert von Karajan with a reference to his – ahem – “musical perfectionism”. The words “arrogance” and “self-indulgence” also appear.
Many tyrants have no talent. Yet those who do, and reach the pinnacle of their profession, push their musicians to create some of the most sublime music ever heard. Of von Karajan, the NYT noted: “And to the very end, he drew playing of the utmost tonal beauty from his orchestras. The Berlin Philharmonic is widely regarded as the world’s pre-eminent orchestra, if any one ensemble can stake that claim. And his performances at Carnegie Hall with the Vienna Philharmonic drew almost astonished enthusiasm from veteran observers for their sonic sumptuousness.”
Does the creation of magic make all the abuse worthwhile?
One morning, Det.-Lt. Pratt walks into Symphony Hall to discover that someone has killed the conductor. The corpse was Luigi Spadafini. Musicians and those associated with the symphony are questioned about their relationship with and impressions of the dead maestro:
“The hottest young conductor on the planet”
“A musical genius”
So who did it? They all did.
Det.-Lt. Pratt arrives to discover that “the entire orchestra has confessed.” It’s clear the 76 musicians are more than happy that someone in the building had the gumption, and good sense, to murder the creep.
Pratt is working on his last case, with a greenhorn partner who’s been in homicide for two weeks, and a constable who only talks in song titles.
You’ll meet these characters, and 76 blood-thirsty musicians, in the humorous and noir-ish Orchestrated Murder, by Rick Blechta (2011). It’s a Rapid Reads book, a novella of 122 pages in an easy read style (and a donation of the Tillotson Foundation of Coaticook). (Check out our entire Easy Reads section – for those of any age who are learning to read, for those with short attention spans, or for fast readers who have very little time but still want to get a story read before bed.)
You don’t have to be a screaming despot to bring out the best in an orchestra. The Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s Charles Dutoit had a reputation, shall we say. But his successor, the promoted-as-a-sex-symbol Kent Nagano, appears to be well thought of. And the Orchestre Symphonique de Sherbrooke’s Stéphane Laforest seems like a nice guy. The OSS debuts its new season on Sunday, with Bartók, Debussy and Ravel; it’s based at the Université de Sherbrooke’s Centre Culturel.
Need more classical music? Check out the Unitarian Universalist Church of North Hatley today (Friday) at 11 a.m., or pop by Lennoxville’s Uplands at 3 p.m., where presentations on “The Genius of Brahms” will be followed by a performance by the Uplands Trio (there is an entry fee, and you might want to call and book before showing up).
One last pointer. The Centre d’arts Orford now presents choral and orchestral performances year-round (and jazz, too!), starting with sacred music by Brahms and Mendelssohn this Sunday afternoon.
In the meantime, get into the spirit of things with a baton. For those conductors who use one, it’s grasped between the thumb and the first two fingers, and held against the palm. The great Leonard Bernstein was mocked for his energetic conducting style: “If one uses a baton,” he once said, “the baton itself must be a living thing, charged with a kind of electricity, which makes it an instrument of meaning in its tiniest movement.”
ARE YOU MY SUNSHINE?
For those whose tastes do not run toward symphonic orchestras, have a look at the picture book You Are My Sunshine, by Jimmie Davis and Caroline Jayne Church (2011, filed on the PB shelves). It’s full of cute kids and their adorable stuffed animals.
Perfect for singing along!
– Eleanor Brown, Nov. 7, 2014