Thursday, May 19, 2022

Book Review -- Maestros and Their Music


Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting, 

by John Mauceri; 

262 pages; published in 2017; Alfred A. Knopf

As you know from some of my previous presentations to this book club, I am a great fan of “serious music,” as it’s sometimes called: opera, ballet and symphony. My library, which now includes Mauceri’s book, holds sixty-five books about composers and their work, and our entertainment centre has stacks of DVD and Blu Ray discs of musical performances – music composed from the ages of Handel and Bach through the classical and romantic periods to the present day.

A close friend told me about this splendid book, which enables the music lover to understand the art and craft of leading an orchestra, putting it in historical context. Himself a renowned conductor, Maestro Mauceri’s career has involved conducting for the world’s top orchestras and opera houses. The latter include New York’s Met, where he had a close working relationship with Leonard Bernstein for 18 years; Teatro La Scala in Milan, and London’s Royal Opera House. He conducted the recording of more than 50 CDs, and has received awards in the US, the UK, France and Germany.

The book is bursting with anecdotes interspersed within a serious discussion of art of conducting. While the amount of detail is huge, there are few footnotes. I suspect that this is because Mauceri has a photographic memory.

The first of its ten chapters is ‘A Short History of Conducting.’ The conductor as we know him (rarely her—and that only in recent decades) is a creature of the 19th century. The increasing complexity of scores required that someone be in charge. The two founders of modern conducting were both great composers – Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner. It was obvious that no matter how detailed the notation and instructions in a musical score, the room for interpretation was such that the conductor’s success in realizing its composer’s vision could vary extensively from one conductor to another.

Yet the conductor is the only person in the hall or theater who doesn’t make a sound. The players play; the singers sing; the audience applauds. So how does a man influence the quality of a performance by gesticulating standing on a podium, waving a baton from the right hand and supporting those movements with his left. with How the conductor affects players and singers is what Mauceri’s book is about.

His most important requirement is keeping the performers working together. To get an idea of the challenge, think about the realities. The orchestra may comprise one hundred or more players, playing numerous different instruments: The string family includes violin, viola, and cello; among the woodwinds are the flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet and cor anglais; brass instruments include trumpet, French horn, and trombone. Then there are keyboards, harps, and the harpsichord. Percussion instruments range from the tympani to the triangle. Then there are soloists and a chorus which can cover a range of voices from basso profundo at the low end to coloratura soprano at the high.

Add to this confabulation of voices and instruments the musical score itself. After the variety of instruments began to multiply two hundred years ago, musical scores became more complex, full of ambiguities and with markings that have no literal meaning. The conductor’s job is to realize a performance that brings out all the meaning in a score: good conductors will develop different interpretations of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, say, or Verdi’s Aida.

Mauceri’s depictions of the path to leading an orchestra, the demands of the job and its satisfactions, and everything that can go wrong are the essence of this book. Anyone interested in the workings of symphonic, operatic, and other forms of serious music will find this maestro’s book an illuminating read.

To end this review, these two paragraphs from page 196 – chosen almost at random – will give you both a sense of his writing style and a perspective on his work.

You may well ask, when all is said and done, is this a lone journey, a communal one, or perhaps a cosmic one? Yes. Yes. Yes. Sometimes it is truly glamorous. I have conducted Walton’s Orb and Sceptre for Queen Elizabeth II, which had been composed for her coronation, and, as I said Turandot at La Scala for Prince Charles and Princess Diana; performed for two presidents of the United States – and had Paul McCartney say it was cool to meet me. Returning home and sitting in seat 3A of a Jumbo jet, drinking a mimosa, feet resting on the wall, and awaiting a good meal does make one feel like a very successful person indeed. We easily forget the stresses that just preceded our arriving in that very special seat. We easily forget the stresses that just preceded our arriving in that very special seat. We have already moved on to the next challenge and we are going home.

However, we suffer when we are not working – “between engagements” – and we suffer when we are engaged, from the stress of leaving home and family behind and the unknowns that lie ahead of us. We must therefor find a certain contentment in what we are privileged to do that will override the massive challenges and expectations – those we bring to the job and those brought by the musicians, managers, and public to our art.

Read this book. In my view, it would be hard not to enjoy it.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Jabs and Hesitancy -- The Vaccination Story

By Peter McKenzie-Brown and Steve Pitt

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Friar John had just one job. While out on his clerical rounds, he was asked by a fellow Franciscan to drop off a seemingly innocent note to a brooding rich kid named Romeo Montague. 

Before delivering the note, Friar John visited parishioners who were rumoured to be unwell. Unfortunately, the city of Verona was locked in plague hysteria. Veronese authorities forcibly slammed the door shut and Friar John was quarantined with his parishioners. Because the note went undelivered, Romeo mistakenly believed his teen bride Juliet had committed suicide. Rushing to her tomb, he killed himself with poison. Juliet famously awoke from a potion-induced death coma and, when she saw her Romeo’s body, killed herself with his dueling dagger. 

When Shakespeare wrote this play in 1597, he suggested to his audience that astrology had somehow led to the fates of these “star-crossed” lovers. 

If this tragedy occurred today, there would still be debate. One side would be complaining that two innocent teens had died needlessly because of the despotic power overreach by the medical authorities of Verona. The other side would insist that hundreds and possibly thousands of innocents lived because the authorities had prevented Father John from wandering the town after contacting people carrying the dreaded Black Death.

When did pandemics go from being a medical emergency to a political debate? In Shakespeare’s day, there was no effective way of preventing the spread of plagues other than quarantining the living and mass burials when that failed. 

Two centuries later, a new era dawned. We might call it The Age of Jabs and Hesitancy. In 1796, British physician Edward Jenner introduced a medical breakthrough called vaccination. His process was a scientific improvement on an existing treatment for smallpox – a deadly, disfiguring disease ravaging every corner of the world.

Up until then, a process called variolation was the only known preventive treatment. It involved cutting open a patient’s skin and inserting powdered scab matter from a person who had recently recovered from smallpox. The process saved lives but was risky and only marginally effective: two of King George III’s children died even after being treated by variolation. 

Jenner correctly conjectured that injecting material from a non-lethal but similar disease would be safer, and injecting fresh material from a living donor instead of a dried scab would be more effective. He tested his hypothesis on an eight-year-old boy by first inoculating him with a cowpox vaccine made from a cow udder. After a few weeks, he deliberately inoculated the boy with smallpox. Thankfully, the child survived. 

Questionable medical ethics aside, the experiment was encouraging enough for Jenner to vaccinate more patients. After their treatment proved successful, he shared his breakthrough by publishing his findings. Since those heady days, vaccinations have saved millions around the world. But soon after the Age of Jabs began, the Anti-Jabber movements began. 

You can hardly blame people for being suspicious of miracle medical cures in Jenner’s age. Real scientific medicine wasn’t even in its infancy; it was embryonic. Medical doctors were trained in traditions and theories that dated back to Greco-Roman times. Accepted medical treatments included bleeding patients; raising huge blisters all over their bodies with arsenic compounds and then lancing them; force-feeding patients with vomit- or diarrhea-inducing drugs; and prescribing pills made from mercury or other deadly substances. 

When Jenner’s experiments were first published, editorial cartoons showed patients sprouting cow heads or horns from their bodies after being vaccinated. But the proof was in the results. The British conducted mass vaccinations in British India and Ceylon in the early 1800s – another morally questionable medical experiment. Fortunately, it was a success. 

Spain conducted similar experiments in its American colonies. Again, success. Napoleon reputedly stated that he might as well fight a major battle every month of the year because he lost just as many soldiers to disease over the same period. Bonaparte ordered his entire army to be vaccinated. He was so pleased with the results he awarded Jenner (citizen of an enemy nation) a medal. 

As the Industrial Revolution spread through Britain, so did pandemics. People left rural life for dense and dirty urban communities. In the 1830s, yet another deadly outbreak of smallpox finally prompted the British government to proclaim the first Vaccination Act in 1840. Vaccinations were free and non-mandatory.

The vaccine’s success in preventing deaths convinced the government to pass a mandatory Vaccination Act in 1853. Every newborn in Britain was required to have an anti-smallpox vaccination within three months of birth. Parents failing to comply were fined one pound sterling – a heavy fine for the working class. (Rich and middle-class citizens who did not want their children to be vaccinated could simply pay a fine). 

This heavy-handed government mandate collided with a rising wave of people’s rights movements across Europe. In 1848, working class people from Italy to Ireland, Spain to Germany, marched through their streets demanding more say in government decisions, the right to free speech and control of their own destinies – including the right to decide what happened to their own children. 

Part of the reason for rising resistance to jabs was the fact that the smallpox vaccine was far from foolproof. Parents who had dutifully obeyed the mandate were sometimes dismayed to see their children die anyway – sometimes from more horrible symptoms than those common in smallpox. They blamed the vaccine – not malnourishment, overcrowding and the unsanitary living conditions common in mid-19th century Europe. Also, at that time medical practices like sterilizing medical instruments and washing hands between patients weren’t standard. 

In addition, respected scientists, doctors, and celebrities were among those who publically declared their opposition to vaccination mandates. Not even Dr. Jenner knew exactly how or why vaccines worked. Until brilliant scientists like Louis Pasteur unlocked the secrets of microbiology, no one knew scientifically how they worked: They just did. 

Anti-vax organizations arose across Europe and North America. By 1898 there was enough well-organized resistance that the British government finally created an exemption for “conscientious objectors” to refuse vaccinations for themselves and their children. Anti-vaxers had to sign a legal document acknowledging that they knew there could be consequences for failing to have their children vaccinated, and to take responsibility for the consequences. 

Such clauses lingered through the 20th century. As modern medicine and general living conditions improved, adverse consequences from vaccinations almost disappeared. World War I saw the rise of the Spanish Flu – a disease passed down the trenches, which eventually killed more than the war itself. Vaccinations arose, and by the end of World War II mass vaccinations were routine in North America, Europe, and many other regions. Childhood diseases like measles, rubella and polio lingered only where inhabitants were unable or unwilling to get vaccinated. 

Even as medicine made giant leaps, government and pharmaceutical scandals around the world kept the scepticism of Anti-Jabbers alive. The same generation that can remember polio can likely also remember the Thalidomide scandal. This ill-tested morning sickness medication induced severe birth defects among thousands of babies. Also, during the last century, governments funded and participated in such medical programs as eugenics, forced sterilization, lobotomies and testing hallucinogenic drugs on institutionalized or non-European people. We have plenty to be skeptical about. 

But the medical science is clear: vaccines do not make us sterile or magnetic, rewrite our DNA, contain microchips, or make certain parts of the male body swell up like basket balls. Indeed, many of us are here today because of ancestors who rolled up their sleeves.