Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting,
by John Mauceri;
262 pages; published in 2017; Alfred A.
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.