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Wednesday September 03 2014

That posting I did the other day about how a really fast computer perfectly fills in for the imperfections of my own deteriorating mental processes may not have impressed anyone else, but it impressed me.  And now I am listening to Beethoven symphonies on my CD player, and I am thinking that something similar may happen between a really good symphony orchestra and a conductor.

“Great conductors” are famous for carrying on into their dotage.  Lots of people have written and talked about this.  The Great Conductor’s grasp of everyday life and its processes collapses, yet the great man’s ability to go on conducting seems mysteriously unimpaired.  Why?

This only applies to “great conductors”.  Merely good conductors have to jack it in.  Again, why?  Why this difference?  Why do only the Great Conductors often keep going so long?

The usual answers to questions about why this happens tend to focus on the mental processes of the Great Man himself, and upon the magical power of music to improve the brain, or in this case prevent its collapse.  But how about considering also the musicians whom they conduct, and the general situation that conductors in generally tend to find themselves in as they get old, and how about also the essence of what a conductor does and does not do, when he is conducting.

A merely good conductor doesn’t get to conduct a Great Orchestra, and accordingly, his job is to make merely good orchestras, or even not that good orchestras play better.  Lots of instructions and arguments are involved.  You’re doing this, you ought to be doing it like this, and so on.  So our merely good conductor finds himself in circumstances where his declining mental abilities are often cruelly exposed.  He forgets what he said to the first oboist ten seconds ago, and so so.  And, being merely good, and there being plenty of other merely good conductors available, our merely good conductor in due course gets a free transfer into conducting retirement.

But now consider the Great Conductor.  He is conducting a Great Orchestra.  Because he can.  Two circumstances now prevail which are absent when a merely good conductor conducts a merely good orchestra.  First, the concert is a sell-out, every time.  The CDs continue to sell, no matter how much bodging and stitching and patching up the engineers have to do afterwords.  (All sorts of rumours circulate in classical music about this kind of thing.) But second, crucially, the Great Conductor is not called upon to do anything except conduct the Great Orchestra that he is still able to be put at the front of.

I surmise that if you are conducting a Great Orchestra, the effect is rather similar to the effect I described of me sitting at the keyboard of a super-fast state-of-the-art computer (such as I am still being deprived of as I type this).  I type and the computer reacts immediately.  I switch from one thing to another, and the computer follows me, instantaneously.  Well, does not rather the same thing apply when a Great Conductor conducts a Great Orchestra?  I suspect it does.

What goes ragged and unreliable when you get old is memory, short-term being especially embarrassing, but basically all varieties of it.  But what remains, typically, is your senses, your grasp of right now.  And conducting is all about being, as modern parlance has it, “in the moment”, “in the now”.  What matters is what you are telling the orchestra to do, right now, and they do it, right now, in the same moment.  This, we oldies can still be a part of.  What we can’t do is always remember precisely how things went ten seconds ago, or yesterday, or a week ago.  But guess what, when you are conducing, you don’t need to think about that!  In fact, it may even be an advantage if you make a habit of not thinking about that.  Insofar as you do need to be reminded of where you’ve got to, the orchestra does this, by playing what must now be played.

What I am surmising is: it’s not that the Great Conductors are “kept young” by the process of conducting an orchestra and by the gloriousness of the music itself.  What is happening here is that as a Great Conductor gets old, at much the same rate and in much the same way that the rest of us do, he finds himself in a situation where the kinds of deteriorations that happen to us all do not matter.  The show is able to go on for about another decade or more beyond when you would think it should have ground to an embarrassing halt.  His wife has to butter his toast and remind him which symphony he is about to conduct and tell him which city they are in.  But once the playing begins, all is well.  Any conducting mistakes, and the orchestra irons them out, which may even keep them more alert and awake.

For yes, being conducted by a really old Great Conductor may even work better than usual.  A sixty year old Great Conductor may have all kinds of tyrannical and complicated ideas about how to interpret the music which he may insist on talking about at insulting length during rehearsals.  He may want to rearrange the orchestra’s membership.  He may be a bully and a tyrant.  And he may still be quite good at all this, as in: able to make life hell for the orchestra.  But all that one of these ninety five year old Great Conductors is able to do is wave a stick in front of the orchestra on the night.  The occasional unclear wobble of that stick is not a problem.  A great orchestra just takes its cue from its leader and its various section leaders.  They know how to play well, no matter what idiocy is going on on the podium, especially if they have played the piece lots of times before with the Great Conductor.

The key variable may simply be: do they like the Great Conductor, or do they not?  Perhaps fifteen years ago he was a sadistic bastard, in which case as soon as he starts forgetting people’s names or forgetting what he was trying to say a moment ago in rehearsal, then he is gently but firmly told to stop.  But, if they like the old geezer, then all he has to do is stand in front of them on the night, and they are easily able to turn his increasingly vague wavings into a performance of genuine substance and distinction.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Great Conductor is still truly great.  He is still contributing that certain special something that even the greatest orchestras – perhaps especially the greatest orchestras – do truly need.  But that’s now all that the Great Conductor is contributing.  And that, if you think about it, could be just about the perfect arrangement for all concerned.

Scrub all of the above if the conductor goes deaf, as Beethoven did quite early in his life.  He had to give up performing altogether, and concentrate entirely on composing.  Poor old Beethoven.  Lucky old us.