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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Wednesday November 26 2008

imageI’m watching a DVD of the late Herbert von Karajan conducting his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies.  I’m glad I can do this, as well as just listen.  Those who don’t like watching conductors conduct don’t have to.

I recall writing, some while ago (either on this blog or on a ruined predecessor of it), that the conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim plays the piano as if conducting himself.  He seems to be two separate people, pianist-Barenboim with the fingers who actually plays, and conductor Barenboim who, standing back from his playing, metaphorically if not literally (although he does sometimes seem to be moving his body as far away from the keyboard as he can while still being able to reach it), judging and modifying the music-making of pianist-Barenboim.

Karajan, on the other hand, conducts the orchestra as if playing solo on the piano.  When the music is loud and dramatic, Karajan is completely swept up in it.  There is no Barenboim-like detachment.  He is utterly absorbed in the music and the only messages he sends to his musicians are through his involuntary facial gestures and arm gestures.  There’s no eye contact.  The orchestra is simply his instrument.  His orchestra knows what every gesture means, and does that every time, just as a piano plays whatever note it is when whatever key it is is struck.

It occurs to me that an interesting question to ask about any conductor would be: how good would he have been at acting?  Karajan’s current Berlin successor, Sir Simon Rattle, would, one guesses, have been an excellent actor.  Rattle is hyper-sensitive to the effect he has on people.  When he conducts, there’s lots of eyes and teeth, lots of projection of personality, lots of “collaboration”, lots of admiration communicated by him to the musicians who are (as he perfectly well understands) doing the actual playing.

When Rattle talks, he communicates that feeling you often get with actors that he is so busy calculating the right impression to give, and giving it, that you feel you are being conned, by someone who has no “there” there.  Karajan, on the other hand, I believe, would have been a hopeless actor.  But, if he could squeeze you into his schedule, he was a very straightforward and honest conversationalist (I once heard him talking on the radio), rubbing you up the wrong way with many of his pronouncements precisely because he was not willing to adapt the wording of them merely to suit you, or to suit his idea of you.  He strikes me as having been a very simple and straightforward man.  His alleged power-freakery was, at root, the simple desire that his orchestra sound exactly as he wanted it to sound.  So that he could just stand there and play it.

The usual story about Karajan was that he was obsessed with his image, in other words obsessed about the impression he made on others, at the worst some kind of Nazi.  But to me what all these stories say is that actually, manipulating his own image was not something that came at all naturally to Karajan, or that he was all that comfortable doing, hence the ham-fisted and over-the-top way he often did this.  When you are being subjected to successful image manipulation, manipulation is the last thing that you or anyone else thinks about.