Con­certs have an ex­tra charge when charisma and emo­tion come into play.


David Larsen says the ef­fect of con­duc­tor Vladimir Ashke­nazy on an APO con­cert was like a shot of adren­a­line to the heart.

There is a fa­mous YouTube clip of Leonard Bern­stein con­duct­ing the Vi­enna Phil­har­monic us­ing only fa­cial ex­pres­sions. His eye­brows move a lot.

Thirty years ago or so, I saw Maxim Shostakovich, the son of the com­poser, con­duct the New Zealand Sym­phony Orches­tra in his fa­ther’s fifth sym­phony. It was a sold-out per­for­mance and I had to sit in the choir stalls, be­hind the orches­tra; this meant I could see the younger Shostakovich’s face. It would have been the per­fect place to ob­serve some­one con­duct­ing with their eye­brows, but Shostakovich con­ducted with his whole body.

Ac­tu­ally “con­ducted” is not even the word. He en­acted the mu­sic. He was an­guished and ec­static. To this day, I don’t know how the orches­tra man­aged to fol­low his down­beats, which were all over the place, but he brought so much emo­tion to the podium that he was like an ex­tra in­stru­ment. It was an as­ton­ish­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and a rev­e­la­tion to be in the room with him.

If you have ever won­dered what con­duc­tors are good for, the an­swer is ev­ery­thing and noth­ing. This is eas­i­est to ob­serve, as most things are, at the ex­tremes. A re­ally bad con­duc­tor can teach you a lot about the power of de­mor­al­i­sa­tion, con­fu­sion and mis­ap­plied ego. Or you could learn about the trans­for­ma­tive ca­pa­bil­i­ties of a mu­si­cally bril­liant, charis­matic con­duc­tor by spend­ing five sec­onds watch­ing Vladimir Ashke­nazy.

I have for decades re­gret­ted and re­sented Ashke­nazy’s move into con­duct­ing. Like his great con­tem­po­rary Daniel Baren­boim, who made the same move at about the same time, he is one of the ma­jor liv­ing pi­anists, but he has spent less and less time at the key­board as his con­duct­ing ca­reer has ex­panded. This has struck me as the loss of some­thing pre­cious and de­fin­able in ex­change for some­thing rather neb­u­lous. Af­ter the first few sec­onds of his con­cert with the Auck­land Phil­har­mo­nia, I was re-eval­u­at­ing that po­si­tion.

Ashke­nazy is tiny. He strode onto the stage like a man who couldn’t un­der­stand why the mu­sic hadn’t started yet. Me? You’re wait­ing for me? Are you blind? Here I am! Usu­ally con­duc­tors start a con­cert like this: stand, lift arms, pause... si­lence, in­sist on that si­lence... make them wait... down­beat. It’s rit­u­alised and it takes only a lit­tle time, but it’s like the cover of a book; you can feel the thick­ness of it. Ashke­nazy ripped the cover right off. He had the orches­tra play­ing while the au­di­ence was still draw­ing breath.

A con­duc­tor can­not give play­ers new abil­i­ties. There are mo­ments in the Si­belius

The sense of fo­cus and com­mit­ment in the play­ing was re­mark­able.

sec­ond sym­phony, this con­cert’s ma­jor show­piece, where the first vi­o­lins have to cre­ate a bru­tally aus­tere sound, of­ten at high speed, with no mask­ing ef­fect from other parts of the orches­tra. It re­quires per­fect uni­son play­ing, and “per­fect” is mu­sic’s great un­for­giv­ing word. Only a hand­ful of or­ches­tras in the world can give the hard­est of these pas­sages ev­ery­thing Si­belius asks for, who­ever’s stand­ing on the podium.

What Ashke­nazy gave the orches­tra, beyond the clear rhyth­mic and dy­namic di­rec­tion that you’d ex­pect from any com­pe­tent con­duc­tor, and beyond the so­phis­ti­cated sense of mu­si­cal shape that you’d hope for from any re­ally good con­duc­tor, was a sense of pres­ence. This sounds vague. It wasn’t. Charisma and per­sonal en­ergy are mean­ing­less lead­er­ship-man­ual buzz­words un­til you meet some­one who has them. Every­one on the stage was lean­ing in. The ca­pac­ity au­di­ence — it was an­other of the rare con­certs where they sell seats in the choir stalls — was lean­ing in as well. If I had to re­duce Ashke­nazy’s ef­fect to a sin­gle metaphor, it would be a shot of adren­a­line to the heart.

This was not with­out down­sides. There were mo­ments in the Strauss oboe con­certo — beau­ti­fully per­formed by soloist Gor­don Hunt — where a sup­port­ing clar­inet phrase seemed to jump out and mug the au­di­ence: Ashke­nazy is con­duct­ing me, I’m so ex­cited! And there are some elec­tric pauses in the sec­ond move­ment of the Si­belius which Ashke­nazy com­pressed: if his mu­si­cian­ship has a flaw, it’s im­pa­tience. But the over­all sense of fo­cus and com­mit­ment in the play­ing was re­mark­able. I have long been of the view that any­one who doesn’t find the fi­nal mo­ments of the Si­belius in­tensely mov­ing and up­lift­ing has met the med­i­cal def­i­ni­tion of death; but I think this per­for­mance might have got through to dead peo­ple as well.


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