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.