November 2008

Musical Instincts

Marek Janowski talks about conducting

Partner Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Musical Instincts

Marek Janowski talks about conducting

by Nancy Chapple - Photo: roc Berlin

At the Haus des Rundfunks in mid-November, Marek Janowski, Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, spoke with Steffen Georgi, the orchestra's dramaturge, responsible for bringing the organization's musical program closer to the audience.

Marek Janowski

"I wanted a profession in which I could tell other people what to do" - thus Marek Janowski on why he became a conductor. Growing up in Wuppertal after the war, he received a fine musical education. As a gifted teenage violinist, he worked his way forward through the stands of Cologne's conservatory orchestra until he became concertmaster. In the process he learned to "integrate himself into the group, to get pulled into the Tutti wake." In his mid-twenties he accompanied opera singers as répétiteur, where he acquired an overall facility in reading scores and learned to leave out what is not essential.

Janowski is a small, compact man with concentrated facial expressions who makes occasional gestures with long expressive fingers. When he talks, he radiates the self-assurance developed over decades of conducting.

One prerequisite for a conductor is a fundamental, in-depth knowledge of a composer's entire output. For instance, you need to know Beethoven's 18 string quartets and 32 piano sonatas in order to understand what he was intending with a certain type of motive or development in a symphony movement. You can only interpret Schumann's symphonies if you know his piano and chamber music, Janowski insists.

"Can one learn conducting?" Georgi asked. The response: "The essentials of interpretation cannot be learned" - or taught, which is why Janowski has refused to work with students or teach at conservatory. For him, the basic principle is to develop one's musical instincts in order to be able to determine the right tempo, "to find the actual set of gestures that will come across as natural to the orchestra." Choosing the right tempo is an art. In any given passage, there's a fine line between playing hectically and with drive. And then there's the issue of authority: the individual at the front of the room indicates the tempo - and his authority must be accepted by the great majority of the orchestra's musicians.

You need an inner image of what you want to hear; you then constantly compare what you are actually hearing with that image. This can be challenging, given that conductors may suffer from wishful thinking. The orchestra members will be quite impressed if the conductor is able to define precisely what is not working - the 2nd Oboe too high, the 3rd Clarinet coming in late; much more so than if he simply says: "The winds are out of tune." Recognizing and stating precisely what needs to be improved can generate significant respect from the band's members. Even though today's professional musicians generally play at a very high level, there are many specifics that individuals can't pinpoint. Of course they recognize when they are not playing together, but the conductor as outside party helps determine just why the balance isn't right.

Apparently, there are pieces in the repertoire where the conductor serves as little more than a traffic controller. One example given was a major work by Messaien: the conductor is to master the score and help the musicians play exactly together. The task is more like that of a highly developed craftsman - for instance, a master watchmaker - than interpretation.

Janowski focussed his remarks on orchestral conducting, noting that opera conducting is quite different: both conductor and orchestra are "slaves to the singers' condition. Great art and interpretation play no role there!" Though the opera lover I was attending with would have loved to hear more opera anecdotes, Janowski deliberately omitted them on this evening.

He almost always conducts by memory, at least if the work does not require a huge amount of coordination between chorus, soloists and the orchestra, in which case it is simply too risky not to play with the score. One could sense the long musical career that Marek Janowski can look back on when he described that if you have worked on one of the Beethoven symphonies repeatedly over the years, you don't forget any of it: you of course perform it again and again in the course of your career. When you play without a score, you can keep your head free to concentrate on certain effects, for instance sudden dynamic changes. With the score, you are tempted to keep your head down, buried in the music. And yet the winds, the brass often need eye contact - not only to come in on time, but also for a brief exchange after a solo: "Was that okay?" Janowski described this feeling of closeness between the musicians and himself as something beautiful, a confirmation that jointly one has created something lovely. And this visual interchange will only happen if the conductor is not impeded by having his head in the score.

A second talk is planned for June 2009, when the focus will be on "Composers and Interpreters: Who Needs Whom?"