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John Mauceri’s distinguished and extraordinary career has brought him not only to the world’s greatest opera companies and symphony orchestras, but also to the musical stages of Broadway and Hollywood, as well as the most prestigious halls of academia. Regarded as the world’s leading performer of the music of Hollywood’s émigré composers, he has taken the lead in the preservation and performance of many kinds of music and has supervised/conducted premieres by composers as diverse as Debussy, Stockhausen, Korngold, Bernstein, Hindemith, Elfman, Ives, and Shore. As an accomplished recording artist, John Mauceri has over 70 albums to his name, and is the recipient of Grammy, Tony, Olivier, Drama Desk, Edison, Cannes Classique, Billboard, two Diapasons d’Or, three Emmys, and four Deutsche Schallplatten Awards.

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WSJ Review: The Allure of ‘Maestros and Their Music’

Posted January 2nd, 2018

Is the figure on the podium really a musician? What, exactly, constitutes the art of conducting? Leon Botstein reviews ‘Maestros and Their Music’ by John Mauceri.

From the Wall Street Journal review by Leon Botstein of “Maestros and Their Music”

In his self-effacing autobiography, the Russian composer and pedagogue Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov confessed that conducting “baffled” him. If Stravinsky’s teacher had a hard time making sense of what someone standing in front of an orchestra waving a baton was doing (or was supposed to be doing), how can we expect audiences to appreciate and comprehend the art of conducting? Suspicion whether there is actually anything difficult or substantial to conducting is commonplace among instrumentalists who play in orchestras or with them as soloists. To the eminent chamber musician and critic Hans Keller, conducting was just a “phony” musical profession.

Keller was annoyed, properly so, by the arrogance and affectations of most conductors. But is conducting really “phony”? When the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein, already in his 80s, toured Israel with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra playing concertos he knew inside and out, he realized that there would be a 50-minute “sound check” before every performance (to permit all concerned to get used to the piano and the hall at each stop). Rubinstein asked the conductor, the late Gary Bertini, whether instead of warming up with the program before one of the concerts, he might try his hand at conducting. Rubinstein had never had the opportunity to conduct.

In his self-effacing autobiography, the Russian composer and pedagogue Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov confessed that conducting “baffled” him. If Stravinsky’s teacher had a hard time making sense of what someone standing in front of an orchestra waving a baton was doing (or was supposed to be doing), how can we expect audiences to appreciate and comprehend the art of conducting? Suspicion whether there is actually anything difficult or substantial to conducting is commonplace among instrumentalists who play in orchestras or with them as soloists. To the eminent chamber musician and critic Hans Keller, conducting was just a “phony” musical profession.

Keller was annoyed, properly so, by the arrogance and affectations of most conductors. But is conducting really “phony”? When the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein, already in his 80s, toured Israel with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra playing concertos he knew inside and out, he realized that there would be a 50-minute “sound check” before every performance (to permit all concerned to get used to the piano and the hall at each stop). Rubinstein asked the conductor, the late Gary Bertini, whether instead of warming up with the program before one of the concerts, he might try his hand at conducting. Rubinstein had never had the opportunity to conduct.

In his self-effacing autobiography, the Russian composer and pedagogue Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov confessed that conducting “baffled” him. If Stravinsky’s teacher had a hard time making sense of what someone standing in front of an orchestra waving a baton was doing (or was supposed to be doing), how can we expect audiences to appreciate and comprehend the art of conducting? Suspicion whether there is actually anything difficult or substantial to conducting is commonplace among instrumentalists who play in orchestras or with them as soloists. To the eminent chamber musician and critic Hans Keller, conducting was just a “phony” musical profession.

Keller was annoyed, properly so, by the arrogance and affectations of most conductors. But is conducting really “phony”? When the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein, already in his 80s, toured Israel with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra playing concertos he knew inside and out, he realized that there would be a 50-minute “sound check” before every performance (to permit all concerned to get used to the piano and the hall at each stop). Rubinstein asked the conductor, the late Gary Bertini, whether instead of warming up with the program before one of the concerts, he might try his hand at conducting. Rubinstein had never had the opportunity to conduct.

As Brahms was the composer dearest to his heart, Rubinstein chose the Third Symphony, in F major, for his private conducting debut. Bertini and the orchestra were thrilled at the prospect. The orchestra revered Rubinstein. They knew the Brahms. All four Brahms symphonies were part of the orchestra’s core repertoire. The score and parts were in the orchestra’s library.

At the agreed-upon day, the stage was set with the piano in front so the maximum time could be given Rubinstein. He went to the podium and raised his baton. The opening was a mess. Rubinstein stopped and started again. Chaos reigned, with little progress. Frustrated, Rubinstein stopped again and went to the piano to play the opening as he wished it to sound and then returned to the podium to try once more. His demonstration had no effect. Confusion triumphed, and the reading came to a halt. Rubinstein could not make the orchestra play together and reproduce what they had just heard him play for them. After three false starts he stepped off the podium, returned the baton he had borrowed from Bertini, and said, with a smile, “After all these years, I had no idea; but now I finally understand.”

John Mauceri’s “Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting” explains what, after 60 years of being a soloist with orchestras, Rubinstein should have known. Mr. Mauceri mentions how notoriously challenging the opening of Brahms’s Third is for conductors (recounting his mentor Leonard Bernstein’s own search for the right solution). Brahms’s complex rhythmic structure requires that the conductor show how the various instruments in an ensemble of more than 80 musicians fit together to produce Brahms’s arresting synthesis of melody and drama. The music sounds glorious, natural and straightforward. But to realize what Brahms wrote—forget matters of interpretation and nuance—requires the technical skill of conducting. Bertini must have smiled to himself when Rubinstein chose Brahms’s Third for his first foray into conducting. No matter how well Rubinstein knew the music, and could play it from memory in its version for piano (made by the composer himself), showing an experienced professional orchestra how to follow and make the music is harder than it looks.

What exactly constitutes the technique of conducting? There is an evident paradox. Conducting by itself makes no sound. The music comes from the instruments of the orchestra. Skepticism concerning the function of a conductor results from invidious comparisons. No one can fake playing one of Brahms’s two piano concertos, or his violin concerto. If one can play a Brahms concerto at a professional level, measured in terms of basic accuracy, in public, at a concert, there can be no doubt that one deserves to be called a musician, and a pianist or a violinist. To be able to do so demands respect and even awe at the required discipline and athletic achievement. But there are fakes, charlatans and successful mediocrities among conductors, including individuals who cannot read music but who have learned to mimic the gestures of conducting. They stand in front of professional orchestras and preside over a respectable account of a piece of music and take the credit.

Although the bulk of his book is devoted to outlining what real conductors need to know and the challenges they face, Mr. Mauceri believes that there is some ineffable quality about conducting that sets it apart and is not rational. He concludes that conducting is a “mystery” and cannot be taught. A form of alchemy is at work in conducting—an inexplicable wizardry. Therefore Mr. Mauceri frames his book, in its very first pages, by addressing directly a case with which many readers of this newspaper are likely to be familiar. The late Gilbert Kaplan, founder of the magazine Institutional Investor, was a wealthy music lover. He became obsessed with Mahler’s Second Symphony, listening to it endlessly in his car and at home. As a 41st-birthday present to himself he hired the American Symphony Orchestra and what was then known as Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center and “conducted” the work before an invited audience of friends and relatives.

How was this possible? No amount of listening could have enabled Kaplan to approximate playing any single orchestral part of Mahler’s Second on a professional level, not even the percussion parts, which routinely appear to audiences as easy (which they are not). Yet Kaplan succeeded by appearing to conduct. He looked the part but actually followed the orchestra. They organized themselves to coordinate the proceedings. There is a long, noble history of conductor-less orchestras; generating the illusion that Kaplan was conducting was clearly possible.

If Kaplan made it through Mahler’s Second, why did Rubinstein get stuck immediately in Brahms’s Third? The reason is that Rubinstein was determined to shape the music the way he was used to doing at the piano. But he could not translate his musical ideas into the pantomime that is conducting, using his hands, eyes and the space around his body (the tools of the conductor) to anticipate and control sound. He understood the music and what he wanted but soon discovered that the skills required were harder to obtain than he had assumed. With humility, he gave up.

Kaplan, however, did the opposite. He embraced the illusion generated by the orchestra. He went on to repeat playing at conducting, gesturing from the podium as if he were conducting—always the same Mahler symphony—over and over again all over the world. He even recorded the work with the Vienna Philharmonic. Despite a fanatical obsession with Mahler, Kaplan could never repeat this elaborate hoax with any other work. Kaplan could not read a score, was untrained in the materials and methods of music, and was not even proficient on an instrument. He was, to put it bluntly, musically illiterate. He was the beneficiary of recording technology—the capacity, since the mid-20th century, to become familiar with how a piece of music goes by repeated exposure to sound recordings. Indeed, in the 1960s a few long-playing recordings were sold with a baton so that the consumer, in the privacy of his home, no doubt with the volume turned up, could play at conducting an orchestra. This fantasy mirrored the extent to which a few high-profile conductors, such as Toscanini, Stokowski and Bernstein, had become stars and how alluring the role of the conductor had become.

Imagine an adult who cannot read or write and only speaks a language that is not English. By diligent use of recordings and videos, he memorizes the sound of every word and line assigned to Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play. He then dresses in the costume and recites the sounds of the text he has learned by rote. This person is not an actor; he does not understand the sounds he is making. No matter how amazing and near perfect this imitation might be, the curtain concealing the hoax will be lifted. In Kaplan’s case his initially charming and quite admirable display of the love of the music (he could have bought himself several Rolex watches and luxury yachts for what it cost him) persisted as a spectacle of harmless self-delusion at the margins of concert life.

Mr. Mauceri gives Kaplan more credit than he deserves, slyly claiming that some people believe the Kaplan recording of Mahler’s Second is the best, or one of the best, recorded accounts of the work. But Mr. Mauceri, using his own career, undercuts his own opening gambit by detailing how complicated conducting is, and how much one really needs to know, particularly when conducting opera, unfamiliar music and film scores. His book is as much a personal account of his life and career—a memoir filled with anecdotes and his opinions about music, performance, language and history—as it is a candid objective guide to conducting written for the general audience.

Mr. Mauceri definitely knows what he is writing about. He has a distinguished conducting career. He studied at Yale under the eminent conducting teacher Gustav Meier. He was Bernstein’s assistant for nearly two decades. He has conducted all over the world. And his experience ranges from orchestral music and opera to popular music, movie music and musicals. Most impressive has been his advocacy of unjustly neglected works, notably those banned by the Nazis as “degenerate.” Mr. Mauceri has made pioneering recordings. He has been, at various times, the director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Opera, the Turin opera house and the American Symphony. He has conducted in every major venue—from Covent Garden and La Scala to the Met—and with every major orchestra in the world, and has worked with practically all the great soloists and singers. And Mr. Mauceri served with distinction at the helm of the North Carolina School of the Arts.

Mr. Mauceri holds strong views about conducting, including the need to interrogate musical texts to establish the composer’s intent and the right critical versions. He recognizes the obligation to get under the surface of music to reveal meaning. He is determined to push the boundaries of the standard repertoire so that more of the great music produced over the past 300 years can be heard live, which, for Mr. Mauceri, is the only proper way to experience music. He rightly stresses the indispensability of learning to accompany the voice and of working in the opera pit as part of required training

Despite Mr. Mauceri’s conclusion that conducting remains a unique mystery, “Maestros and Their Music” offers a succinct but candid detailed account of the training, trials and tribulations conductors go through, including loneliness, bad hotels, hostile orchestras, poor pay, greedy managers, philistine administrators, and mean-spirited and ignorant critics. The reader learns of Mr. Mauceri’s triumphs, successes and contributions to conducting. Mr. Mauceri’s many anecdotes—war stories of near misses and disasters—provide among the most engrossing pages.

Conductors are known for their outsize egos, and Mr. Mauceri, despite an admirable effort to show humility, is no exception. Even when he expresses admiration for others, he is somehow dead center in the picture. Mr. Mauceri can also be sharply critical. He is quite restrained in his admiration for Pierre Boulez and downright dismissive of Lorin Maazel, two of the finest recent masters of the technique of conducting.

The success, distinction, discipline and breadth of Mr. Mauceri’s accomplishment, all evident in the book, contradict the notion that there is something particularly un-teachable about conducting. The spirit, personality and serendipity that separate a fine professional from a star among conductors are the same qualities that do so among singers and instrumentalists. However, since orchestral and operatic life today is so dominated by a narrow standard repertoire and the quality of professional ensembles is so high, there are bad conductors and poorly trained conductors out there being rescued every night by their orchestras. But as Mr. Mauceri makes plain, faced with a new piece of music, or an unknown and unrecorded one from the past, or an ensemble of amateurs or students, the veil of mystery will be lifted quickly and all that should and can be taught to train a conductor will become obvious.

Conducting—the complex, multifaceted, silent use of motion and gesture to create sound and meaning—can be taught. How well it is learned and how imaginatively it is practiced vary. The distinction between routine professionalism and greatness in conducting is the same as it is in playing and composing. The only difference is that 20th-century technology has raised the standard of orchestral and operatic performance and made the currency of conducting easy to counterfeit. Anyone who finishes Mr. Mauceri’s book will understand why Rubinstein stopped, why Kaplan managed to carry on and why Mr. Mauceri deserves recognition as a real conductor.

—Mr. Botstein is the president of Bard College and the music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra.