The orchestra was his instrument
July 16, 2014 8:59 AM   Subscribe

When he beat the first bar of a great work, in his mind he was already in the last. In 2011, BBC polled leading conductors about the greatest conductor of all time. The winner? The German-born Austrian conductor Carlos Kleiber. Kleiber was an incredibly hard-working perfectionist. Some of his many seminal performances include a 1992 New Year's concert with the Vienna Philharmonic, a production of Verdi's Otello, and definitive recordings of Beethoven's 5th and 7th symphonies.
posted by shivohum (7 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
"Definitive" seems a large claim with respect to any of Beethoven's symphonies. Would we even want such a thing, really?
posted by yoink at 9:10 AM on July 16, 2014

Agreed he was one of the best! But depending on your way of thinking and your personal taste, you may even feel that a radical approach like Roger Norrington's with his London Classical Players was definitive.
posted by ReeMonster at 9:20 AM on July 16, 2014

Kleiber is indeed the conductor's conductor, and is as graceful, poetic, and evocative as anyone you'll ever see in front of an acoustic musical ensemble. As a conductor myself, I have studied his videos for hours (as have all of my professional friends).

It's important to remember, though, that "The Wolf" (so-called because he never held a regular conducting post and only came out when he was hungry) always had ample rehearsal time--he insisted on at least six rehearsals with any ensemble when most conductors get 3 or maybe 4--and as a result much of his brilliance is already in the ensemble's playing when the performance occurs, so isn't really visible in his gestures.

When you watch these videos with non-specialist eyes, be sure to listen for two primary effects he has on the players during the performance: first, a general effect, you can see when and how he adds or subtracts to the overall energy or pacing of the music-making (often with piercing eye contact); and second, how his gestures specifically evoke changes in a line or in balance moment-to-moment as he makes indications to specific sections or individuals.

Kleiber's interpretations, for me, are masterful in their management of pacing and energy over a large-scale, developmental work. As reknown as he is for his Beethoven performances, his best work is in the symphonies of Brahms, like this video. Brahms, IMHO, is THE master of symphonic development in musical composition, and Kleiber brings out the intricate and exquisite organic and constantly metamorphosing nature of this music clearly and makes it almost intuitive ("of COURSE that's what happens next!"). It's revelatory if you understand those works (i.e., can follow the development of the essential musical ideas) and still is thrilling if you don't.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:22 AM on July 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Also re:definitive, yes, it's controversial to call anything truly definitive in interpretive musical performance, but Kleiber absolutely qualifies as among the handful of recordings of these works that deserve such a distinction, and that's a clear consensus among professionals in the field.

My personal favorite Beethoven recordings are those led by John Eliot Gardiner, but regardless I strive to attain even a portion of the conviction and commitment that both Gardiner and Kleiber inspire(d) in those who played with them.

Funny Kleiber anecdote: my primary conducting teacher was college roommates with Howard T. Howard (the legendary principal horn of the Met Orchestra for over 45 years), and they remained close friends. He loved to share this story:

Years ago, when Carlos Kleiber finally came to NY to conduct the Met for the very first time, everyone was just starstruck. Howard said it was the only time--ever--that all personnel were in the pit for every rehearsal, even players who were off rotation, just to watch Kleiber rehearse. (The Met Orchestra contains about two orchestras' worth of players who are assigned to various productions, so work different schedules.)

To be sure that Kleiber had a positive experience and that his personal space was respected, players were told not to approach or chat with Mr. Kleiber during breaks or before/after rehearsals, as he was famously private and would not want that to be intruded upon.

So there they all were, about halfway through what Howard described as one of the best professional experiences of his career, and after rehearsal one day he found himself alone on the elevator with the Maestro. Howard initially rode in silence, respecting his instructions, but then found it silly just to stand there in silence. So he says something along the lines of 'hello, Maestro, it's really been a pleasure working with you and I look forward to the performances. Are you enjoying your time with us?'

Kleiber smiles and replies, 'yes, I'm having great time, the orchestra is playing wonderfully, and really responding to all I's the strangest thing.... No one will talk to me.'
posted by LooseFilter at 9:39 AM on July 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

Also (and then I'll hush, sorry so many comments, but Kleiber really is one of the most inspiring musical artists I know), but there are quite a few great videos on the Kleiber site here.

To illustrate what I mentioned above, a specific example in this video of a performance of Beethoven 7, mvt. 2: notice how he's moving when the orchestra is playing with a transparent, intimate sound. He's using his whole body but lightly and subtly. As the music grows tremendously, notice how he adds intensity to his gestures to continually add energy to the playing. Along the way, he makes specific, quick gestures to manage the balance (like at 2:01, when he brings out the woodwind chords on the back beats), because he's monitoring and adjusting every detail while simultaneously leading the large-scale progression of energy.

As the orchestra arrives at full crescendo around 2:07, Kleiber changes the intensity of his movements, so that instead of adding energy he appears to be surfing it, in the moment with the players rather than leading it, letting them own this beautiful blossom of sound. Then, around 2:30, notice his whole being change: he pulls in with his left hand a little and sort of deflates as energy leaves him and he leads the diminuendo, bringing the sound back to an intimate scale.

As the music moves through a lovely section in the major mode (the movement is primarily in minor), watch carefully from 3:02 to about 3:40 as Kleiber accompanies the soloists and manages the orchestra's playing with facial expressions and general bodily intensity/gracefulness (it's hard to describe), and what that evokes from the players in the sounding music. To really tell his effect, compare this passage to almost any other recorded performance: you will hear the difference.

It's wonderful, masterful, joyful work. No wonder players loved working with him.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:05 AM on July 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Bit of a pony request here. I have a feeling my impression of conductors is not unlike the guy's impression of inkers in Chasing Amy. I'm aware they do more than wave their hands in time with the music, but I can't seem to figure out what separates a good one from a great one (though I can probably guess what makes a bad one). Can anyone give me a bit of an idea? I don't need a big explanation but a bit of insight from people who care counts for a lot in my learning process.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:33 AM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Imagine you had a giant silent metronome in front of the orchestra, and the musicians played by reading the score and watching the metronome. What would be missing?

For a start: dynamics, coordination of sounds among and within sections, flexibility of tempo, and an overall interpretation of the piece (that is, the point of of this music is x, and we play to make that clear and compelling). A conductor takes care of all of the above, in rehearsal and performance.
posted by argybarg at 12:08 PM on July 16, 2014

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