It’s a damn shame that so many wonderful musicians are subjected to inferior conducting. I’ve made it a principle to discontinue both playing under and attending concerts of such conductors. My experience listening to the Metro Chamber Orchestra last night reaffirmed my stance. There were beautiful moments, in particular by vocalists Karen Parks and Melissa Block, as well as the amazing Jacquelyn Van Eck on flute. Unfortunately, the experience was marred by the weak link in the chain, conductor Philip Nuzzo. My comments here are not a review of the concert; they’re specific criticisms of low points in the music making that underscore the impact of the conductor.
I didn’t hear a single clean first note last night. The entrance of each piece, and movements within a piece, were hopelessly staggered across sections. This is pretty bad, considering the fact that the first and last notes of any piece are the most important. I know many of the musicians in MCO; they are a very capable bunch. Why then wouldn’t the first note be clean?
The musicians were unsure of where the beat fell, due to a reliance on inexact conducting. Yes, the group was small enough that ensemble communication should have been much better; people’s eyes were, for the most part, glued to the music, with next to no visual exchanges to lock in tempos and entrances. They should have been breathing and moving together. But the conducting didn’t help. Actually, its ambiguity was akin to sabotage; I could tell musicians were struggling to decide whether to stay with the baton or follow their musical instincts. They would have been better off with the latter. The movement of the baton must allow musicians to anticipate exactly where the beat will be, based on a shared instinctual understanding of physics. But the velocity of Nuzzo’s baton was off; for one, its sluggishness was out of context for the need for a precise entry; for another, it never accelerated toward the beat in a way that inspired confidence and certainty.
And for god’s sake, don’t conduct behind the soloists! There were so many cases where it felt like the orchestra was dragging and dragging behind voice or flute, like a heavy chain preventing progress. In their defense, the musicians were too honest; they really wanted to believe in the fidelity of the conducting. The truth is, unfortunately, that the conducting was simply late – and consistently, obstinately late. I watched every baton downbeat fall long after the soloists had cleared their notes. What’s worse, there seemed to be no recognition on the part of the conductor that this was even happening. Could it be that he was completely oblivious?
Not only that, but there was a rigidity to the conducting that was not responsive to the whims and directionality of the soloists. There was no room to push or pull; the conducting seemingly had nothing to do with what the soloists were actually thinking or feeling in the moment. It was as if what he was hearing was simply a preconceived notion of what he imagined the sound should be like, and was deaf to what was actually being produced live on stage.
Music isn’t just notes on paper; it’s a living, swirling entity in your midst. Music never just ends when the ink ends. I was shocked again and again last night when the conductor severed the tail of every movement of every piece in his rush to flip pages in his score. “Are you nuts?!” I cried inside. “The music for this movement hasn’t even ended yet, and you’re already starting the next one?” Turning the page with a loud WHAP! immediately shattered the silence and any feeling of completion, continuity, and suspension. I felt physically jarred. Even his turn and nod to the soloists to ascertain readiness was patently perfunctory, an empty act – there was no real opportunity for the soloists to communicate otherwise. There was no true awareness there. When Jacqueline was adjusting the position of her stand, Nuzzo apparently was single-mindedly focused on something else, and nearly knocked it over when stepping back. While she was still settling in, in his mind the music had already started. Just watching, I began to seethe with frustration.
During our recent ride up for LGCO, Vincent made an insightful comment, saying, “I’m having a hard time finding conductors I can really respect.” Ain’t that the truth. He’s looking at the level of professional conductors for the highest level orchestras in the world when making this comment. In many cases (though not all – Vincent himself is a shining exception), the situation is even bleaker for the other ensembles out there.