Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Keeping Score

November 02, 2009

The first page of the autograph score of Dvorak's Symphony No 9

Following a recent review of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Christoph Eschenbach, I received the following comment about conductors’ use of scores during performances that I though deserved a fuller response in the body of the blog.

"Since when has it become remarkable that a conductor doesn't lead with a score? I ask because yours is the third or fourth mention of scoreless conducting I've read in the past several weeks, by different reviewers/commentators. There have been conductors who performed with or without scores practically since the time conductors had become the rule and not the exception, i.e. a very long time ago. It is more a matter of preference than a demonstration of anything significant about an individual conductor's capabilities. Sometimes (often, actually) it's easier to conduct from memory, and there can be closer interrelation with the players as a performance unfolds. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that has struck me oddly. I wonder, though, and am curious to know what if anything is up?"

While I agree that there is nothing unique or new about a conductor leading a performance without a score, I think it's worth mentioning in a review because something is most definitely up. What that is may not be clear, but that's part of why its interesting. Conducting without a score is still less common than using one at least in the current cultural practice. Historically, I wager there have always been conductors who've practiced one approach or another at various times to various degrees. I agree that the use of a score probably doesn't tell us much about a conductor's abilities, or even perhaps familiarity, with a particular score. And as the comment suggests, one's choice to do so or not may serve other artistic purposes.

The idea of performers relying on written material during the course of a performance is not new in any way. However, there are certainly trends in perceived cultural norms over time about what is acceptable and what isn't. And by acceptable, what I mean is what an audience expects from the performers as a sign of professionalism and preparation. For instance, conductors may or may not use scores, but for most orchestras, it would be unusual, though not unheard of, for all the musicians in an ensemble to have committed their parts to memory in their entirety. Prompters are still standard practice at most opera performances around the world even in light of the comparatively limited repertory of most opera companies and vocalists. And yet, currently, the idea of feeding an actor lines in a straight play is apparently anathema despite a long history of such practices in the theater. At least that is if you believe the recent reports in the New York Times of audience members demanding refunds for preview performances recently where Matthew Broderick was fed lines from an off-stage prompter while learning rapidly changing material. Certainly nothing is new under the sun and the cultural preferences about these kinds of practices in performance change over time.

But I tend to think there is a lot more to the choice to use a score or not than simply personal preference or artistic intent. I’m a psychologically-minded person, which means deep down I don’t believe anything anyone does is capricious or random, or just a matter of personal preference. Using a score or not during a performance is a public act - one that will be observed by both fellow musicians and audience members and electing one approach over another is an act of communication. Not only does the conductor send a message to his or her fellow performers, but more importantly refutes or validates personal beliefs. If you're taking the road less traveled, even if you're not the first one to go down it, what are you trying to say to others about yourself and more importantly what does your desire to communicate this tell us about you. Could not conducting with a score be used to buttress one's own sense of competence or perhaps to compensate for being disliked by colleagues? Maybe such a choice could be used to reaffirm ones worth against rivals that are either older or younger. There are probably as many underlying motivations for making this kind of a choice as there are people who make it, but it undoubtedly says something and making that choice is certainly one worth commenting on. Conducting without a score may say less about a maestro's capabilities or artistic approach than it does about their perception of those capabilities or preferences.



Thoughtful muse/reflection. I hadn't given any thought to the possibility of broader significance or implications.

Your post, however, did prompt a couple memories. First was when Zubin Mehta began his tenure here something of a deal was made of his habit of not using a score (unless of course the piece simply demanded it). The LA Times critic Martin Bernheimer tweaked Mehta in print about it more than once, hinting that Mehta might have an ulterior motive, to show off.

The second recollection was an alleged Sir Thomas Beecham quip when he was asked why he always conducted with a score. He shot back "Why not? I can read music."
It has been said that conductors who need glasses prefer to memorize a score rather than appear on stage with spectacles. Some have said that was a major reason for Mehta's tendency to work without a score.
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