Chicago Symphony cellist Brant Taylor may have been our very first special guest here at the Stand Partners, but so far we’ve been missing the perspective of his partner Roderick Branch. Roderick is a musician, though his day job (and sometimes into the night job) is as a partner at a giant law firm. Roderick is what you’d call an extremely savvy listener, otherwise known as a superfan.
So today Akiko, Brant, and I talk with Roderick, to remember just who it is we’re playing for. Roderick elaborates on the dynamics between orchestra and audience in the context of different halls around the world. We speak about the room for error in a magical rendition, the performer as an audience member, and how the level of familiarity with an orchestra affects our experience of it.
We also get into the pros and cons of designs, histories, and acoustics of different halls. Next, we share many stories about what made a particular concert life-changing, and then weigh up the various traits of our favorite conductors. Finally, our pet peeves about off-putting audience or performer behavior take center stage.
Key Points From This Episode
- Performers and audience members might feel differently about the quality of a symphony.
- The distance of a performer or observer from the orchestra changes how it sounds.
- Minor mistakes are less meaningful when there is great spirit in a performance.
- The mood of an audience member might change their experience of a performance.
- Live symphonies sound different to recorded and mastered ones.
- The way a musician reacts to something unexpected is an indicator of how prepared they are.
- Experiencing different hall acoustics is neither good or bad but special.
- Sometimes one has to try to be less critical to have a good time.
- Knowing the orchestra might change the experience of watching them for better or worse.
- Knowing who is playing could change whether Roderick goes to a concert or not.
- Disney Hall’s modernity compared to the sense of history of Symphony Center.
- The acoustics of Disney hall are like a soft focus lens, while Chicago Hall is less forgiving.
- Less forgiving acoustics can be liberating because it allows for powerful playing.
- Hearing the same orchestra playing in different halls is a good way of seeing their difference.
- Great conductors bring out aspects in a symphony not heard before.
- The respect the orchestra has for a good conductor is palpable in their body language.
- It is difficult to be fully present as a musician in every performance.
- Several stories of the most life-changing performances the group have ever seen.
- Barenboim, Boulez, Haitink and Muti compared by Roderick.
- Off-putting performer behavior: not looking engaged and talking during the applause.
- Off-putting audience behavior: humming, cellphones, leaving too early, coughing.
- Brant Taylor
- Roderick Branch
- Chicago Symphony Orchestra
- Bartok Concerto For Orchestra
- LA Philharmonic
- Disney Concert Hall
- Symphony Center
- Orchestra Hall
- Daniel Burnham
- The Burnham Plan of Chicago
- Barbara Walter
- Carnegie Hall
- Severance Hall
- Riccardo Muti
- Krassimira Stoyanova
- Pierre Boulez
- Ben Molar
- Daniel Barenboim
- Ma Vlast
- The Moldau
- Bernard Haitink
- Beethoven 9
- Verdi: Requiem
- The Hollywood Bowl
- Anne-Sophie Mutter
“If you’re performing a string quartet or a solo piece, the way you react to things that don’t go totally as planned is the biggest indicator of how well prepared something is.” — @ Akiko Tarumoto [0:12:07]
“If you listen to the concert with your music critic hat on, that detracts from the enjoyment of the experience.” — @ Roderick Branch [0:18:10]
“It’s actually an interesting hobby to hear an orchestra you know well, play in different halls. It’s the best way to figure out exactly how much difference the hall can make for, better or worse, in the way that something sounds.” — @ Brant Taylor [0:24:54]
“I think I was probably looking down at the stage just taking in and basking in the glory of this beautiful sound in the context of the piece being heard for the first time, and at one point, I looked up at Mr. Boulez, and tears were streaming down his face.” – @ Brant Taylor [0:35:15]
“I mean if I pay to go to a concert I want to stay to the bitter end.” — @natesviolin [0:50:26]
[0:00:00.0] NC: Hello and welcome back to Stand Partners for Life. I am Nathan Cole.
[0:00:04.7] AT: I am Akiko Tarumoto.
[0:00:20.0] NC: Today we are thrilled to be here with our good friends and actually the first repeat podcast guest here on Stand Partners. Brant Taylor, cellist in the Chicago symphony.
[0:00:29.2] BT: Thank you, it’s nice to be here.
[0:00:31.5] NC: And now Brant’s partner Roderick Branch who is a musician but these days, primarily an attorney and in the context of today’s episode, a super fan because we’re going to get that audience perspective today and that’s what it’s going to be about from someone who comes to all sorts of concerts, not only in Chicago but around the world and we want to know what you see that we miss when we’re on stage.
[0:00:58.5] BT: I know there’s lots of musicians that probably say, “I could never be married to another musician,” or some people that say, you know, “I could only be married to another musician.”
[0:01:07.8] AT: I think there’s a lot of envy with people who actually managed to get out of our little tiny group of people and meet somebody who does something else and can sort of, add that diversity to your life.
[0:01:22.3] RB: I mean I dunno if I would say that applies to us because when we met, I was still playing the Cello but at least, what I ended up doing – Yes, it’s definitely outside the field of music although I do tend to spend a lot of time around musicians and at concerts simply because of well, it’s something I like to do and it’s also related to the way that our schedules work. Brant’s working times are Thursday nights, Friday nights and Saturday nights which, for somebody who has got an office job like me or generally the times that we have off. I spend a lot of those times going to concerts, otherwise we’d be passing ships I think.
[0:02:02.1] BT: Yeah, probably.
[0:02:03.6] NC: Well, we’ll call that a partial escape for you Brant. You managed too sort of get out of the musician pairing here.
[0:02:11.5] AT: But I mean, Roderick, can you tell us what brought you to your current career, what is that that you’re doing now?
[0:02:17.8] RB: Sure, I was in – well I’m a lawyer now, I practice capital markets transactions at a large law firm and what brought me to my career was probably ending up with a degree in English literature, French literature, and music right out of undergrad and quickly deciding that I had nothing else to do but apply for law school.
[0:02:35.4] NC: This sounds familiar.
[0:02:36.8] AT: I think I’ve said that exact thing so I didn’t get into law school so that fixed it for me.
[0:02:43.8] NC: Are you also on the board of the Chicago Symphony or one of the governing – I forget what it’s called.
[0:02:51.8] RB: I’m what’s called a governing member which is kind of like the junior board and the governing members vote to elect members of the board of trustees.
[0:03:02.3] NC: How many concerts would you say you go to or how many programs do you think you see of the CSO every season?
[0:03:08.1] RB: Yeah, that’s a good question. The CSO probably plays 48 weeks a year, is that right Brant? I don’t go every single week but I would say that I would go most weeks.
[0:03:19.4] NC: That’s been now for how many years would you say?
[0:03:22.6] RB: Well, I guess I started actively listening to the CSO, when I was in live performance anyway, when I was in law school. Brant and I met right around the time that I was graduating as an undergrad. We were friends for the next four years or so. The CSO would come on tour to Boston where I was going to law school or New York where I first started my first job and I would usually go hear the concerts either at Symphony hall or at Carnegie hall. That would be going back to probably 2000, 2001. Call it over 20 years at this point.
[0:03:58.6] NC: Well, let’s get right to it because I’m really interested to hear what you see and hear, Roderick, that we miss even though we think we’re right in the middle of the action. We can do the math, I mean, you’ve been coming to concerts for 20 years and however many – 20 Or 30 programs a year, so that’s a significant amount of performing that you have seen and you guys have – you get something that we don’t. We play the same concert and then we ride home in the car together and record a podcast about our thoughts but we were both on stage.
Whereas you, you know – Brant will be performing in concert, Roderick, you’re out there in the house and so your perspective is going to be different. We were saying before we turned on the mics that there were probably a lot of weeks where Brant, you’ll feel like things was just terrible and you weren’t having any kind of a good time on stage and then Roderick, you might say it was an amazing life changing performance, does that happen?
[0:04:56.3] BT: That happens sometimes. I’d say, more often, it happens that the way that I felt the concert went on stage, turns out to be, you know, similar to the impression that you had from the audience.
[0:05:07.3] RB: That’s usually true, I will say that I’m a harsh critic of most concerts and I usually will be very honest with what I think I heard, when I talk to Brant about things. You know, I definitely have opinions about repertoire, conductors, the particular people who may be playing particular parts on the stage which can make a big difference but yeah, sometimes there’s a concert that particularly with whoever I’m not as familiar with – maybe it’s 20th century or premiers of works where when I talk to my friends in the orchestra afterwards.
They think, they say, “What a mess, that was,” there were a lot of things going onstage where from the audience perspective, it’s not always as apparent and the performance aspect of what happened collectively ends up being convincing for the audience overall.
[0:05:57.6] NC: Are we worried about nothing when we’re on stage rehearsing?
[0:06:01.2] AT: No, I think it’s a relief because you want to feel like the product is good. If I actually thought everything I was worried was actually happening and you’re like, for the audience, I don’t think I could function. I think I’d just like refuse to go out there one day.
[0:06:16.8] BT: I mean, orchestras are let’s face it, inexact organisms compared to smaller groups of people. It’s true. I mean, I think what you hear going out around you on the stage if you’re in an orchestra, there’s always going to be, I don’t know, it’s just there’s like – I don’t know how to describe, but it’s like the cost of doing business with that many people.
There’s things that happen around you on the stage and some of it maybe has to do with different concert halls and how they translate the sound to the audience but certainly, our hall in Chicago is not known for being one that envelops the sound in a warm, echo-ey glow. It’s a fairly honest hall and even in a space like that, there’s a blend that transpires sort of on the stage.
Maybe the people – Roderick never sits in the first few rows of the hall, that’s probably different sound but if you go back any appreciable distance, I think a lot of the stuff that we hear on stage actually just does become a part of the blend of sound. Even things that’s around us might not sound like they would blend with each other at all and I think that’s good news for us.
[0:07:25.3] RB: I mean, by necessity it has to be a different experience, I mean, you guys are sitting on the stage next to your colleagues with sheet music in front of you. You’ve also sat through rehearsal process where you’ve maybe – you’re deceiving – you’re receiving direct instructions from the conductor who may want to be doing certain things one way or another and for me, you know, we show up ideally in a mood to listen to the performance of a work, you know, in the evening, looking to be entertained and yes, I purposely don’t like to sit close to the stage. I find that when I do, I start hearing individual players doing individual things.
I much prefer sitting a little further back where I get much more of a blend of the overall group as a whole. While I do, again, particularly with our repertoire that I’m familiar with – I do end up paying a lot of attention to the detail. What I hear is something that’s probably, I would guess sounds a lot more finished than what you all hear on the stage with 105 people around you each doing their own thing despite the fact that you’re doing – they’re attempting to do something collectively.
[0:08:39.6] AT: You know, I think about it a lot like what makes a great performance for the audience and it’s – as you say, there’s so many of us there that – I think a performance where we’re really fixated on the ensemble and like little things aren’t going right, I think that’s – not that it’s not a great performance or not that I can’t be elevated at some point. Later on, you know, it’s not like it’s doomed to not be a great performance from some point onwards or something but I do really hope that a great performance is about something other than the technical details.
You know, I would like to feel that when little things go wrong here and there that it is – if the aura is correct, the audience is drawn to something else. I mean, it’s like any other, you know – it’s like a great solo performance or a great chamber performance. That’s my wish for a concert and so yeah, I hope that someone’s not like sitting out there going, wow, I can really hear like individual things happening here and you know.
[0:09:37.3] BT: I mean certainly, we’ve probably – we all have the experience of being in the audience at a concert and then talking with, you know, somebody that was also in the audience and finding that you had very different experiences of what you got out of it, how much you enjoyed it, you know, it’s an interest that we’ll never know. I mean, you come most weeks to hear the Chicago symphony and you said, you used the word, you know, in a mood to be sort of entertained but it’s interesting how if you like one week less than the others, besides the repertoire and the conductor and the performance, it’s part of what might be your own like – what you walk into the hall with that evening.
[0:10:15.1] NC: That’s almost certainly true. You know, I can feel that in myself, sometimes I walk in immediately after work or with something else in my mind and the listening experience in those cases is completely different than when I’m in the mood to hear live music.
But following up on what you just said Akiko, I think that is definitely true. I mean, the repertoire has a lot to do with it. I mean, you can imagine a performance that’s a very elevated performance of a particular work that may have two or three little things that didn’t go exactly according to the score, it doesn’t really take away from the fact from the greatness of the performance I would say.
It’s actually taken me a while to realize that I think a lot of young listeners, particularly nowadays, walk into a concert hall, expecting to hear a recording or maybe nowadays something streamed from Spotify or Apple music where, you know, things have been edited too death and aren’t really representative of how music sounds live and as I matured as a listener of that took me a while to learn as well.
It’s live performance. Things aren’t always going to sound the way that they sound when you’re hearing a recording and it’s part of the beauty of live music.
[0:11:27.6] AT: One of the other things that I noticed maybe this week, especially – we happen to be performing Bartok Concerto For Orchestra.
[0:11:33.9] BT: Which we happen to go here.
[0:11:36.1] AT: Exactly. We have both sides of this experience represented here. I felt that it was a piece that in general, people know pretty well. I think that we are comfortable – it’s a piece that you know well, that you feel others know well, and there’s just like a sense that you know what to listen for without having to try too hard. That everybody has that comfort level. I think then, when mistakes happen and the context is that you’re very relaxed about it – this is true for every level of performing, right? If you’re performing a string quartet or a solo piece and the way you react to things that don’t go totally as planned is like the biggest indicator of how well prepared something is.
Or how prepared the concert is more than anything else. I think it’s – flaws are not in themselves a bad thing. I think that, you know, things happen, and if they just sort of become absorbed into the fabric of the experience and that’s still a great performance. I think it’s when something is sort of unfamiliar or people are uncomfortable and you can sense that you know, like I said at any level. Solo or orchestral or otherwise.
It’s at that point that I think that the mistakes come into more focus in the performance in a way that you don’t want them to.
[0:12:52.5] BT: Among other things, the three of us, you know, help people prepare for auditions and one of the things that, you know, comes up sooner or later is like, what’s a mistake? It’s like, if you miss a note, if you do something right away, should you pack up and head for the airport bar right away because there’s no way you’re going to pass on but, you know, I say just like you’re saying.
Imagine you’re in the audience if you’re watching somebody, whether it’s somebody by themselves or a whole orchestra that really appears to be involved and enjoying the communicative aspects of music, there’s so much that you forgive, and it’s not even a question of forgiving, you just don’t even remember little imperfections because they’re just gone and then immediately you’re engaged with something else, where as, you know, contrast that with somebody who doesn’t appear to be enjoying themselves.
They’re just sort of waiting for the next thing to go wrong or whatever and of course, that’s a completely different listening experience.
[0:13:48.0] AT: We’ve all had both kinds of performances and everything in between, right?
[0:13:51.9] NC: Yeah, let’s jump right to this week actually when Akiko and I were playing obviously with LA Phil, this Bartok Concerto For Orchestra program, Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and both of you guys were in the audience. Brant, you got to trade your cello for a seat in the audience and you both got to experience a different hall.
Let’s start with the halls I guess. Not necessarily to compare the sound one to the other but maybe just talk about the experience of going into a different hall, you’ve been to Disney before but it’s not your home base or anything and maybe start with Brant, what was it like to just sit down and you know, you hear the tuning in – did you panic like you’re supposed to be up there?
[0:14:37.3] BT: No actually. I don’t know exactly when it changed for me but at some point, you know, when I have the opportunity to go to a concert, whether it’s just to hear another orchestra or to hear chamber music or to hear a great solo recital by somebody. I guess maybe because so much of my time either in practice or in teaching others is spent listening with a critical ear that I don’t have to work too hard to turn that off when I go and hear.
You know, for me, I think it’s a way of just reminding myself why I play music to begin with which is, you like to go and just not be critical necessarily. Not be in that role and just allow the music to happen and to receive it in the way that I would hope that our audience would. At this point I’d say it’s a subconscious thing.
If you add the hall to that, if you mentioned that then it’s you know, it’s like going to somebody else’s house for dinner. It’s like you know, the home cooked food, it tastes good even when it’s bad because it’s like, you know, somebody else’s putting effort into it and you’re in their house and you’re being a good guest and so – obviously, you have a beautiful hall here to play in that has some pretty distinct differences between its sound and atmosphere and the one that I normally play in.
For me, that only adds to the experience because it’s something special. It’s not something that I, it’s not a place I normally hear music and it’s not a role that I’m – I’d love to at some point, go to hear more orchestra concerts. Maybe when I’m not doing it full time, I’ll have more time to go and do it but for me, it’s a largely a very special thing that’s, you know, just different and takes me back to a time when I had a less as a performer and just a more of sort of visceral listening response to music which is obviously a great thing to have.
[0:16:33.8] AT: That’s really nice because I have a much harder time doing that. I don’t know if it’s like a competitive thing or something, like I have a really tough time enjoying another orchestra’s concert. I know that sounds horrible. It sounds awful but that’s not always true. You know, I really remember coming to Disney to watch the Chicago symphony a couple of years ago and just being blown away. I really enjoyed it and it made a really big impression on me actually and I remember being surprised because I thought, I had a lot of conflicting emotions. It was like my old orchestra and we’re not in it anymore. Am I going to let myself –
[0:17:10.2] NC: I’m sure they’re terrible now.
[0:17:11.6] AT: Yeah, am I going to be like disappointed when they sound awesome.
[0:17:14.5] BT: We started slowly falling apart the day that you two left.
[0:17:16.5] AT: That’s right, things were never the same, right? Yeah, I think I was worried that that was going to like crowd out other things and it didn’t. I ended up just loving the concert really and just having nothing but great things to say and think about it, you know? But in general, I would say, it’s not easy for me to go to concerts. It’s very hard for me to shut off that critical voice and you know, in – our own concerts included. I guess if I sit out in the audience, it’s really tough.
I can’t hear anything except the things that usually bug me you know, they’re jumping out of the texture and I cannot contextualize it properly and it’s completely out of proportion to what’s actually happening. I hope, I think, but I can’t tell, I really can’t.
[0:17:58.5] RB: I would agree with that in this sense and I’m not obviously, I’m obviously not a professional musician like you guys are but it has taken me also a lot, many years of listening to get to a point where I have to actively turn that off because if you listen to the concert with your music critic hat on, that detracts from the enjoyment of the experience.
Sometimes you just have to lie back and be ready to be entertained, you know, without thinking too much about the performance. It’s a hard thing to do because my first inclination Akiko, I think like yours, is to want to listen, not only to the music but to the performance itself with a lens of critique in place and that’s not always the smartest way to hear a concert if you’re there ideally you know, just as a listener.
[0:18:42.7] NC: Well you mentioned something earlier Roderick about noticing the individual players on stage and how you know them, I mean, not only personally in some cases, but musically you’ve been going to concerts for so long that these guys and girls are like – in some ways there’s like pieces on a chess board, right? You notice who is playing principal flute and oboe and bassoon and who is concert master and you know, who is off, who is out sick.
Akiko and I for a little while were going to a bunch of NBA games here in LA. We would see the Clippers and yeah, even after just a few games, you start feeling like you know these people. You know their tendencies and, “Oh, he’s going to make this free throw.” I assume that adds to the experience for you. I mean, you must like the familiarity and the kind of things that you can predict about the concert or the upcoming phrase I would imagine.
[0:19:37.3] RB: It definitely adds to the experience. I think it could be good or bad because if we compare it to the Clippers, right? You probably have an ideal picture in your mind of what the ideal lineup will be. You don’t get that game after game or week after week in the orchestra world. It depends. Sometimes if – I was an amateur oboist for a number of years and my ear goes straight to the oboe section any time I’m listening to an orchestra and sometimes I’ll ask Brant to find out if it’s going to be my favorite member of the oboe section playing principle that week or not and that can make a difference if I’m on the fence, as to whether I’m going to go to a concert or not. Whether I’ll actually take the time and make the time to go hear it or not.
[0:20:18.9] NC: You’ve got the inside info which is awesome. I mean, do you – when you came to Disney for example and now you don’t know all the players, although you knew some of them by name or reputation or whatever. What’s it like to walk into a different hall, open up a different – I mean even the program book is different. Different format and everything.
[0:20:39.7] RB: Sure, as Brant said, it’s a completely different experience to walk into Disney hall in contrast to Symphony Center back home. I mean, I think Orchestra Hall was inaugurated in something like 1903 and it was designed by Daniel Burnham who was the author of the Plan of Chicago which was this big urban plan panned right after the Chicago fire that was intended to create an urban design for the city after it all burned down in the late 19th century.
And so we get the sense of all of that. It’s 125 years of history at this point that that orchestra has been performing either in that hall or at the auditorium theater next door. You walk into Disney hall and you know, the building itself is only what, 20, 25 years old at this point?
[0:21:23.6] AT: The hall opened in October 2003.
[0:21:25.1] RB: That’s right, you were there.
[0:21:26.3] AT: I was there. Not even been 20 years.
[0:21:29.8] RB: Yeah, less than 20 years ago. So you don’t have the same sense of permanence that you do when you walk into orchestra hall but by the same token, it’s a completely modern facility with all kinds of bells and whistles, huge public spaces, very impressive contemporary architecture by one of the most famous architects of our time and it’s a very impressive space to experience visually and specially. And the acoustics of the hall itself are very plush.
We came this week with a friend of ours who went to a lot of concerts with us in Chicago and that was the first remark that he made when we asked him what he thought about the sound. You know, the sense in this hall is that there’s sort of a – I compared it earlier to, when you watch certain TV interviews where there’s a sort of soft focus lens on that makes everything look wonderful and smoothed out and you don’t see Barbara Walter’s wrinkles and you’re looking at, you’re watching her on 20/20 because of this special lenses that camera uses. The acoustic in Disney hall is so good and so favorable.
You know, the sense that you get –
[0:22:36.0] AT: No, that’s exactly how good we sound. You didn’t realize, we sound just that good.
[0:22:40.6] RB: Everybody needs a good surgeon.
[0:22:45.0] AT: It’s like Botox, orchestra.
[0:22:47.5] RB: You know, the acoustic in Chicago is – orchestra hall is not known for having a plush acoustic. I think the musicians in that orchestra had worked harder than they would in another venue to make sure that the sound fills the space and you get, in comparison to a space like this one that has a very favorable, very resonant sound, you get a very direct, a very clear sense of the playing that in a way is more, you know, sounds more live and less like a recorded performance than the sound in Disney hall for example.
[0:23:22.2] NC: Are you accusing us of playing recordings and doing the Milli-Vanilli during our live performances?
[0:23:28.9] RB: Well actually, you two haven’t been gone from Chicago so long that you don’t remember the difference of what it feels like to play on both those stages. I mean, you’ve been here for quite a while but –
[0:23:39.9] BT: I mean, I kind of remembered the general string aesthetic there being, you know, one of effort. Like let’s really hold notes out all the way to the bar line or to the rest and you know, put a little edge on the sound because it’s just not going to come through otherwise. I don’t know if that was your impression Akiko.
[0:24:03.0] AT: I mean, I just remember we played out a lot. I think here, I think I told you – it’s like, it’s strange to me. Feels a little bit like naked, like we’re – it’s because what you’re saying is actually very reassuring because to me, sitting there on stage, even when I go out and listen to, I feel the individual things pop out at me a lot and I don’t always love the effect.
I got the feeling in Chicago, maybe a little more room to work with. Like we could really open up with the volume and of course the aesthetic of Chicago Symphony is to really play out. That is the difference too. It’s hard for me to remember but how the actual acoustics with my playing but I just remembered feeling encouraged all the time to really produce sound.
[0:24:50.5] BT: I mean, Roderick sometimes travels with our orchestra and you know, it’s actually an interesting hobby to hear an orchestra you know well play in different halls. The best way to figure out exactly how much difference the hall can make for better or worse in the way that something sounds.
[0:25:09.7] AT: I mean, you’ve heard like all the best ones, right? Carnegie obviously [inaud 0:25:13]
[0:25:15.1] RB: Yeah, it is really – I love to hear the Chicago symphony in halls with wonderful acoustics. I hear the musicians and the orchestra talk a lot amongst themselves about having to work harder to fill Orchestra Hall with sound. Given that that hall has a bit more dry acoustic than other halls around the world.
Particularly the brass players and they say the CSO brass has a reputation as being a very powerful section in the orchestra but I think the orchestra as a whole works harder in Orchestra Hall such that when you hear them at the Concertgebouw or at the Musikverein or at Disney Hall or at Carnegie – I haven’t had the good luck to hear them at Severance hall, or any of the other of the great halls in the US but I’m sure that would be true.
The CSO shows up and does what it does at Orchestra Hall and a space that’s much more resonant and so it’s as if its a sound that just pins you to the back of your chair or blows the roof of the place, it’s a very exciting experience when the orchestra goes on tour and when that happens.
[0:26:09.6] NC: Well, there are two juicy topics and I wanted to get into with you since you’re here Roderick. Basically conductors and players. More specifically, what’s your perspective on the difference that the conductor makes? We know that the conductor can make a huge difference, but you’ve heard now so many of the standard pieces conducted by different maestros in Chicago and you know, what do you see from Conductors? What do you like to see, what do you not like to see and then you know, what do you hear in the different interpretations.
[0:26:47.6] RB: Sure, I guess maybe one of the things that I love most is to hear a piece that I’m very familiar with and feel like I’m hearing lines or figures or you know, gestures that have always been in the piece and I’ve never heard before. I come out from the texture for the first time. Great conductors have a knack for doing that, Ricardo Muti has a knack for doing that given his background with vocal music and with opera. It’s really amazing when you all of a sudden, hear in the lines, say in the viola or the French horn, you’re like, “Oh where did that come from? I never knew that was there before.”
But I would say that the biggest difference, you know, when you see different guest conductors, music directors show up and conduct great orchestras like, you know, the LA symphony, is the sense that you get from the musicians on the stage. When it’s a great conductor that the musicians respect, you can immediately tell because everybody’s sitting on the edge of their seats, watching really carefully. Just really, the front of every note. There’s a sense of care and of immediacy. Not that there’s not a sense of care when there’s other conductors but you immediately get a sense when it’s – there’s a conductor on the podium that maybe didn’t have a great set of rehearsals or maybe it is a new person that hasn’t had a ton of experience conducting at this level and the visual sense on the stage is very, very different. And obviously it is much nicer to go to a concert where you feel like everybody is engaged and the performance is one where the musicians look happy and that they are playing their best for whoever is holding the stick.
[0:28:24.4] AT: And that is one of the hardest things about having this job and doing it week after week is that it is not possible to have that level of commitment all the time and I guess ideally we would. I don’t know if you could actually handle that kind of intensity. But there are weeks that just, for whatever reason you know, it is a great conductor or it is the repertoire or whatever, but they really do work amazingly and yeah as you say that is apparent to the audience.
[0:28:51.3] BT: I think yeah, I mean, as a professional, part of our job is to go in with the idea that you are going to bring your best every week but I guess I don’t know whether we want to use the word charisma or what but there are qualities that certain conductors have that actually really do mean something and it is maybe hard to define what they are. Maybe it is just parallel to great dramatic actors or great performers in other fields.
You know there is something there that is special and makes people pay attention. It makes the audience pay attention. It makes the musicians playing under them pay attention and as Roderick said, it is not that we wouldn’t otherwise. There is a level below which our orchestras don’t play because there is a level of professionalism there but there is also a playing field that it is above that then you know – it’s like, what’s the difference between a very good concert and an excellent concert and a truly superlative or life changing concert.
And obviously, there is many factors that go into that and obviously the different people in the audience it is not going to be life changing for everybody but this is where a true great conductor doing something that he or she does really well can really make the difference between something that is merely good or very good and really, really special.
[0:30:08.6] AT: So I am curious for everybody here. I mean, both of you especially since you’re guests, but I mean, can you think of some of those life changing concerts and how many of them would you really say you’ve experienced? I mean is it like a very select few? Is there a lot?
[0:30:27.3] RB: If you have one every Thursday your life takes a whole new direction.
[0:30:30.8] AT: Maybe that is how it is.
[0:30:32.8] RB: So it is an interesting question. I guess one of the concerts that I would put in my list of top five that I have ever heard I think all three of you are probably in the orchestra. This probably would have been back in 2010 and it was again –
[0:30:45.5] AT: You’re cutting it close. Maybe not.
[0:30:48.0] RB: The Chicago Symphony with Ricardo Muti performing Othello at Carnegie Hall.
[0:30:53.6] AT: Ah okay. We were there.
[0:30:55.0] RB: Yes, Krassimira Stoyanova was singing Destomona and, or Desdemona, however you pronounce the name of that character, you should know it Akiko. I can’t remember.
[0:31:04.1] AT: They say Destomona.
[0:31:05.9] RB: Destomena and I think it was the first time I have ever heard her sing live and even though I’d obviously listened to great singers in other context or in recordings, to hear that voice sing that part live and that performance just completely blew me out of the water and the orchestra sounded amazing again in the acoustic of Carnegie Hall. It was one of my top five concerts of all time I would say.
[0:31:29.1] BT: One that I remember that concert well also. So from the stage I had the feeling not that I don’t ever need to play this piece again but I can’t imagine doing it any better than we’re doing it right now, coming back to conductors obviously where Muti had a lot to do with that because this is music that he’s known most of his life and you could tell, we could all tell during the rehearsal process, like this is in his DNA almost and you know you can’t fake that.
He had an idea of what he wanted to do with every phrase of the piece and he had some general things that he said to the orchestra beforehand that got us sort of playing Verdi in a way that he likes to have it played and some conductors don’t bother to – I sometimes wish that a conductor would sometimes, more often, make a few general statements to the orchestra about what they do or don’t want for a particular piece. Often times you dive in and you sort of start working in the weeds about details.
About this and that but not that that’s not useful but to put a wider umbrella over stylistic concerns and so again, I am getting more general and away from the question but Muti with Verdi especially does that and it makes a huge difference in the way that we play the music.
[0:32:43.7] NC: I mean I remember the way he dealt with tremolo and he was so specific about all kinds of different tremolo and – you know some conductors – to what you are taking about Roderick, where you can see on stage everyone’s involvement even in parts like tremolo, which are traditionally the parts where I might want to just lean back, you know rest the wrist on the leg or something like that. But I mean some conductors will yeah, if they are really feeling kind of spicy they will, “Come on guys, you have to care about the tremolo. Put some effort into it or play it faster” or whatever.
And then Muti, he was very specific. This tremolo has this dramatic meaning. This tremolo has this dramatic meaning, and that was a sneaky way to get us all involved. Not just for fear of him because he was the music director and he is just a genuinely scary guy but yeah, giving us a reason to care about it.
[0:33:38.7] AT: Of the topic of life changing performances, but just something funny that Muti said, he said many, many incredibly meaningful and funny, humorous things but in [inaud 33:52] from Romeo and Juliet, there’s violence at [inaud 33:55], one of them and I wish I could remember the exact spot that he was talking about it but he stopped us and he just looked semi-disgusted and he said, “It sounds like Juliet is throwing rocks into the water.”
[0:34:09.3] BT: That’s nice. Actually if we are not including our previous performances, you know going back to our chamber music days and our life changing concerts. If we are sticking to our orchestral careers. For sure one of mine might also have been one that you played in Nathan. I can’t remember, it was Pierre Boulez doing Molar two. It might have been during the few years I was in CSO before you joined.
[0:34:34.1] NC: That might have been.
[0:34:35.0] BT: But it was my first time to play the piece and I knew the piece well from recordings and loved the piece. So it is part of the reason it was great for me it was it my first time doing it. Also Boulez wasn’t known as a big Molarian most of his career. And later in his life he started, sort of one by one doing the Molar symphonies and had done several over the years with us but this was the first one that I had done with him. Piece I loved and rehearsals – everything went fine and during the first concert, in the last movement the orchestra comes to a stop and the choir comes in for the first time.
And I think I was probably looking down at the stage just taking in, and basking in the glory of this beautiful sound that was in the context of the piece being heard for the first time and at one point, I looked up just at Mr. Boulez and tears were streaming down his face. So it was a number of things coming together. First of all, Boulez, this renegade whipper snapper from the 50s who said all of these controversial things.
Actually it’s just like this beautiful tonal music that is in some ways couldn’t be more different than some of the things he wrote.
[0:35:48.8] RB: Like I am enjoying this but why?
[0:35:52.1] BT: Exactly and also I didn’t know him as well then as I came to know him a bit later but he is a very private man and so it was obvious that, I don’t know, the moment was really poignant for me. It was a great performance but I was also influenced by these other factors of playing the piece for the first time. Obviously the hall was full because it was a piece that tends to draw in the audience and then to do it with somebody like Boulez who I had tremendous respect for. And then see that the piece was really getting you know to him in that moment in a way that it was to me all these factors kind of came together. Certainly I won’t forget it and I mean I have done the piece since then and it is great but I will always remember that particular time.
[0:36:34.4] RB: And you know sometimes great performance and memorable performances, yes, they have something to do with the music but they also have to do with the circumstances. I mean another one that I can remember not because the repertoire was great but because of the occasion of it, was when Daniel Barenboim returned to Chicago after being away for what was it Brant? Something like 12 years.
You know he left his job as music director of the Chicago Symphony not on great terms like sometimes tends to happen when great artists get – come at loggerheads to each other for one reason or another, and he was back in the hall. He hadn’t come back since the day that he ceased his 10 years as music director and there was an electricity in the audience. There was palpable sense of anticipation of everybody who was there. The repertoire I think was Ma Vlast, which is not necessarily a great piece of music but not withstanding that, it was a very electric performance.
And some of the things that he did with even some of the most familiar music in that piece, you know. The Moldau, which is a piece that most people probably played in high school or youth orchestra. Some of the real time pushing and pulling – things that he was always famous for doing in the orchestra, things that were almost felt improvised. He loved to take chances with the interpretation of music and take it beyond what was just written on the page.
He was famous for doing things that sometimes even resulted in accidents because he improvised and pushed things too far but it really worked out magically in that particular clip and it was one that I will definitely remember. I think there is a clip from The Moldau on YouTube if any listener wants to Google that, but it was a very satisfying night.
[0:38:20.3] BT: I feel like you should give your email address for all the people who disagree that Ma Vlast is not a great piece of music can write to you.
[0:38:28.2] NC: That’s right, send the hate mail. But I know what you mean. I mean it is not – yeah if you are going to compare it to Molar Two or Verde Opera or something, maybe not a show stopping piece in the same way.
[0:38:43.2] BT: I know that also I think Barenboim, he did so much music with us through his time as music director. I heard this not from him but it makes sense that it would be true that he, in trying to figure out what he was going to do with us, he wanted a list of pieces that the orchestra hadn’t played for at least X number of years, 10 years or 15 years and it turns out that Ma Vlast was on that list. We hadn’t done it in a while and so he wanted to pick something deliberately that you know was fresh for everybody.
[0:39:11.8] RB: I heard that same story a little bit differently which was that he asked for a list of things he had never conducted [inaud 39:17] And so he was music conductor for what, 17 years, 18 years so the list of things he had never conducted was pretty short and that was one of them so that is what we ended up hearing.
[0:39:26.9] BT: So this happens all the time that I am not quite – you know because lots of concerts, lots of whatever and –
[0:39:35.2] AT: Plus Roderick’s business is the details.
[0:39:38.9] BT: Exactly.
[0:39:40.3] NC: I wonder if you could take us on a brief tour Roderick. You would have heard many concerts by the various music directors, the most important conductors for the Chicago Symphony. I mean namely during your time it would have been Barenboim as music director, Boulez as principal guest. Was that his title? Pierre Boulez. Bernard Haitink as principal conductor maybe?
[0:40:09.4] RB: That’s right.
[0:40:10.0] NC: And then Muti. Do you want to talk maybe about a few of the differences that you noticed just going through a lot of concerts by each of those.
[0:40:19.0] RB: Sure, wow that’s a wide range in question. So Barenboim is a genius. He is well known as somebody who operates at a totally different level than the rest of us. He is also impetuous. I think he’s a kind of person who from a very, very early age was recognized as a prodigy and is probably treated like one all the time and he is not always the easiest when he doesn’t get what he wants and that’s how he can conducted the CSO.
Some of the performances that he was in charge of were some of the greatest evenings in classical music that you might have heard and then that another time, something might have set him off and put him in a mood and then ended up being – It wasn’t enjoyable for most of the people on the stage so you never knew what you were going to get. He’d conduct in a very improvisatory way, sometimes – often times not using the score at all because he kept it all in his head.
So his performance was always generally exciting. I didn’t get to hear a ton of performances conducted by Pierre Boulez but his approach to the music right is – you could describe as one of a scientist. He was very detail-oriented and his stick technique was very precise and small in a way, and he got a sound out of the orchestra that was – there was a lot of attention to detail and certainly you could tell that the orchestra loved playing for him. I think, Ryan you can correct me but the orchestra collectively called him Uncle Pierre, is that right? They played for him with a lot of fondness.
Bernard Haitink showed up at a time when Barenboim left abruptly and the orchestra hadn’t yet engaged another music director and so he showed up to be a steward for the orchestra during the two or three years before Ricardo Muti came on and signed up as music director and obviously Bernard Haitink is one of the –
You know he just retired from conducting this year after a career that was something like 60 years long. I can’t remember exactly you know how long it was but – one of the luminaries of the conducting world and I also remember Molar Two performance that he led in Chicago. He actually recorded a number of the Molars and Fennies with the CSO while he was there and yeah, there was just a very much a sense of joy and of respect that you could feel from the audience coming from the musicians on the stage when he was on the podium.
Also had visually from the audience had a conducting technique that was very economical and he was able to get a huge amount of sound out of the orchestra with gestures that were very small and very reduced and very much reflected sort of the stereotypical Dutch shyness I guess you could say. Muti, you know Muti I guess you could also use the word impetuous to describe him as a person. I don’t know, he’s fiery and he is a disciplinarian and he is, you could say authoritarian if you wanted.
He does some incredible, amazing things, particularly in vocal works, and it is an event when he is in the hall and particularly when he is conducting operas. He’s done all of the Shakespeare operas of Verdi. He likes to do symphonic works with the choir, you know Beethoven Nine, The Verdi Requiem and it’s that we’d really miss him when he is tenured with the CSO ends in a couple of years.
[0:43:56.6] NC: And definitely the other thing that I wanted to get to before we wrap up is your impression of the players on stage, things that we should probably be aware that the audience can see or notice but that we apparently are not aware of.
[0:44:14.1] BT: Well I got a whole list of that.
[0:44:16.9] NC: This is where we go for it, yeah this could be anything from personal grooming and dress to mannerisms. Any of that.
[0:44:26.7] AT: We already told the story about Ken coming to the Hollywood bowl where they had the jumbotrons and telling me I could probably go ahead and dye my hair.
[0:44:35.7] NC: Yeah anything along those lines.
[0:44:40.0] AT: That we should all wear more makeup.
[0:44:42.1] BT: It’s like we can tell the black Reebok shoes we’re wearing aren’t patent leather.
[0:44:48.3] RB: That is something that actually does stick out. I think you’d be surprised to know how much the shoes are visually apparent to the audience and when some of the people in the orchestra don’t wear what they are supposed to i.e., patent leather with the tail coat and white tie really does stick out. But no, generally, I would say that the thing that is most visually affecting from an audience perspective is when people don’t look engaged and I know that that can be difficult night after night.
But you notice right away somebody in the back of – let’s just pick on somebody – the viola section or the trombone section, who may look bored, who maybe tacit during a particular movement, who may not be playing the most important line in a particular work and, you know, their eyes are not on the music, not on the conductor, sort of staring up into space with an appearance of being bored. That’s something that if I were the personal manager, if I were the stage director of the group I’d like to tap people who do that kind of thing on the shoulder and say “Hey, it doesn’t have a great visual effect,” and sadly, it always tends to be the same people who do that kind of thing over and over.
[0:45:54.0] BT: The contrary is true, right? That when people do look engaged, that it greatly enhances the experience.
[0:46:00.9] RB: Oh of course and I mean we talked about that earlier. When the music director is conducting a fantastic program or a new piece that has a lot of anticipation or excitement for and everybody looks like they’re sitting on the end of their seat very engaged with the eyes peeled and really paying attention to what the music director is doing like, obviously the palpable sense of engagement on the stage is one that is very much appreciated from the audience perspective.
[0:46:27.0] AT: Anything else? Anything else that we are doing or appearance wise other than the shoes.
[0:46:34.8] RB: One of my pet peeves is when people talk to each other during the applause.
[0:46:39.5] AT: Ah okay that is a good one, yeah.
[0:46:40.7] BT: If he hadn’t mentioned that one I was going to mention it too because it a pet peeve of mine.
[0:46:45.8] NC: You got to be careful about that.
[0:46:47.0] AT: I know, sorry. I think I am always blabbing at Nathan during.
[0:46:49.9] RB: No it is just something that, you know, I was an amateur musician and I played in orchestras growing up, elementary school, junior high school, high school, youth orchestra and, you know, when you are in that kind of traditional environment, you always got told during the applause you’re supposed to be appreciative of the applause.
You are not supposed to yak to your neighbor and look disengaged and it’s funny how often that can happen on a stage and it is very apparent that, yeah, it gives the audience a sense that people are ready to get off the stage and go home and even though that may be true, it is better to remember that you are still on stage while you are on stage.
[0:47:24.8] BT: If I am charitable I know why it happens. It doesn’t tend to happen if you walk out part of a string quartet, it never happens. So what’s the difference with an orchestra? Well there’s enough people out there that any individual feels like well semi-anonymous. It is like “Well there is always going to be the conductor out here to accept the applause or whatever,” and so it feels sort of like a safe space to just turn and start talking to your neighbor.
[0:47:49.2] NC: Classic mob mentality.
[0:47:50.8] BT: Exactly.
[0:47:51.3] AT: But to be fair, I don’t think we’re talking about what we’re going to drink after the concert. I think mostly it’s like, “Hey I really missed that shift, did you hear that?” and like, “Yeah, I kind of did, ha-ha” you know? So I think that we’re not totally disengaged. I think that we just forget that it doesn’t look great but I think we – and when I do it, I like to think that it doesn’t look terrible when I do it with Nathan. I mean usually with him I am just laughing at something I didn’t play right.
And I assumed he heard and you know, I think we are just starting our post-mortem a little bit earlier than we should.
[0:48:27.7] BT: I was going to say you guys can dissect the concert in the car on the way home.
[0:48:32.0] AT: You’re like, “In the car!”
[0:48:35.5] NC: And what do you notice from fellow audience members because, you know, obviously on stage if someone is opening the cough drop in the very front row, we’re going to notice and perhaps some of our colleagues will look out there but when you are out in the hall, what kind of things do you notice from the audience?
[0:48:51.9] RB: So I always say this that when I win the lottery I am going to hire out the hall and listen to my favorite pieces in the repertoire with me being the only member of the audience. I can remember performance of Molar Two for example when the choir comes in at sort of the climax of the entire work. It is very long work and there was some audience members sitting that are ahead of me who started humming along with the choir.
You know you can also – it happens all the time, people take their phones out. Thankfully we’ve got – you know usually the ushers are pretty good about coming up and tapping people on their shoulders but you know, maybe they do it with the best intentions. So there is a story recently with Anne-Sophie Mutter and I think Cincinnati audience members started recording her performance and she actually stopped the concert and said that it was either she was going to put away her phone or if she was going to leave the stage.
But it is very distracting. Not only for the players to see the light of a telephone screen illuminate the middle of a performance. So that is something that is very noticeable. And to be fair too, we talked a little bit about musicians talking during the applause. Another pet peeve of mine is audience members that get up and start walking out the instant the applause begins. Maybe they got to go to the parking garage and trying to beat the crowd out of the garage but, come on, give due respect to the performance, clap for a decent period of time and then make your way out.
[0:50:19.0] BT: We call that the standing and leaving ovation.
[0:50:22.0] AT: Or the walking ovation.
[0:50:25.0] NC: Yeah that’s perfect. I mean if I pay to go to a concert I want to stay to the bitter end. When I go to the movies, I want to stay for all the credits.
[0:50:32.2] BT: I was just going to ask if you also do that.
[0:50:34.5] AT: You know it doesn’t bother me that much honestly. Maybe because I get so annoyed at the parking situations in general not just at our hall but like I get stressed out. The older I get, the more stressed out I am with my parking. So they stayed, they stayed for the concert. I don’t like when people get up in the middle of the performance like you know, between movements, maybe, hey we can still see them leaving. It is not like we can’t see this and that one is distracting.
But if they leave in the middle of the movement, you know, I am going to assume it was some kind of emergency or something but it is distracting and I find that way more disrespectful than leaving after we’re done playing.
[0:51:12.6] BT: That’s fair. Let’s establish too it is possible to cough well or not well.
[0:51:19.6] RB: Even if you are not well.
[0:51:21.9] BT: Exactly.
[0:51:23.2] AT: I mean it always fascinates me that we hardly ever have coughs or certainly try to control coughing spills. I mean I’ve had one maybe during my career but we’re sitting there. I guess we are concentrating, maybe that’s why, but we don’t just like suddenly erupt because of coughing in a way that sometimes happens in the audience and – if there is a 100 people here and we can keep it together for two hours, I don’t want to be judgmental but I feel like you could probably try a little harder.
[0:51:56.6] BT: I think one answer to that is just that sometimes the audience members probably don’t understand how clearly the people on stage can hear or just in general, how aware we are of the behavior of the audience.
[0:52:10.4] AT: That is one of those things about Disney and I think you mentioned that too about Disney Hall that you can see everybody in a way that is not in every hall. It is not always like that but because Disney prioritizes everybody having good sight lines, that the flip side of that is that everybody can see everybody else and everybody can hear very clearly what’s happening. So I think, you know, those coughs really ring out very percussively not to use that word again but yeah.
[0:52:38.0] BT: There’s certainly a lot of the time you know we are listening, it is a passive experience. If you are watching television or you are watching a movie and you know it is maybe easy to make the leap if you’re an audience member at a play or at an orchestra concert that not that you are not watching live people but just that your behavior is sort of benign to the whole experience.
Whereas as we know all too well that a great audience, the missing piece of what makes an experience amazing, you know, you can play your heart out for an empty hall but obviously we’d rather do the same for an audience that we can tell is engaged and most of the time it is true that we get that but –
[0:53:18.2] AT: It is funny. I feel like during a play people are less likely to do it because like there’s people that are walking around like they know that they can see. I think they are more aware of it that the actors can see them even though I honestly think if you ask an actor I am not sure that they would – they’re probably so engaged that they’re not really seeing what is out there probably. But I think there is more of a sense like, “Oh this person is going to see me if I leave.”
So we have gone through a number of place – I almost never see people leave right in front of the actor anything, whereas people leave right in front of us. I think, granted, we are looking at a music stand, we’re not looking out into the audience so sort of they assume we can’t see them or something.
[0:53:52.5] NC: Well there is a collective problem there too right? Because if it is like a faceless group of a 106 people it is a lot easier to walk out in front of them that when it’s, you know, a couple of actors but yeah, I mean, the coughing. Just go ahead and do it, right? And also try to do it during a loud part of the music. It is super annoying when somebody – it sounds like people save up all of their coughs to the very most delicate softest portions of the performance.
Sometimes I hear that happen between movements a lot too. Like it’s been perfectly quiet during movement and then there would be 30 second break before the next movement begins and all of a sudden it sounds like tuberculosis war, exactly right. It is very strange.
[0:54:34.1] AT: Well it is one of the world’s great mysteries is why the coughing erupts between like if you can hold it that long and it is not good for you to hold.
[0:54:41.1] BT: It is a social phenomenon because people are fundamentally uncomfortable with silence sometimes. So you feel somebody else, the guy down the row from you lets one go so you’re like, “Oh okay, my turn,” you know. It is amazing. There is one and then immediately there is a spade of a bunch of others.
[0:54:59.9] AT: And it is only getting worse so I think people are less and less comfortable with silence.
[0:55:04.6] BT: Don’t we know it? Yeah I know.
[0:55:07.0] NC: Well thank you guys so much for joining us and this was a really fun one for us to get an outside perspective but at the same time, still an inside perspective because you’re maybe not a typical audience member and you are also in the family. So thanks Roderick for being here and thanks Brant for coming back. If you want to catch Brant’s solo episode so to speak, that is way back episode number six, where we talk about the importance of playing chamber music and plenty more orchestra stories there in episode six with Brant Taylor but Brant and Roderick, thanks for joining us today on Stand Partners for Life.
[0:55:45.2] BT: Thanks for having us.
[0:55:46.7] RB: Now we’ll turn off the mikes and say everything we couldn’t say on tape. Thank you.