One of our musician leaders mentioned to Neeme Järvi that some of the people in the back of the string section could not see his beat. "Good. Then they will listen even better," he jovially replied.
In my last couple of "rhapsodies" I briefly wrote about the nature of reputation and the nature of conducting. I mentioned that musicians work in a field where reputations are constantly re-earned or replaced, and I asked whether it is really the job of the conductor to inspire the orchestra.
Today I want to share with you the experience of working with Maestro Järvi from the very middle of the orchestra. That's where I sit. I'm in a "box" of woodwind players with the principal flute in front of me, principal bassoon to my left, and principal oboe diagonally forward (to my left). Our second and auxiliary players branch out from the sides of our sections, and we all get to look straight upon the faces and gestures of every conductor who works with us.
Järvi is what I like to call "a minimalist." His baton gestures are generally very small. He's precise, but he doesn't make a huge effort to display his pattern of beats unless something starts to come apart within the music. I think he believes that the less musicians try to look at him, the more they will listen to each other (which is a good thing for most orchestras). He's soft spoken and direct, but he's also quite witty, using his healthy jowls to hide his expressions and keep from telegraphing his humor even an instant too soon.
Today, a question was asked about whether our piano soloist (the very musical and affable Per Tengstrand) planned to move without pause into the final movement of his concerto. Järvi and Tengstrand replied at the same time, offering slightly different answers. Tengstrand indicated that there would be almost no pause, and Järvi said there would be "just a bit" of a pause. (In cases like this, the soloist generally determines what will happen.) Sensing the humor before we did, Järvi added dryly, "Yes. But you cannot start without me." The orchestra burst into laughter.
Moments like this have happened enough in our three rehearsals that they're now almost expected. And, that's a good thing. Järvi has made his share of constructive criticisms to our various players as rehearsals progressed. But, there was always a sense that we were doing something fundamentally joyful together. And that meant other little jokes from him, along with a very endearing laugh, where his face actually takes the shape of a frown and his shoulders lightly bounce along.
When Järvi wants you to pay attention, or do something dramatic, you know immediately. His eyes get big or his conducting gets big or he stands up and looks your way. That's the benefit of conducting with smaller gestures most of the time. It gives the conductor greater range and an element of surprise. After all, a person can only reach so far with his or her arms. But, this is not an indictment of "maximal" conducting either. Seiji Ozawa looked like a ballet dancer when I worked with him at Tanglewood years ago, and (though not a tall man) he seemed to find impossible new heights with his reach, effecting wonderful musical results.
Neeme is also an amazingly natural musician. This is, of course, part of his incredible reputation, but (as I'd mentioned) everyone still wanted to see this for themselves. It's there in the way that he uses his hands to preempt any ambiguous phrasing and in the way he allows the music to sing slightly differently every time. (This is something our own Estonian conductor, Anu Tali, is also especially talented with, by the way.) Conductors like this do not insist upon a choreographed template of the work to be installed and played. They guide the energy of the music, and they also react to what the players do instantaneously. If there suddenly appears a direction that's new (and worthwhile), a great conductor will recognize it, acknowledge it, and guide it the rest of the way with his or her fellow musicians.
In this way, conducting is as much about the art of listening as anything else. One of my many non-musical inspirations is an author, the late Stephen Covey. He once wrote:
"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply."