A good conductor helps an orchestra tune out the noise
Nathalie Stutzmann infuses the RTÉ NSO’s playing with litheness, clarity and wit on her guest debut
On Friday, the RTÉ NSO’s new principal guest conductor, Nathalie Stutzmann, showed just how significant a conductor’s intervention can be
If you have great success by following your inclinations and instincts you’re one of the lucky ones. But instincts can be counterproductive. Even highly specialised skills have to be carefully channelled. Just ask any sports psychologist or music teacher.
There’s even a school of thought that claims the bog-standard Qwerty typing keyboard layout was designed to temper the inclinations of the speediest of typists, so that the lever mechanisms of 19th-century typewriters wouldn’t get jammed.
If you’ve ever thought that Qwerty keyboards are inefficient, you could look to the Dvorak layout developed in the 1930s, or investigate the world of stenotype machines, where the record speed is more than 300 words per minute.
The business of creating a barrier for efficient fingers is certainly found in the world of musical instruments. The concert grand piano as we know it today has not altered much in its essence in more than 100 years. But the keys of a piano are weighted, and the weighting is graduated, so that the fingers encounter progressively more resistance as they move from treble to bass.
If everything were equal and players were to follow their instincts, the bass would be overpowering, and the treble would sound weak in comparison. There may well be young virtuosos who would prefer it to be different, so that they could perform even faster left-hand octaves than is currently possible.
One of the key elements in studying an instrument is learning how to control your instincts so that, say, you can stay in tune as you increase the volume on a wind instrument, or alleviate the deterioration of tone when you go for broke on a violin, viola or cello. The sounds that beginners often make – even on that simplest of instruments, the recorder – are a good example of what is to be avoided.
To get things right you have to be able to hear what you’re doing. Which is not exactly easy if you play in an orchestra with up to 90 or 100 other musicians playing around you. In fact, if you happen to sit in front of the brass or percussion sections, you can be exposed to sound levels that match those of jet engines during take-off.
The EU has had a directive in place since 2003 limiting the exposure of workers to damaging levels of sound, and this has been applied to orchestral players as well as everyone else. That’s why you sometimes see clear perspex plates placed strategically around the stage during concerts. They limit the effect of the loudest instruments on other musicians.
Obviously, when you can’t hear yourself properly you may not know how you’re fitting in with what’s going on around you. Even finely modulated instinct may let you down. The larger an orchestra gets, the bigger the problem becomes, which is one of the reasons why the growth of orchestral size during the 19th century necessitated the emergence of conducting as a new and distinct profession.
On Friday, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s new principal guest conductor, Nathalie Stutzmann, showed just how significant a conductor’s intervention can be. The orchestra ups its game whenever she stands in front of it, and the playing sounds more sensitive, more refined, more sophisticated, and also nimbler and more athletic.
The orchestra was almost unrecognisable as the group that had performed Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Hindson just a week earlier under Robert Trevino.
The change was a bit like morphing from someone who, for whatever reason, likes to raise their voice when they can already be heard perfectly well, into someone who speaks more quietly but with effortless clarity. It was a heart-warming transformation. Persuasive, hypnotic voices, after all, are usually at the softer end of the scale.
The litheness, clarity and wit Stutzmann and her players brought to Prokofiev’s cheeky Classical Symphony were a constant delight. Beethoven’s First Symphony was fresh and invigorating, its youthful energy communicated with a wonderful rhythmic spring.
In the Brahms Violin Concerto, both the orchestra and the rapt soloist, German violinist Veronika Eberle, spoke the music’s profundities without apparent striving. Eberle gave the impression of being in almost effortless command, no matter how intricate the solo writing, no matter how painstakingly detailed her own choice of nuance. Yes, there was one gesture of rubato in the Finale that on every repetition sounded like some kind of musical hiccup. But otherwise the music-making was well-nigh irreproachable.
A balm for tinnitus
Two days earlier the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s programme under Gábor Takács-Nagy had included the first performance of Cork composer Sam Perkin’s 365 Variations on a Gesture. His programme note explained how the piece was influenced by waves. But he introduced the performances and gave a more personal slant on how the sound of waves has come to have a new significance in his life.
He has joined the ranks of people who suffer from tinnitus, a problem with his hearing that means he experiences noise that is not stimulated by any acoustic activity around him.
He has, though, found a source of relief. The sound of waves works effectively against the new and unwelcome sounds he’s hearing. His new piece for strings and percussion charts the wonderful variety of wave sounds, their slow rolling might, their percussive foam and froth, their rumbles and shimmers. Takács-Nagy and the players of the ICO, with Alex Petcu playing percussion, seemed to be delivering everything he could have wished for.