Book: Music As Alchemy by Tom Service

July 10, 2015

 

I've just finished reading Tom Service's excellent 'Music As Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras' and thought I'd jot down a couple of thoughts here.

 

I've glanced through a few 'conducting' books so far and they can run the risk of getting a tad tedious. However this one takes a fresh approach in that (shock! horror!) the author interviews not only the conductors but their players too, which does seem sensible. After all, a conductor without players (singers) is just doing some fairly bizarre upper body exercises.

 

Over the course of 3 years he had the chance to follow 6 of the world's most successful and well-known conductors including Abbado, Gergiev, Rattle and Jansons.

 

 

The one bloke I'd not heard of was Jonathan Nott, an Englishman who conducts the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, and sounds like a jolly decent chap.

 

The main take-away I got from the book was how different each man (and they were all men) was. Their approach, philosophy, style and challenges all totally different. I took comfort in the fact that even these people at the very top of their game still struggle with the same issues that I come across: how to lead without putting people off, how to communicate what you want to hear, how to ensure that people stay focussed and happy, how to maintain a vision, how to keep your energy up.


Service shared some lovely little details about how some of the orchestras actually work. The Berlin Phil is totally democratic, the Budapest Festival Orchestra is almost like a family (they even sit in different seats every now and then) and the Royal Concertgebouw's concert hall has a unique (and difficult) acoustic  that the players attempt to recreate even when playing elsewhere.

 

I enjoyed reading about how (and this is going to sound silly but bear with me) important the MUSIC is to the conductors. Whilst they care about their player's welfare etc. they are able to dedicate themselves entirely to the sound when they are on the podium, but all the time with these different ideas about what is important to focus on, and what isn't (none really agreed on this).

 

It would have been great if one of these conductors might have been a choral conductor, but I totally see that wouldn't have been comparing like with like and I still got a lot out of reading it.

 

 

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Bethan Clark, 2018