Several years ago, I don’t remember when exactly, I had the chance to play Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins with the LA Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. This wasn’t during Zubin’s reign as music director of the orchestra (how old do you think I am?) but as a visiting guest conductor during Esa-Pekka’s tenure. The piece begins, as I recall, with a small clarinet figure, a dotted-eighth-then-sixteenth upbeat to the first bar, and the banjo plays beat two and four and so on in that inimitable style of Weimar backbeats Weill made so ubiquitous in much of his music.
In each rehearsal, Zubin conducted the upbeat and the downbeat, as well as the first bar, in one tempo, no stretching of the phrase. It was all business with him. On the night of the first concert, he gave the upbeat, the downbeat, and milked the hell out of that first beat and totally laid back the attack of beat two. It was unexpected, exciting and scary at the same time. I played that backbeat exactly where he placed it, and before beat four came around I looked up to see him staring at me with a big impish grin on his face! What a troublemaker…
Here’s a great quote from Zubin’s new autobiography that shows a wonderful insight I’ve rarely experienced or seen in words before. It shows the true meaning of musical collaboration.
Orchestras have a definite musical memory, and a conductor must see it as something being offered him by the orchestra. This kind of memory should never be underestimated; instead, it should be utilized as much as possible…If a conductor realizes this while he is still young, it helps him get past his uncertainties and doubts, not to mention the mistakes he will inevitably make.
What is needed is a willingness on the conductor’s part to take the musicians’ experiences and memories seriously and even to incorporate them, no matter how many years it may take. Only then can a conductor attain the necessary maturity, insight, understanding, and feel for the music he wants to perform. These qualities are just as important as all the analytical skills
- from Zubin Mehta’s new autobiography, Zubin Mehta: The Score Of My Life