Friday, October 30, 2009

Circling the Wagons

Probably the most perplexing part of my experience with Norman Lebrecht's The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power involved his account of the late conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli. When I last dared to suggest that this book has more than its share of faults, I attracted a rather fascinating comment that I found almost as curious as Lebrecht's own texts:

Norman Lebrecht is a good writer. He may not report facts correctly, and he may not be able to predict the future, but he can certainly put compelling sentences and paragraphs together.

Where Sinopoli is concerned, there is no question that Lebrecht led his discussion with a compelling sentence:

Just to mention the name of Giuseppe Sinopoli is enough to make other conductors foam at the mouth and players throw up their hands in anguish.

However, neither the paragraph introduced by this sentence nor the paragraphs that follow it ever get down to the nuts and bolts of why this conductor (now deceased) provoked such extreme reactions. Instead, the reader is treated to what, at best, may be self-serving cultural bias:

London's critics, a fair-minded clique of individualists as a whole, tend to give a new conductor a sporting chance. When Sinopoli arrived [to conduct the Philharmonia], their horror was instant, unanimous and uniformly sustained.

This bias was subsequently reinforced in a conversation that Lebrecht had with Marc Brindle in September of 2000, which was documented on the MW Web site. Here is what Lebrecht had to say about Sinopoli in that conversation:

There was great irony in the phrase "Great conductor" as applied to Sinopoli. I said that he was being developed as a great conductor, and I was less antagonistic towards him than many were, although he has never moved me. He has not developed into a great conductor in the slightest. He is what he always was - quirky, controversial. He does things that are so outrageous they are interesting. He will do Mahler 2 without there being any sense of resurrection - it is a neutral, laboratory performance but I'm not going to hold it my memory as a performance to cherish. It's instructive in certain ways - he is quite good at illuminating texture. The basis of his career, however, was a ludicrous contract, an act of madness, with Deutsche Grammophon who signed him for 85 recordings but who have now bought him out of his contract with three dozen or so actually made.

I have to confess that both of these sources left be utterly confused, wondering just what it was that seemed to have upended opinions throughout Europe, reinforced with the implication that only the British in that bunch were "fair-minded!" My first encounter with Sinopoli was through Deutsche Grammophon, specifically his involvement with their project to release the complete works of Johannes Brahms in 1983 to celebrate the sesquicentennial of his birth. My first purchase was of the works for chorus and orchestra, and both my wife and I fell in love with Sinopoli's approach to the German Requiem. At the time neither of us felt this was in any way "a neutral, laboratory performance;" and, to be fair, I have just ordered the CD release of this entire collection to determine whether or not my opinion of that performance still holds. On the other hand I now have the Deutsche Grammophon CD box of the complete recordings of Gustav Mahler that Sinopoli made with the Philharmonia Orchestra; so I feel it is fair to ask just what that "sense of resurrection" is that Lebrecht felt was lacking and why, in his book, he took Sinopoli's comments about the first symphony to be a "direct conflict with biographical and musical fact." At the very least Lebrecht's sense of "musical fact" seems to have excluded the connection between this symphony and the Songs of a Wayfarer.

So what was the problem? Why should so much venom be showered upon this one conductor? I suspect that it may have been a combination of a nonstandard background (qualifying as a doctor from a medical school in Padua in 1971 but never practicing medicine) and highly unorthodox verbal expression of opinions about both music and its performance. Social theorists like to talk about "community" being the escalation of the sense of self from the subjective to the social scale. However, those who like to "celebrate" the "spirit of community" often forget that one cannot have a sense of self without a sense of other. It may be that Sinopoli was just too much "other" for the prevailing "spirit of community" of musicians in Europe, at least during his lifetime. From this point of view, he is far from alone among those who pushed that sense of "other" beyond respectable limits. Among conductors my favorite example has always been Sergiu Celibidache, while in the United States the names that come immediately to mind are John Cage (who is only just beginning to be recognized as respectable) and Nicholas Slonimsky (whose recognition was more significant outside the musical community than within it). My point, however, is that the nature of the community is to affirm its sense of self by circling the wagons to exclude the other; and Sinopoli just happened to get stuck outside the circle. On the other hand an Amazon search for "Sinopoli" yields 289 hits in the Music Department. That may be modest when compared with the 1710 hits for "Marriner;" but, given what the classical music market is like, it is at least an acceptable showing. Perhaps it indicates that there are enough listeners out there who do not rely on the prevailing wisdom of critics when making decisions about music, and that should be taken as a good sign for listening!

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