RP: You recently wrote that ‘There is almost nothing to teach or to learn about conducting’, and Klemperer is on record as saying that what one can teach is so minimal that ‘I could explain it to you in a minute’. There must surely be more to it than that?
PB: Well, I spoke of technique. Certainly the way of conducting is not easy to learn and not easy to teach; it’s not at all like an instrument. For instrumental technique you need many years, because it’s a mechanical process. What you learn on an instrument is not only the music to be performed, but you learn how, mechanically, to achieve what you require from your instrument. In conducting you do not have any kind of specialized gestures; the gestures are very unsophisticated. The proof is that if you don’t play the violin for five or six months, then you must train your muscles to play again; but if you have not conducted even for three years, you can be on the podium and immediately have the same contact with the orchestra as if you had conducted the day before. So it is the material proof that, technically, there is nothing very much to be learnt. The gestures are very simple. It’s like when you begin to drive a car: first rule, know how to stop; and second rule, know how to begin! And, if you know these two rules well, in between you can manage – more or less!
...I gave two classes of conducting in my life (although I don’t believe in teaching, as you know, and especially in teaching conducting!), but I had two classes which were very hard.
I read the entire interview and the more he explains, the more mysterious it seems! There is nothing to teach about conducting, and yet if you read the comments below you'd have to believe that conducting is the hardest thing of them all.
Now, though, I’m struck by the awe inspiring fact that I learn a lot more from coming back to a piece like the Mozart for the 20th time than from learning a new piece for the first time. I just did this piece a few months ago, and spent many hours with the score marking parts even more recently, and yet I continue to find more things to marvel at each time I open the score than I did the time before.
Nothing against my successful young colleagues, but I really think that this is why Paavo Jarvi is right when he says there is no such thing as a “great” young conductor, no matter how talented they are. The learning curve with great music should be, can be and often is exponential. People sometimes look at older performers, be they Schnabel or Haitink and see that their repertoire gradually contracts. This is usually attributed to people focusing on what they love most, or are most comfortable with or with a reluctance to learn new things.
What I’m starting to understand now, just a bit, is that this process of pairing back and focusing on a select repertoire seems to come from a desire, a hunger to learn new things.
There are great young violinists, great young pianists, but no great young conductors.
Just before he died, Solti remarked that he was finally starting to understand the Marriage of Figaro, even though he had conducted the piece hundreds of times throughout his career...And finally, you have to remember that even Gunter Wand in his 90s had to live with the fact that one day he might learn something about Bruckner that would mean he had to start all over with a whole new approach. The question that destroys everything you know is also the question that gives you new life as an artist. No interpreter can ever know that their view of the piece is “right” or that they really do understand the essence of the music. They can only take comfort in the rigor of the process of questioning and study that got them to where they are today, knowing full well that they will eveuntually know better the truth of the music than they do now. A real artist has to know that the insight that destroys certainty is a gift, because understanding is a greater thing than certainty.
What gives? Can somebody explain it in a minute?