It was such a fabulous evening watching Ivan Fischer, a real treat. This is the first time I have seen Maestro Fischer live in action and I am totally thrilled. It was by far the best conductor I have seen in a live performance. It seems to ba a norm to memorize the scores in Munich, so Fischer conducted Schubert Symphony No. 5 and Mahler Symphony No. 4 by heart.
Fischer is extremely fluent and smooth with his arms, incredibly gifted and yet knows the scores very well. Everything he does on the podium seems right as he is precise, elegant but not arrogant, and the gestures fit the character of the music perfectly. You can understand what kind of sound he is looking for through his baton and you could hear it from the orchestra as they responded promptly and accurately.
Usually when a conductor conducts from memory, there will be some kind of space or disconnection due to memory lapse or uncertainties. Those are the moments when the conductors will beat through a number of bars without any control. You will not be able to tell physically, but you could definitely feel that the music has suddenly become “dead” especially with great conductors like Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta. Fischer managed to maintain full control throughout the 2 hours of music, and keep the music “alive” at all time. However, I thought the slow movements of both Schubert 5 and Mahler 4 could be more dramatic and drastic.
Conductors like to talk about orchestras playing on the beat or behind the beat. It is natural for the orchestras in Munich to play behind the beat, especially at the beginning of everything. It is impossible though, to keep that all the time especially when you have a solo passage. What happened in the 70s and 80s could be that the conductors were in full control, even when there were solo instruments. Nowadays, the conductors tend to give space to the soloists in the orchestra, and stay a little passive. In this case, if the orchestra played behind the beat of a conductor, they would sound late. The trick is to listen and keep the pulse. There should be a balance between listening and looking at the conductor or just keeping the pulse, but so far, from what I have seen, there are musicians (especially the string players) who always play behind the beat of a conductor without listening, some do both, and others listen quite a lot (like the principals). The simple equation is, the strings do not play together at a lot of times. Fortunately, the wind and brass always play as a group and thus they usually sound as a group.
The travel from Asia to North America and then to Europe allows me to observe the differences between these three continents. There are more details we have to consider and think about in the US and China. In Germany, you speak and play in a natural way. You don’t have to think what “e” sound you are making. You don’t have to think about how long an 8th note in a classical symphony should sound.
Is it necessary to think and talk about those details? Is it necessary to tell the professional musicians to follow the soloist instead of watching the conductor? I brought this up because Ivan Fischer did it with Münchner Philharmoniker. He beats ahead a lot of times, but when he needs to, he makes the orchestra playing on the beat (it is probably the non-rebound that helps him to achieve that). His gestures are just natural, the orchestra did not have to think whether it is on the beat or behind the beat or whatever the beat is.
Conductors = know the scores and choose the right gestures.
(Concert on November 26)