For the love of the game

Posted on October 20, 2010

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Last night at our piano dress rehearsal for this weekend’s Colorado Symphony Russian music concerts, I had one of those nights that remind you of why you do what you do.

This weekend’s guest conductor with the Symphony is a Russian guy named Alexander Polianichko, who in my estimation is probably the most high-profile “name” conductor I’ve ever sung for with orchestra. As his bio says if you’ve clicked that link on his name above, he has truly conducted some of the world’s greatest orchestras. Knowing this, I was prepared for him to be a bit of a tyrant; a bit of the cold-hearted, cutthroat that would settle for nothing less than perfection.

Boy, was I wrong.

I have struggled since last night to figure out a meaningful way to describe what this guy was like, and I’m still having a hard time, but this is the best I can come up with: I don’t think that I have ever seen someone on the podium who loves music more than Polianichko. And I’ve never felt like someone loved music more than me. But Polianichko does. That’s some of the highest, most humbling praise I feel I can give a musician.

As a man up there on the podium, he was full of life and energy from the beginning. The way he talked about the music in his broken English with that heavy Russian accent was so unique and so passionate. He would dance around, he would smile almost without ceasing. He wasn’t the most clear of conductors technically at times, but his personality and his musical charm were so off the charts that I didn’t even care. Even when the conducting wasn’t clear, there was something raw and heart-felt that came through more meaningfully and effectively in his conducting that you could not have gotten if his technique were more precise. Typically in these symphony chorus rehearsals with the guest orchestra conductors, it’s all about musical details, and the vast majority of the conductor’s requests for how to improve something they didn’t like are expressed in musical terms. Which makes sense, since we’re all musicians. Make no mistake- Polianichko worked on some musical details, but in my estimation, more than 75% of Polianichko’s requests of the chorus were expressed in emotional, human terms. This, in my experience, was new.

Let me take you back to grade school for a minute where you really started to learn to perfect reading and writing. What is the purpose of learning how to read and write? Is it to be able to communicate and consume pure information? Is it to be educated? Or is it more than that? My thinking is that at least a large part of the reason we should learn to read and write is so that we can express and share feelings and emotion. But standing in our way of expressing that emotion in the form of the written word is the alphabet, hundreds of thousands (millions?) of words, and of course, the spawn of Satan, grammar. And when we spend so much time learning how to get good at deciphering and sharing in these forms as 5 and 6 year-olds, by second grade most kids read like robots with very little inflection in their voice. We train minds to comprehend the words on the page, but I’m uncertain of how we train hearts to comprehend the expression behind the words. This happens in music, too. It’s as if once we’ve learned the nuts and bolts, we have to re-learn what it used to be like to just express ourselves, but we now have to do it in this new form. Or worse: we never recapture the ability to be expressive, or we  learn a new, lukewarm way of expressing those emotions that isn’t as pure or genuine as the forms we knew before we learned to read and write.

I think about the thousands of kids around the world who come to college loving music and wanting to major in it, but within a few months, they run away screaming because majoring in music wasn’t what they thought it would be. Standing in the way of their desire to be musically expressive for the rest of their lives are music theory, counterpoint, and the Academic Filter of expression. Had I had a single interest in anything other than music, I would have definitely run away, too. But here on the podium last night stood Polianichko: someone full of musical knowledge, full of conducting skill, but he had no Academic Filter. His expression of the music was almost child-like at times. You could tell: he lived for this. And as an aspiring conductor, it was inspirational to see that this was possible at his level. Sometimes, I would wonder whether or not it was possible, but now I know that it is. He had survived studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and come out the other side retaining this unbridled passion for the emotional part of music. (Or maybe…that conservatory is where he learned his passion…)

If you haven’t seen this, you’re gonna love it. This right here is what The Repertoire can be about if we let it:

Clearly this kid comes from a family that listens to a lot of classical music, and he’s seen a lot of conductors. Clearly he knows what’s coming, like you or I know that our favorite scene from a favorite movie is coming up. He feels the music, and he interprets the musical expression physically with the expressive vocabulary he knows (running in place, smiling, laughing, tapping his little baton on his hand, and of course, as the Spongebob Squarepants theme song says, “Drop on the deck and flop like a fish!” for the grand finale). At three years old, he might not be a “conductor,” but has the ability to express the music in unique ways like very few adults can. We have that ability trained out of us. But Polianichko retains this ability. And I don’t. And I have to admit: I’m jealous of him.

Musical Pharisees love the academic aspects of music, and they replace their original love of emotional expression through music with how it manifests itself academically and within a historical context. But people like me who despise the Musical Pharisees often aren’t much better because while we’ve learned to love the music and not the academics behind it, we keep the music separate from the emotional expression. Loving a melody is often times different than loving an expression. But the few, the proud, the Polianichkos of the world- they still see music, against all odds, for what it really is. And when they can shine that light for others to see in a rehearsal or a performance, we are all better for it.

Music I DARE you to listen to

Symphony No. 5, Movement 4, Ludwig von Beethoven

This is the full movement of what that kid was conducting. See if you can do like he does: anticipate the big moments (I love when he says, “Here comes it!” and “This is my favorite part!”). Pay attention to the direction the music is trying to go and enjoy the sudden louds/softs/tempo changes. Heck, pick up a pencil and conduct along with it. And for the grand finale,  flop on the floor and do it with a huge smile on your face. You’ll be glad you did.

Until next week, you stay classy Planet Earth.

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