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Conductors and Cabernet: Maestro Raro by John Axelrod©2016



Some people believe a conductor cannot be taught. Perfecting a technique is possible, as is memorizing a score, and even a general awareness of the historical and cultural styles of the composer can be learned. But the actual magic and mystery of conducting is something that cannot be assimilated simply in a classroom. It must come from direct experience in front of an orchestra, but even then, it does not guarantee the result. As the saying goes: One is born a conductor or not. Even the great Richard Strauss, during a conducting lesson, once said that conducting is two (out and up), three (a triangle) and four (a horizontal figure eight) and all the rest is up to you.

And yet, if every conductor could find his or her voice through gesture, we would have better conductors, right? So what is missing?
Perhaps a rather mythical story about Carlos Kleiber might clarify. Allow me to quote from my first book, published in 2013 by Henschel Verlag: Wie Großartige Musik Ensteht…order auch nicht:
“Apparently, during the 1970s, Kleiber felt he should share some of his wisdom with younger conductors. A message would be sent to some identified conductor, who would then cancel if necessary whatever he was doing and go immediately to the maestro’s home south of Munich. Carlos would greet the young musician in a gardener’s hat and overalls, and the first thing they would do would be to enter the garden. Opening the student’s palm, Kleiber would place within it the seed of a flower.
Then he would ask the student to get on his hands and knees, plant the seed in the soil and blow life into the flower.
‘Like this?’ the student asked rather feebly, followed by a weak expiration.
Kleiber’s eyes would open wide and he would say, ‘No, you must breathe life into the flower, like God breathing life into Adam!’ With a big breath, he demonstrated the act. The student then followed. They continued in a quasi-hyperventilation until Kleiber asked the student to water the flower.
The student took the pitcher and began to pour, but suddenly Kleiber interrupted, again with wide eyes and a long smile, ‘Stop! Not too much, not too little, just the right amount. Preparation is everything. You must nurture the flower, but then let the earth and sun do their work. Have confidence in nature’s process.’
Then, after the water absorbed into the soil, Kleiber gently demanded, ‘Now, tell the flower you love it.’
‘What?’ asked the student.
Softly, Kleiber advised, ‘Ich liebe dich, kleine Blume.’ The student tried but failed.
Kleiber again corrected him, saying, ‘You must believe in love!’ The student repeated over and over, with passion and conviction.
Then Kleiber stood, and he and the student went walking through the woods, to the market, conversing about every subject, from philosophy to psychology to religion to poetry to mathematics to language to music, but never opening a score or talking about technique.
The next morning, the same procedure. A knock on the door at 7am, direct to the garden, again the breath, the water and the love. Again, walks through the woods. Again, never opening a score or talking about conducting technique. After five days of the same ritual, the flower finally bloomed.
Kleiber looked proud, smiling at his gardening student, and said, ‘The lesson is over now. You can leave.’ And the student left, a better conductor. There is no greater teacher than Nature, and to Nature we are all students. Breathe, just as a musician must breathe to play a note; nurture, and let the musicians play by finding the balance between security and freedom; and, of course, love, so that the musicians feel as one. That is what was found in Kleiber’s garden.”

Wine is no different. Kleiber’s garden is also a nice metaphor for the organic process of turning grapes into wine. Consider the soil, the rain and sun and the love given to the vine. Count the number of hands (and feet) that may touch the juice from soil to bottle. The imagination and ability of the winemaker is as important as the interpretive skill of the conductor and the quality of the players of the orchestra. However, breath, nurture and love may not only be enough. There are other battles to be won to be a conductor. The most important are the command of the craft, the understanding how people make music and how the conductor can facilitate the best results. After all, that is the purpose of the conductor. The people play the instruments. The conductor plays the people. Therein, lies the secret.

I recently had the wonderful experience to “teach” conducting at the Pacific Music Festival, in Sapporo, Japan, founded by, arguably, the greatest music teacher of all, Leonard Bernstein. As a student of Lenny, I can personally vouch for his teaching, and for those interested, more can be learned from Bernstein in my 2nd book, Lenny and Me: On Conducting Bernstein’s Symphonies. Like Norman del Mar’s books on Beethoven, Brahms and more, I analyze the symphonies from the perspective of experience to offer a conducting roadmap for the amateur or professional. But one lesson I learned in writing this book is clear: What works for me may not work for another. Again, so the same with wine: The perfection of what makes a Chave or a Trimbach does not mean that anyone can simply study these wines and take the Syrah or Gewurztraminer and expect the same results. Each road is different, some known and some less traveled. Despite all these differences, the secret was made exceptionally clear. At one point, while the music was not working well, I stopped a very animated Russian/Scottish conductor whose performance in front of the orchestra was worthy of Kabuki theater and said: “Don’t get in their way with all your antics and theatrics. You are not the actor. They are. Be the director and get the best performance from them. That is your job.”

Of course, there are conductors, including Lenny, who have been accused of exaggerating the music to their ego. However, in Bernstein’s situation, there was an authentic expression of a composer whose body language was essential to producing the “Love” he sought in the music making. Lenny wanted to go beyond the notes, to the depth of human expression. After all, composed music needs humans to be heard. And Lenny loved people. That was his advice which set my course to become a conductor. When asked by my parents what I should pursue, he simply said: “He will become a conductor like me because he loves people.” He was right. In fact, it was during my tenure as the Director of the Robert Mondavi Wine and Food Center that I experienced my own epiphany. I looked into my soul and took that leap of faith to follow his words and help fulfill my belief in the potential of people though music.

In wine, they call the soul “Les Amours de la Bouteille.” The final, loving drops given to the last glass. This is the sediment at the bottom of the bottle that most people often avoid when decanting the wine or when pouring the remaining drops. These dregs are caused by the tannin molecules and dead yeast cells coagulating into crystals from the fermentation process and sinking to the bottom while stored in the bottle. For me, the “love” of the bottle can be the best part, like tasting the sand in the clam shell or the roots of a salad stalk. As a wine lover, I sense the intention of the winemaker not only from the taste of the juice, but from that sediment that stores the collective memory of the years it was loved and nurtured before being served. As a conductor, when I experience the beauty of a phrase or quality of sound made by the musicians, I am consciously aware of the years of love each musician gave to his or her instrument in order to make the music I just heard.
Is there a wine that could justifiably be called the conductor, the “Maestro” of wines? Indeed there is, and it should be in every music lover’s cellar. Maestro Raro is a 100% cabernet sauvignon rarity from the Félsina vineyards of Rancia Piccola and Poggiolo in Tuscany, As the wine label says: “Its name refers to a fictional character in musical literature created by Robert Schumann, but for the winemaker it is meant to conjure up a sublime ideal that animates an artist, in any field, on the arduous path to perfection.” Like a great conductor, Maestro Raro has enormous depth and packs power. It has a huge body with tobacco, leather and chocolate flavors with strong notes of black currants and berries. With its purple color, it is as thick as jam. The hallmarks are balance, consistency and style, the same criteria necessary to be an effective conductor of music. This wine has the soul waiting at the bottom for you to discover, just as every symphony has a meaning beneath the notes waiting for you to interpret. With music, you breathe, nurture and love. With Maestro Raro, you smell, sip and smile. While you may not yet be conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker, you can be rest assured that with this wine you can call yourself that rarest of words: Maestro.

John Axelrod
©Copyright 2016