Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about Yutaka Sado’s conducting debut with the Berlin Philharmonic. Originally, I was going to write a review of the programs themselves but changed my mind when I found that certain prejudices related to the “inferiority complex” point started creeping into my analysis. The coverage seemed to emphasize the difficulties that Sado faced when he confronted the orchestra during rehearsals, and I read too much into it. Though there was obviously some problems in terms of communication, Sado’s German sounds perfectly adequate to get his points across. Many conductors work with orchestras whose mother tongue isn’t their own and they get by through the so-called universal language of music. My partner once worked as a kind of freelance road manager for visiting classical musicians (her input into this particular column was invaluable), and she says that a lot of conductors don’t even bother talking to the orchestras. A few words that everybody knows, a lot of gestures, and mostly mimicking of the kind of sounds/phrasing/accents/etc. that the conductor wants are enough. From what she’ told me, too much is made of a conductor’s control over an orchestra. Usually, it’s a matter of both sides reaching a happy medium, finding a compromise, and the orchestra in the end usually has more to do with the overall interpretation.
One thing I didn’t mention in the column was that the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert master is actually Japanese, which in its own way is more remarkable than Sado’s being asked to guest conduct. Guest conductors, even of subscription concerts, are as much about PR as they are about extending the orchestra’s creative reach. If a conductor isn’t up to the task, he simply isn’t asked back, and in the Aera article Sado said as much: That being asked to conduct once means less to him than being asked to conduct a second or third time, since that would mean he passed the audition, as it were. Daishin Kashimoto, however, is a permanent member of the orchestra; and not just a permanent member, but the concert master, the first violin, first chair, who is the second most important person on stage. Obviously, he passed a much more rigorous audition, and in an interview in the NHK special he revealed something most insiders know but rarely talk about: When an orchestra doesn’t understand what a conductor wants or disagrees with his interpretation, they block him out and play what they want. It was apparent that this didn’t happen with Sado–the orchestra members seemed quite engaged with his directions, and he managed a breakthrough when he asked during the Shostakovich that a cello solo be “red” while the rest of the ensemble stick to “black-and-white”–but Kashimoto’s statement indicated that to a certain degree the Berlin Philharmonic does what it pleases. I’ve heard the same about the NHK Symphony, whose veteran players tend to opt out of performances with guest conductors they feel are beneath them. The fact is, you don’t have to be Japanese to suffer an inferiority complex in the world of professional classical music.