Truth is symphonic (iv) – the world orchestra

Itay Talgam

In the third part of this on-going series of posts I reflected on Gustavo Dudamel’s conducting style and its relationship to his training within José Antonio Abreu’s Sistema for musical education in Venezuela. Dudamel certainly provides a thought-provoking challenge to prevailing models of interaction between the maestro and the orchestra; in this instalment I will however be arguing that every style of musical direction (and it should be remembered that there are as many as there are conductors) reveals certain assumptions about group dynamics which are worth pondering. Here I will be referring to the highly stimulating and entertaining presentations on the subject by leading Israeli conductor Itay Talgam, a former music director of the Tel Aviv Symphony Orchestra who in recent years has been using video analysis of great maestri such as Carlos Kleiber, Herbert von Karajan, Richard Strauss and his own teacher Leonard Bernstein in order to offer penetrating insights into management techniques and broader issues of human relations.

Although Talgam’s religious references are oblique rather than direct, his words are laden with Jewish wisdom (he tellingly remarks that Bernstein conceived his conducting in rabbinic terms) which would seem to beg theological transposition; it is my contention that an examination of conducting techniques provides fruitful material for consideration not only of interaction between human beings, but also of the relationship between the world-orchestra and the Divine Conductor. The great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar uses just this analogy compellingly in his book Truth is Symphonic

‘Before the Word of God became man, the world orchestra was “fiddling” about without any plan: world views, religions, different concepts of the state, each one playing to itself. Somehow there is the feeling that this cacophonous jumble is only a “tuning up”: the A can be heard through everything, like a kind of promise. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets …” (Heb. 1:1). Then came the Son, the “heir of all things”, for whose sake the whole orchestra had been put together. As it performs God’s symphony under the Son’s direction, the meaning of its variety becomes clear.’

As I asserted following Miroslav Volf in the post ‘Constrained by the Score?’, we are of course talking about a composer-conductor here, not a maestro directing someone else’s music. However, it is clear from Balthasar’s evocative words that this is no Divine Dictator playing every instrument himself; instead, he is dealing with players who have genuine autonomy, who frequently behave in an un-coordinated, chaotic manner and who need the conductor’s unifying direction in order for their ‘cacophonous jumble’ to become music.

Richard Strauss

Balthasar’s Christocentric analogy suggests a leadership style combining discipline and freedom. So what sort of conducting style best mirrors this? Logically, one might want to turn first to examples of composer-conductors, but certainly not to the one analyzed by Talgam – the Richard Strauss of his later years. What we see in Talgam’s clip of Strauss on the podium is a conductor casually twitching his baton in disengaged fashion, his minimal gestures bearing no relation to the dynamics of the orchestra or expressive content of the music as he leafs through his own score. What Strauss offers is a curious combination of absentee direction (no eye contact with the instrumentalists) with an insistence that the players should do nothing but slavishly reproduce a text which has been determined in advance in the minutest detail. What sort of image of the Divinity would emerge from a theological extrapolation of this musical example, I wonder? A Divine Metronome, not unlike the Divine Watchmaker of eighteenth-century Deism – but one with a penchant for total predestination -, who simply ‘winds up’ the orchestra of the world at the start and then lets it tick away without further interaction with it, remaining essentially remote and diffident for the good reason that the running of the watch has been determined in advance. Or else the giver of a lifeless religious code of law to be obeyed unthinkingly, with no possibility of dialogue between the legislator and his subjects. In either case any genuine engagement on the part of the conductor with the players is excluded; indeed it would be surplus to requirements given that nothing novel can actually happen during a performance where everything is scripted. There is moreover a strange dualism in operation here: Strauss the composer (i.e. the mind) is everything, while Strauss the conductor (the body) merely beats time. As Talgam remarks somewhat skittishly, Strauss is simply being faithful to rule number two of his Golden Rules for  the Album of a Young Conductor: ‘you should not perspire when conducting: only the audience should get warm’. Whatever we may think of such a maxim, we are clearly a long way from Balthasar’s image of an incarnate conductor. Such a maestro might correspond to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, but certainly not to the passionately moved God of the Judeo-Christian tradition who is capable of involvement and suffering (‘enjoying himself in a Jewish way’, to use Talgam’s memorable definition of the word).

What of the opposite approach, a conductor who takes the orchestra by the scruff of the neck and pulls it along by sheer force of the will (here Talgam turns to Riccardo Muti, perhaps a little unfairly – my comments here are not targeted against Muti personally as much as at the leadership style which Talgam is describing)? His assessment is ambivalent; on one hand, he recognizes that spectacular results can indeed be attained by a highly directive, hands-on form of management which may be appropriate in certain circumstances. When rehearsal time is limited and efficiency at a premium – as with a guest engagement – it is possible to raise the level of orchestral performance within as little as a few minutes by assuming total control via the use of unequivocal and irresistible gesticulation. However, when this strategy is applied in the context of a longer-term relationship, the outcome is more problematic, as it can provoke frustration on the part of the players who are not encouraged to develop by being given responsibilities of their own, and who may resent being micro-managed. A concept of God derived from this method of conducting would certainly be incarnate but fundamentally incapable of letting go, interventionist in a way that the Christ of the Gospels (who teaches his disciples rather than giving them orders, eventually leaving them so that they should develop under the internal direction of the Holy Spirit) definitely appears not to be.

In Part 5 we will look at some other examples from Talgam’s (and my own) gallery of conductors to see what clues they can offer towards an understanding of the nature of God’s relation to the world-orchestra.


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