Inside and Outside Conducting: Geoffrey Newman Interviews Christopher Seaman
Christopher Seaman’s recent book, Inside Conducting, has proved to be a particularly insightful treatment of the art and means of conducting, relying on a wealth of experience that dates as far back as Seaman’s days as principal timpanist for the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1960’s. He first served as Assistant Conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from 1968 to 1970, becoming the orchestra’s principal conductor from 1971 to 1977. Seaman has also had strong affiliations with the Guildhall School of Music and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. His most significant tenure in the U.S. was as Music Director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, which ran for thirteen years through 2011. He now holds a lifetime appointment as the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate. Seaman continues to conduct internationally and has recorded for IMP, Carlton and Harmonia Mundi.
This interview starts with a discussion of the origins of his new book and of his more recent experiences in Rochester. The rarer insights come from his many stories about famed conductors that he played under in his early London days. Seaman is now part of the British ‘old guard’, so his memories link to the past in a way that is slowly disappearing. He also contributes insights on how classical music has evolved into a somewhat different social culture over the last half-century. The interview took place in conjunction with his performances of Beethoven and Walton with the Vancouver Symphony and pianist Alexander Melnikov in March 2016.
ON ‘INSIDE CONDUCTING’
Geoffrey Newman: Your book has turned out to be a terrific success. Had you always planned to put down your thoughts on conducting?
Christopher Seaman: Interestingly enough, I long avoided teaching conducting because I thought it was unteachable. I had helped out over the years at Guildhall but the turning point was one of my Australian visits about ten years ago. It was two weeks with the Melbourne Symphony, and I asked my agent, “Find out if there’s anything I could do for young Australian conductors. I don’t care where, or for how little. Just put me in a hotel and give me some young conductors.” In fact, they had a whole young conductor’s development program that Jorma Panula directed. I did the couple weeks, and they seemed to like it. Maestro Panula then decided he didn’t want to travel that far, so I took over the program.
I guess my teaching philosophy was pretty simple: I aimed to put only a few basic principles of conducting in place, with the idea that you might dispense with these eventually. I used to say to the students, “Look, I can’t give you talent, but I can make sure orchestras don’t have such a miserable time playing for you, and I can make sure that you can make the absolute best of what you’ve been given.” I was also unorthodox, since I did not try to get them to conduct the way I do. The moment you say there is only one way to conduct, you’re wrong, because all you have to do is look at a number of conductors, and they’re all completely different. But somehow I produced a number of promising conductors out of this: one who is now the assistant in Colorado Symphony, another in Jacksonville; in Australia, assistants in Queensland, Brisbane, Sydney and Perth. They’re all my students, and I love it!
GN: So how did this lead to actually writing things down?
CS: Many of the students simply said, “You’ve got to write this down. There are lots of books on conducting but it’s different, the way you say it.” So I started writing a few little articles on topics like establishing beat, accompanying concertos, learning scores, and so on. Then, I sort of lost interest for a while. One year, I was in Aspen when David Zinman was the music director, and I showed him a couple of these articles, and he said, “You’ve got to do this. My students need this.” So that gave me courage, and I carried on. I ended up with about fifty or so little pieces, not really a textbook, though there were musical examples that one could skip.
In any event, I contacted the head of musicology at the Eastman School saying: “So I’ve written something down, and I’d like to know if I should just photocopy it for students or if I should pursue it.” He suggested we meet the editorial director of University of Rochester Press. I gave her the text and thought that was probably the end of the story. Surprisingly, an email came back saying that they wanted to publish it. They are part of Boydell Press, a big English publisher, so it all worked out that way.
GN: Presumably you had to do considerable revision to get the final text ready?
CS: I sent some of the pieces to an Australian friend who used to edit monthly magazines and she said, “This is very, very good. There’s something that could make it even better. It’s a journalistic trick and you won’t find it in academic books: Front load every sentence.” Instead of saying, “When you’re rehearsing, it’s important to save time,” you say, “Saving time is important in rehearsals.” You begin the sentence by going for the jugular ̶ the key word, the key thought. I did that with one article and sent it to the University of Rochester Press, saying, “Look, I’ve slightly changed the style.” And they said, “This is it, you’ve got it!”
GN: So you are now a full-fledged author?
CS: Well, everyone seemed to love it and, apparently it turned out to be their best-selling Kindle book. BBC music reviews loved it and The Wall Street Journal loved it. I don’t really think of myself as an author yet. Sometimes I pick up the book disinterestedly, start reading, and think to myself, “I agree with this, that too, and there’s an interesting point.” Sort of a funny feeling! The publisher has now suggested an autobiography.
ON LIFE AFTER THE ROCHESTER PHILHARMONIC
GN: How are you enjoying your Laureate for Life position with the Rochester Philharmonic?
CS: Oh, I love it! I go there once or twice a year to do concerts, but they make the most monumental fuss over me. Hundreds of people have attended the receptions after these concerts, and people who I hadn’t even met before get up and make the most glowing speeches. At the end, I got up and said, “Normally, to hear these things said about yourself, you need to be in a coffin. And I’m not. I hear it, and I love it, and I will feed off it.” I realized that a lot of things that we like about other people, we never tell them. And I resolved to do my best: if I liked something that somebody did, I would tell them. We could all be dead next week, and they would never have heard it.
GN: Are you conducting widely?
CS: This season, I did Brazil, as well as concerts in Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Rochester. I’ve been in New Zealand, and I’ve got plans with the Scottish National. So I could be anywhere, and you can’t control it. You can’t control who it is, when it is, and you can’t even control ‘if’ it is. I loved being the musical leader of the organization, and when you are a guest conductor, you don’t have quite the same symbiotic relationship with the orchestra. But it’s like being a grandparent: you have the pleasure without the diapers.
GN: Thirteen years at the helm of a symphony orchestra is a long tenure. I happened to see you in action with the Rochester Philharmonic in Eastman Hall in the late 1990s, and was immediately impressed with the rapport you had with your audience, not least in your pre-concert talks.
CS: Yes, we often had 1000 people at the pre-concert talks. It’s so important that the audience knows what they’re going to get: “What am I supposed to be listening for? What should I notice? What emotions am I supposed to be picking up?” Describing musical emotion is difficult, but you can still go a little way in that direction. It seemed to me to be very important that when the concert came, everyone was ready to enjoy it. We also had a series called Symphony 101, where I talked and conducted parts of the piece. Then the orchestra would leave after about an hour, the last twenty minutes being reserved for questions from the house. You received some fascinating questions that you would never think of as a musician.
GN: What would you say were some of your most memorable accomplishments besides audience engagement?
CS: This was a harmonious thirteen years, so there were many cherishable moments. I was impressed with how generous people were in allowing the symphony to prosper. In fact, after 9/11, New York State cut our budget in half, so we really had to get out there and find funding. We also managed to upgrade our concert hall. In many ways, we were very fortunate that the University of Rochester controlled the Eastman School of Music, and owned Eastman Theatre. Joel Seligman became the new President of the university in 2004, and he was one of those people who seems to want everything ‘yesterday’. That suited me very nicely indeed, and he realized (or at least I managed to persuade him) that we had to renovate and upgrade Eastman Theatre. He and I befriended the president of Kodak, who ended up giving us $10 million towards it ̶ at a time when Kodak was laying people off. That caused a bit of social stir, but Seligman was fantastic and made it all happen. The Rochester Philharmonic Board got behind it. I am very proud that this took place under my tenure.
ON CONDUCTING YOUTH ORCHESTRAS
GN: I also happened to see you conduct Elgar with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain around twenty years ago. I was impressed with the sheer life and enthusiasm you brought out of the ensemble. Do you think there any particular secrets in conducting youth orchestras?
CS: The NYOGB was my original home. I played timpani in the orchestra from ages 13-19, starting in 1955. But I have conducted it many times since. You just have to get into a young person’s shoes and try to feel what a teenager would feel when faced with that line of music. You must know how to say things in a way that is very ‘here and now’, and that a 16-year-old will actually listen to. They won’t be turned on by saying, “We need to do that piano because that’s what’s printed.” You have to give them a reason they understand. You also have to be all heart, and when you want things right, but it’s beyond their capacity, there’s a certain point where you say, “Hey, let’s get a life and not worry too much about it.” They really want to see that you love the piece, that you love getting it right, and when they get it right, it makes your day.
GN: I suppose that the revered ‘old school’ conductors, like Toscanini, might not have fared well with the young musicians?
CS: It’s an interesting you say that! I think that a lot of these classic conductors might have displayed a different side of their personality with young people in front of them. We always think of Toscanini with enormous personal walls, but there’s an interview on YouTube with Licia Albanese that gives quite a different picture. She depicts the maestro as very warm, all heart, with a strong paternal side. Perhaps once he saw his great grandchildren holding an instrument, a whole different part of him would have come out. It’s certainly possible.
ON HISTORICAL CONDUCTORS
GN: In your younger days, you were able to come in contact with so many legendary conductors who visited London, not least from your first appointment as timpanist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the early 1960s. I suppose you have many memories of Sir Adrian Boult, Sir John Pritchard and others?
CS: I certainly knew Pritchard very well. He was my boss in London and he gave me my first job. As the director at Glyndebourne, he was able to secure the London Philharmonic’s status as resident orchestra for the summer festival, starting in1964. John was an exceedingly talented fellow, but in my opinion he was at his absolute top in the opera pit. We met many great conductors at Glyndebourne. My favorite was Vittorio Gui, and we played all the great Mozart operas with him. I adored that guy, and I used to sit there watching him intensely, hoping that something about conducting would rub off. He actually complained to the management that I was staring at him. Then they explained the situation, and the next time he came in, he said, “Don’t do it, my boy. It’s a terrible job.” He did a lot of Italian stuff, but he also did Pelleas then, which was a little unusual.
GN: What about Sir Adrian?
CS: When I knew him, he was a raging inferno squashed ̶ and had the most frightful temper. In some ways, he was a profoundly bad sport. I recall going on a tw-day conducting seminar with a bunch of young conductors while I was still at Cambridge; they had this small amateur/semi-professional orchestra for us to conduct. And the opening of the Beethoven 5th came up. Sir Adrian asked one person to do it, then another (he didn’t ask me thankfully). After four or five were not quite getting it right, he said, “Come along!” He grabbed his ten-foot-long baton, and went ‘flop’, and the orchestra played even worse than under the students. He turned on the orchestra and said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you know this piece?” I thought, “Bad sport.” And I never forgot that. But he was actually very kind to me personally when I became a conductor. I have about twelve letters from him at home ̶ including one giving a description of Nikisch’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s 5th. I also did a Vaughan Williams in London, and he said he loved it.
One thing you had to understand about Boult is that he focused on the big picture, and did not care about nit-picking details. He didn’t like being asked questions at rehearsals either ̶ he really did not like that! I remember doing Brahms 3 with the LPO, and I was playing those last three chords on the timpani. It was so terribly not together. So I said, “Sir Adrian, I’m finding it very difficult to put my semiquavers together with everybody else…,” and he was like, “What!” He hated being asked a question. Then he said, “Well…oh, let’s try it again.” And so we tried it again, and it was semi-together. He concluded, “That’s as near as we can get it. We don’t want any of this French precision around here, do we?” Those were his actual words in Festival Hall.
Nonetheless, Boult did a better Brahms 3 than virtually anybody. He knew what really mattered, and even though it felt a little messy within the orchestra, he knew exactly how much mess to tolerate. The same goes for his Schubert 9. He just let the music get along, and didn’t put himself in the way. I remember Marie Wilson, the fiddle player, saying to me, “Schubert needs to sound as easy as falling off a log.” A marvelous way to put it, because despite all the emotion and drama in Schubert, there’s always a natural ease in his music ̶ and Boult found it.
Sir Adrian’s conducting could be quite variable: he could be really ‘on’ some days, but really switched off on others. He was obviously bitter; he felt that he should have had more success than he had – but, goodness knows, he was in the best work all his life. That apparently wasn’t good enough for him: the BBC made him retire, and he never forgave them for that. Any reference to that organization would get him to mutter ‘typical BBC’: it was one of his most familiar comments. Undoubtedly, I knew Sir Adrian in his fallow days. After I left the orchestra, he suddenly had this Indian summer as a celebrity, which did him the world of good, and all the negativity seemed to disappear.
GN: How would you explain Boult’s lack of concern for precision: the influence of his teacher, Artur Nikisch?
CS: I don’t think it was an English thing. One of Boult’s big influences was Fritz Steinbach, who was Brahms’s favorite conductor. So Steinbach did Brahms the way Brahms liked it, and Boult did Brahms the way Fritz Steinbach liked it. Of course, Boult had a strong link to Nikisch. He told me that Nikisch was only a great interpreter of a tiny handful of pieces but, as someone who can get an orchestra playing, get results and glorious sounds, and knew what do physically, there was no one to touch him. But he did not nit-pick; neither did Furtwangler later. Mahler was the opposite, very awkward physically, all fists and elbows, and he would nit-pick all the time. When Nikisch came to America, it didn’t work because he wasn’t fussy and insistent enough. He didn’t spell out things to the players in sufficient Germanic detail; he gave orchestras a lot of wiggle-room.
GN: Did you ever have the opportunity to meet Sir Thomas Beecham?
CS: No, I missed him, unfortunately, but I knew hundreds of people who played for him. My colleague, Lewis Pocock, who was his timpanist in the Royal Philharmonic for many years, would occasionally come over and play second timpani for us. We called him ‘Titch’ Pocock ̶ a tiny little man and a beautiful timpanist. He said, “Tommy never gives you a beat, you just know when to play.” Beecham had such an unbelievable natural talent: he could never have taught conducting, yet just watching him, players knew what to do. String players said something similar: “He just got the best people, and let us play well.” But Beecham’s art was letting you think you were doing it your way when you were really doing it his way. In my book, I quote Nikish’s comment to the same effect. It’s that power to convince, and it’s a gift that all great conductors have in differing degrees.
GN: What about the Gallic conductors?
CS: I played under both Charles Munch and Jean Martinon. With Munch, you never knew what he was going to do. That was his natural personality as an improvising sort of chap: he was not merely trying to keep us awake! For example, he didn’t think there was a natural interpretation built into a Brahms Symphony. Boult certainly would have certainly said that there was. And Hans Richter too, though Nikisch would have likely dissented, being more of a gypsy, temperamentally-speaking. Yet Munch’s conducting was still clear – in fact, crystal clear – in his own unmistakably spontaneous way.
I first played for Jean Martinon in the National Youth Orchestra, and I could not do one thing right for that man. As timpanist, he gave me the most miserable ten days of my life. Then, a decade later, I played for him again when he guest conducted the London Philharmonic. I thought, “What on earth am I going to get from him this time.” We played through Roussel, Debussy – all his usual repertoire – and he did not say a thing to me all week. However, at one of the final dress rehearsals, I happened to glance his way. He gave me an enormous wink, and that was that. Either he’d given up on me, or I was finally getting it right now! But I will always remember that enormous wink! I thought he was a very fine conductor.
GN: Did you have an opportunity to meet Rafael Kubelik?
CS: Kubelik was around in London early on, but I really adored him much later when I saw him conduct the complete Ma Vlast on television in his last days. In the 1990’s, I would sometimes go to Prague to guest conduct the Czech Philharmonic. During one free morning after a concert, I couldn’t resist saying to the manager, “Is Mr. Kubelik in town? I would love to meet him, but I don’t want to be a nuisance.” And he said, “Well, he’s coming to a meeting at 11 o’clock. If you sit in the lobby, he’ll show up!” So here I am sitting in the lobby, and a taxi drives up, and a very elderly man gets out with great difficulty. He walks in and the manager brings him over and says, “This is Christopher Seaman, an English conductor. We’re still in the middle of rehearsing, and he’s the guest conductor of our orchestra this week.” He shook my hand very abruptly and walked off. Then, he stood in a corner with the manager and talked. He promptly came back, and said, “Look, it’s wonderful to have you here. You look after yourself, you’re a young man, make sure you get enough to eat – and look after the orchestra.” And I said to the manager, “What were you talking about?” And he said, “He was just asking if you were any good!” But I found him totally adorable.
ON THE MORE RECENT EVOLUTION OF CONDUCTING AND THE STATE OF CLASSICAL MUSIC
GN: So how do you think the ‘art’ of conducting has changed in recent times, if at all?
CS: It’s undoubtedly more egalitarian. There are many more female conductors – and very good ones. But there’s something fundamental that has changed too, and that affects conductors, solo performers, and everybody else. We are more and more leading people to listen with their eyes, and not their ears. If I had things my way, there’d be a screen behind the conductor, so the orchestra could see them, but the audience couldn’t. Audiences often think that a conductor who can get a fortissimo without slipping three discs and jumping around is not doing anything. And it’s not just conductors, but the soloists too. Of course, there have always been showy performers (recall Leonard Bernstein in the early days); the difference now is that this sort of display has become a model that young artists increasingly seek to emulate. The greatest pianists I’ve worked with – Arrau, Rubinstein, Curzon, and many others – just sat there and played. And now, people will see that style and think that they’re not doing anything. If you look at the old orchestras and the greatest performers, nobody swayed around, smiled, or made physical gestures – but they sure knew how to play.
All the audio-visual advances make this trend worse. I knew one conductor (whose name I won’t reveal) who asked management to have a camera in front of him at every concert, and a large screen above the orchestra so the audience could watch what he was doing. That is just so anti-music, and so narcissistic. A healthy ego has a certain balance to it, and knows to put the music first. We want the eyes of the orchestra and ears of the audience. That is the fundamental morality of a conductor.
GN: But don’t you think the best young artists today have the ability to shun glamour and display when they need to, or possibly just tire of it eventually?
CS: It is my greatest hope that that is the case. I saw Gustavo Dudamel a couple of weeks ago in a tricky American program, including a Ginastera piano concerto. He walked on very simply without any flash, and it sounded very good indeed. I was impressed: he often stood very still and did nothing for show. I played with Lang Lang at the beginning of the season in Baltimore and, again, I thought there was less show than there had been. Maybe someone had a little word with him, but I do like him.
One conductor who is frequently in the public eye (for many reasons) is Gergiev. He is unusual and unorthodox, but I think he has really got something. He can also remove his usual mystique and go back to basics when he has to. A friend of mine was in Israel when he conducted Strauss’ Don Juan with the Israel Philharmonic. They had never played the work before, because Strauss was suspected of Nazi leanings. Gergiev started to rehearse with an absolutely crystal-clear beat, something he would have gotten from Ilya Musin, his old teacher. Musin’s conducting’s was so clear, beautifully-shaped, with wonderfully-coordinated used of the hands. Gergiev conducted like that for a time, and it was only when the orchestra got used to the piece, that he went back to his more characteristic smoke-and-mirrors. I think that is quite legitimate.
GN: Do you think that orchestras are now overly-concerned with precision?
CS: Well, they certainly have a greater precision from an objective standpoint. Take the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, say, in the time when Charles Munch was still concertmaster. They had some very, very good players. Even though not all orchestral members might have passed an audition nowadays, they had a certain ‘nous’, whereby some of them were unbelievably brilliant, and the others knew how to keep out of trouble. So I think the orchestra actually sounded quite precise, but for those rather unusual reasons. Now the concern is that absolutely everyone plays all the notes – and very accurately.
Self-conscious precision by the orchestra or from the conductor still doesn’t guarantee an inspired performance. Orchestral players must learn how to read a conductor in a deeper way. For example, people couldn’t understand how Nikisch got the most gorgeous sound from the orchestra. Commentators finally concluded that “Nikisch beat into the sound. He squeezed into the sound, rather than dictate where it should come from.” Furtwangler couldn’t do that, so what he did instead was a wobbly repetition of the beat. Eventually, when you couldn’t stand it any longer, you played. I think if you had a certain musical instinct and some experience, you knew what to do. So precision as such has little to do with this ‘art’. A good orchestral player should be able to smell what you want. That’s it, really. Orchestral playing is a job that requires incredible skill – a lot of people don’t realize that. A sensitive musician will know exactly what you mean when you make a small movement with your hand, and it can mean something quite different with other conductors.
GN: But do conductors fully understand what they are creating in performance?
CS: It was Carlo Maria Giulini who said, “Conducting is a very mysterious art. I have no idea what I do out there.” Bernard Haitink indicated the same. I went to some of Haitink’s rehearsals in Amsterdam, and he did one thing so wonderfully well that I had to bring it to his attention. And he said, “Oh, I did that? Did you think it’s not good?” He had absolutely no idea! Boult also had no idea what he did, though he taught it as if he did. I personally think I know some of what I do, but I don’t know all of it. And, in many respects, I’m really glad I don’t. I think the greatest conductors that I’ve experienced – as a listener, in the audience, or playing – all gave me the feeling that they were in the presence of something far greater than themselves.
GN: What are your feelings on ‘authentic’ performance?
CS: The idea of recreating the sound that the composer heard is not really very current. Mendelssohn revived the Saint Matthew’s Passion and salvaged orchestral works like Schubert 9. Saint-Seans did a lot of research on old music (Rameau) and he brought out Baroque editions. He edited them and wanted this music played. Many other composers would do editions of Gluck and music from that and Baroque periods. But it never occurred to these people that we should try and imitate the old instruments. And, for all authenticity is very much accepted these days, I regard it still as very much a can of worms.
GN: Moving to very modern music, one thing that intrigues me is all the programmatic narrative that goes with these new compositions, from their titles to their intricate descriptions of their motivations. Composers are no longer willing to write Composition XII and leave it at that. What is your take on this?
CS: Is it meant to make us hear the work differently? I was about to see a contemporary ensemble in London, a very good one, and I read the programme notes in advance to better bone up. I read about the first piece, and I thought, “I think I’ve got that.” Then, when I heard the work, my immediate response was that I didn’t like it. I thought, “I must be stupid! I read the programme notes; they tell me I should be liking it.” I think all this description is about intellectual snobbery. It preys on one’s fear of being stupid, and I think that is a very, very bad thing to manipulate the audience with.
GN: What’s your perception on how the working conditions for orchestral players has changed over the decades?
CS: Well, they’re still not good enough. It’s a real challenge for an orchestra to have enough skill in fundraising to give the musicians what they deserve. I used to tell to people in Rochester, “Our orchestra plays twice as well as orchestras that earn twice as much.” There would be applause. I said, “You think that’s good?” Even though orchestra unions have been established for a long time now, most musicians in all but a few major orchestras are underpaid, and orchestra cultures really depend on the dedication and sacrifice of their members. The issue’s been there certainly since the 1950s, and likely long before that. The one guy who was known to have the money on his chair was Handel. If you did a gig for Handel, you got the money. He had a very good reputation.
GN: After all the problems that American orchestra’s faced a decade ago, what final insights do you have about keeping orchestras afloat in medium-sized cities, in addition to the critical issue of fundraising?
CS: I think the biggest thing is that communities have to develop a civic pride in their orchestra. For all the competing distractions that have evolved over the years, it’s still up to the media to keep the orchestra in the face of the public the whole time. When I started in Rochester, the Democrat & Chronicle, the local paper, asked me to meet the editorial board, which I thought was quite surprising. The music critic was there, along with all the editors. They said, “What would you like us to do?” And I thought, “Wow, here is the chance.” So I said, “Well, you don’t have to agree with everything we do. We’d like it if you did, but I hope you see it as your civic duty to keep this orchestra right in the face of the public all the time.” And, more or less, that’s what they did. I think that’s really, really important. I’ve been to places where you’re lucky to get a tiny concert review in the paper, and no previews or interviews with soloists either. Unfortunately, a more recent question is how we keep newspapers, and especially their Arts sections, afloat, so it is critical that new and different online sources increasingly come into play.
Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com