Sunday, April 15, 2007

Stokowski pulled out all of the stops

Adding to the thread on orchestral seating arrangements, Gordon Mumma wrote in:
The organ was Stokowski's primary instrument, and as a conductor he never gave up trying different arrangements of the "stops" with his orchestra platform-arrangements.

As an audacious youngster in the early 1950s, I attended two of Stoki's rehearsals, and after one had occasion to talk with him briefly about his "platform" ideas. He said then that he had arrived at an " always useful concept".

As best I remember, he started with the brass: "...best to place them on the sides so that they never face the audience, and when that's necessary they can turn 90 degrees towards the audience for the special effects. The horns should lever be seated with a wall behind them."

(As a horn player, I could have hugged him.)

"Woodwinds can face the audience, but not with the oboes and bassoons next to each other. Strings are separated depending on the compositions; for polyphonic and contrarpuntal music the violins are best opposite, with the 'celli and bases apart from each other. The violas sound fine near the basses..."

The main point in my reference to Stokowski is that he listened to the spatial sonic results of his work, for clarity, just as a good organist would do.
I'll add my two bits to Gordon's: While the organist's discipline was the basis of his technique, the fact that he gave up the organ for the orchestra has also to be figured in, and indeed, Stokowski balanced the mechanics of registration learned at the organ with the primary virtue and difficulty of the orchestra, which us that it is a breathing ensemble of individuals. Stokowski's orchestral sound was praised in its time (and often faulted in our time) for its seamlessness, but close listening always reveals that his unisons and tuttis were always full of grainy details, the product of independent breathing and bowing in the ensemble. And althought the visual focus was on the conductor, he had no difficulty in reconciling "his" global sonic qualities with a personnel policy that inevitably included individual instrumentalists (particularly in the woodwind) with distinctive personalities. One might say, if theoretically inclined, that Stokowski had completely internalized the complex physical behavior of a system, the orchestra, with qualities that might be well characterized by statistical thermodynamics.*

Stokowski is probably the 20th century conductor most out of fashion at the moment, and his style was so intimately connected with his independence from the pack and a unique skill set, that he will probably never be widely imitated, even when historically informed performance practice reaches the mid-20th century. But it is important to note that his style was, in fact, the most innovative of the time, his repertoire was extraordinarily broad (both backward and forward in time), and that he was always at the technological forefront in his concert work as well as in his broadcasts and recordings, less interested in carrying on traditional habits than in real experiment in order to bring out aspects of music that had not yet been heard.

(It should also be noted, especially to those who think classical music has to innovate its presentation style in order to survive, that whatever you're thinking about: pop repertoire, light shows, adding film, everything up to building a cult of personality around a conductor etc., Stokowski probably beat you to the idea by seven or eight decades).

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*That's the most high-fallooting and naive thing I've ever written. Maybe I just should have said that Stokowski did with the orchestra exactly what my uncle the baker did with a batch of bread loaves -- if you looked close enough, each loaf was very different in details, but every loaf tasted unmistakeably like one of Baker Jim's.

1 comment:

sfmike said...

That's a great appreciation for an unfashionable musician and I'll never listen to him again in the same way. I also liked both the high-fallooting thermodynamics explanation AND the baker uncle explanation.