BBC Proms 2016 / 4: Ravel and Rachmaninov

I’m on a training course at the moment. Or at least, I will be tomorrow.

Management training. Leadership and that. The stuff I know contemporaries of mine graduated from university and completed in their first few months of proper grown-up work.

I’m embarking on it 20-odd years later. I’m always late to the party. I normally rather revel in that. Only now I’m not celebrating that distinctiveness quite so readily as I used to. The excitement I had this afternoon has now been replaced with something akin to indigestion, by which I mean fear.

The word ‘management’ isn’t what makes me nervous, it’s ‘leader’. ‘Leader’ comes with baggage, expectation, and responsibility. I want to be seen like that – a real shift in my thinking over recent years – but for me, the word leader equates to perfection, infallibility, vision, solid foundations, and unshakeable reliability.

And, most importantly of all, they’re all qualities I think people are observed to have very early on in their careers. Those people have a special red star put on their HR file soon after they start in their adult lives. They are the people who have it. The rest of us go on training courses, dreaming of the day when we do have it.

This is, naturally, faulty thinking. Or at least, it’s not very helpful. I think I know where it comes from too. I thinking it as I’m listening to conductor Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic seemingly effortless execution of a rich programme of Ravel, Rachmaninov, and Strauss.

Gergiev has a devilish look about him. Not classically handsome by any means, but a man with an irresistibly dangerous look in his eyes. He is fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. And I’ts that I know others hear in his concerts and recordings, and what I’m hearing tonight.

You’d expect Gergiev to take something as well-known as the likes of Ravel’s Bolero and present it in the way Ravel wanted it: a dance to the death.That’s what he does.

Following an imperceptible snare drum theme, an alto flute (I think) followed by the most tentative of clarinet solos hints of the terror to come. After progressively more obscene musical permutations, defiance and determination win out. At the end things reach such a cataclysmic conclusion it almost sounds like instruments have crashed into one another, the same the way elephants did when their march fell apart in Disney’s Jungle Book. That isn’t accidental. That’s Gergiev.

The man comes with guarantees. I know from LSO gigs I’ve seen him conduct, from the double triple concerto he played and directed with the Verbier Festival Orchestra last year with Trifonov and his piano teacher.

There is an insistence and a defiance too with Gergiev. Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto in the first half of this evening’s Prom featured 8 double basses – boy, didn’t it show in the mix. Meaty, solid and uncompromising. If you want a job done well, ask Gergiev, it seems.

But that’s what you’d expect from a conductor, isn’t it? That’s some of what you want from a leader? Collaborative, yes, but also single-minded,focussed, driven, and brimming with personality whether its friendly, austere, or prickly. In Gergiev’s case it’s a brooding mass of passion for his subject, upon which is built experience borne out of unquestioning expertise, acquired not taught. People like him inspire as well as fascinate. The rest of us unpick them in a desperate attempt to understand how they were made in the first place.

I adored the richness of Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto played by the 25 year-old Behzod Abduraimov. It was muscular playing – unquestionably so, even in the radio mix I was listening to – that pushed the instrument he was playing to its limits. Come the encore – Lizst’s La campanella – the fluidity of the lines Abduraimov was playing reminded me a lot of our own Benjamin Grosvenor (though if I was being really picky, I’d say Grosvenor has the edge, just, where that’s concerned).

Abduraimov brought the hall alive tonight. It was the first time I experienced a rush of pride hearing the roar of the crowd after he’d finished playing. That’s the first time this season. Such a special sound.

We can’t all be like Gergiev. Perhaps the world can’t take too many people like Gergiev. How would everybody shine? And anyway, Gergiev is only human. He must have had a duff day at some point. There must be some recordings of his that aren’t all that. I must find them, ideally before the end of the training course, because I need to reassure myself that the net, where leaders are concerned, has been cast wide.

That then made me think of other conductors I’d had experience of either as a player, a manager, or a punter. My youth orchestra conductor inspired because he was distant, authoritarian – all of us wanted to please him so we’d get a chance to see him jig up and down excitedly when everything was going just so.

The choir conductor at school was all about hard graft, getting us to practise things time and time again so we stood a better chance of getting things bang on. There were those who looked like they were on the platform because the money was right, and others who micro-managed to such an extent that no-one wanted to play for them.

Outside of classical music, the true leaders have been the ones who have unwittingly inspired. Less caricatures of text-book ideals, more people living the lives that help you live yours. It is because of them you perform beyond your own expectations.

Right now, listening to the Munich Philharmonic at the BBC Proms, I remain unconvinced that’s something you can be taught.


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