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Many years ago (in a location I cannot remember) I attended a concert of the Munich Philharmonic while they were on an American tour. The legendary Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache was on the podium, and I was curious to see the man behind the reputation.
What I had mainly heard was that the Romanian Maestro typically demanded a high number of rehearsals for each concert.
By the time I saw him in action, he was in his 80’s and he was moving in very slow motion. His walk from the backstage door to the podium reminded me of a Tim Conway skit of the world’s oldest conductor.
The program was Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnol, Strauss’s Don Juan and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
The fact that I still remember this program is fairly outstanding, given that it was many years ago and I do not even remember in what hall or city it was. The program however is etched in my permanent memory banks.
The most outstanding features of the concert – as I remember it through the cloud of time – were the solo and section playing from the winds and brass, and the tempos taken by the Maestro.
Slow and steady can ‘feel’ fast and frenetic
Each piece and each movement was intensely deliberate. The Don Juan, for example, was the slowest that I had ever heard in my life. There was no note-cheating for the violins.
The beauty of Celibidache’s Don Juan for me was that every note had its own time and space. Even though the tempo was slow, the music was intense and exciting to hear. The bravado of the Don Juan character came from an intensity of the details, rather than from a speedy tempo.
I was astonished at this revelation of thought. I was equally impressed at the musicians in the orchestra who were capable of sustaining those giant tempos, all its energy and all those giant notes in between.
This recording of Celibidache conducting the finale of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition on YouTube will give you an idea, although I swear that the tempo I heard in concert was even slower.
Play to the ends of your notes
The main lesson that I walked away from that day was that, generally speaking, musical notes have four acoustic parts: a beginning, a middle, an end and then, the echoing silence afterwards.
A tendency for some players and students might be to focus too much on the beginnings of notes. In working on long tones and other sustained studies over the past week, I was reminded again of this valuable lesson.
Committing attention towards the ends of notes and phrases can not only be a great way to psychologically circumvent potential pitfalls with accuracy, but it can also be an excellent challenge in terms of working on breath control.
A means towards an end
Some of the best phrases and long tones for myself are the ones that spiral towards an end – where an inhaled, gasp of air is immediately required upon finishing the phrase.
In cases of conductors like Sergiu Celibidache, it is always a good practice to be able to play as well at the end of your air as you can at the beginning. In practice, it can be both fun and practical to regularly push your breath to its extreme end.
Give yourself an occasional breath-control challenge and try skipping a typical breathing spot. Push the unbroken line for another turn of phrase — you might just surprise yourself.