CORRESPONDING WITH CARLOS – Charles Barber

This engaging, funny, instructive, artistic book is part biography of the late twentieth century Austrian conductor, Carlos Kleiber; the other part of the volume is epistolary, letters from the conductor to the author. Kleiber is recognized as one of the best conductors of his times. He did not record much; he did not pursue fame. He took extreme care in performance (mostly opera) and on recordings to get the best music, performed and presented.

Art and perfection in its presentation are the most difficult feats for any person to achieve in performance. Kleiber has no set process. No conductor and no artist should. If one writes a book review, a novel or a biography, the writer should be conscious of different processes required from each product. It is true with a painter – self-portrait, landscape or city scene; a composer – a piano piece, a symphony or an opera. Each work of art should have its own forces, thoughts and games by the originator.

A conductor takes each piece of music, sets it into its style, regionally and historically, and brings out the voices, rhythms and sensations. Corresponding describes this process incompletely because Carlos Kleiber was always unsure of himself: He had great talent, devotion, energy, discipline and imagination, and although he had an ego and it seems colossal and unerring at times, doubts arose. He knew his knowledge, understanding and abilities had limits. He always wanted to know whether Verdi composed an opera while eating a boatload of bad calamari; it was useful to know the inflammatory patterns of Wagner’s hemorrhoids while he composed Tristan and Isolde. But in doubt about other stuff and getting an orchestra to perform to the conductor’s interpretation festered uncertainty.

Learning to conduct involves all the musicianship taught at conservatories, plus experiences of a lifetime, conducting orchestras and ensembles plus seeing and hearing other conductors, preferably in person. While big named conductors, including Kleiber, rehearsed with orchestras other big named conductors liked to sit unobtrusively in the seats and listen. Security sweeps of the house would remove the uninvited guests That degree of intimacy by the rehearsing conductor, the product soon to become public, did not protect trade secrets – nobody stole ideas because any decent conductor would have an understanding of music apart from the jumble in rehearsal. Kleiber himself had no students except the author, Charles Barber, a graduate student from Stanford 7,000 miles from Munich. The American figured how to get instruction – deliver VHS tapes of other conductors to Kleiber and await his reactions. It is true in the arts that the best instruction is sometimes delivered briefly, 35-40 words, and that is what Kleiber does.

In the biographical potion of the books (60 percent of the pages) may of the conductors were European. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony came up and Kleiber (two recordings) gives his impressions. On and on Kleiber went, and the text didn’t mention Pierre Monteux, primary a symphony (not operatic) conductor. Monteux has many recordings including dynamic presentations of Beethoven’s Seventh and Dvorak’s Seventh. There is very little of him on film. In the epistolary section I was relieved that Kleiber liked and admired “the walrus” (Monteux had a big white mustache).

It is helpful and perhaps essential to have a rudimentary understanding of music and recognizing pieces like is done in music appreciation classes. The book is written to a general audience – 70 percent of everyone will pick up and follow the artist themes. The remainder are embellishments, the knowledgable reader understanding the next 15-20 percent, and the final ten percent is understood by musicians who know or who have played the music being discussed.

In a score I know how to find a passage and understand some of the discussion in the last ten percent, but that is no longer important to me and does not yield a greater understanding of the book. [It would provide a greater understanding of the music and how Kleiber heard and did it.] Sometimes knowing everything is ludicrous; the readers sees moods, manias and childnesses: Tutti in a score means all instruments of one kind (flutes, trombones, etc) play. During a bad rehearsal Kleiber was dissatisfied and unhappy; he began to pick on various players. He told the first-cellist to change tables with the tutti-cellist (a grave, life-lingeirng insult) because the tutti cellist had been playing with more enthusiasm.

These sorts of nasty, artistic outbursts are common in the artistic word. Writers want to murder everyone, including the characters on the pages before them while they, themselves, butcher the language. Michelangelo painted Jesus Christ on Judgment Day throwing a cardinal the artist detested into Hell. This temperament is part of artistic lives and impulses also extant in Corresponding. Anyone seeking that experience, influence and stimulation would benefit from a thorough reading of this volume.

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