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April 1993 Conducting With Eloquence – An Interview with Harry Begian By Barbara Favorito

How do you regard transcriptions for band of orchestral music?
   The band repertoire is still very limited and there aren’t nearly enough solid musical works for our finest bands to perform. The symphonic or concert band has far out-distanced the serious music written for it. As a medium of serious musical expression the band has not had a large number of great works written for it during this century; it is hard to list more than 15 or 20 works of comparable merit to those in the orchestral literature. We should remember that the great orchestral repertoire developed over a period of some three hundred years and is the accumulated work of many master composers. Serious compositions for band, however, go back only about fifty years, and therefore we should not expect to have an extensive repertoire of serious music for bands. For this reason I have found it more than justifiable to play transcriptions of orchestral music for band so long as the work is viable and the transcription sounds good. The skill of our finest university and service bands doesn’t lessen the quality of the performance of transcribed music in any way. I have too often heard an orchestral performance of an orchestral work that isn’t as well played or as musically satisfying as a performance of the same work transcribed for band. Furthermore, I just do not understand the hang-up that some snobs have toward transcriptions; if they would listen to public radio occasionally, they would learn that many of the offerings on so-called good-music programs are transcriptions of one kind or another. The question to be asked about transcriptions or even original works for the band is, “How does it sound?” If a piece is not outstanding in either its transcribed or original state, then don’t play it. Never fall into the trap of equating such words as original, new, modern, or avant-garde with good quality compositions that are worthy of rehearsal time or performance.
   Many transcriptions of orchestral literature for band should never have been attempted; some great orchestral and keyboard works don’t lend themselves to bands. An example is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which Carl Fischer published at the turn of the century as part of the Patrick Gilmore Band Library. Can you imagine a band playing the Moonlight Sonata? It is ridiculous. Another example was an arrangement of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which I bought when I was sixteen for my first band in Dearborn, Michigan. It too was a Carl Fischer edition for band in octavo size, and I never looked at the music until after I returned home, but it was a disaster. The arranger lifted the bass clarinet opening directly from the cello part. Now, it is possible to play tremolando e staccato on a cello, but the same effect on a bass clarinet is ugly and unmusical.
   There are both good and bad transcriptions. What band directors should not do is to reject all transcriptions out of hand. On the whole, band directors know little about music history, and they should take time to study it. They would discover that Bach transcribed not only the great Italian composers of his time but his own music for different ensembles. Mozart also transcribed frequently, transforming a slow movement from a quartet into an aria in an opera and staying up late to rescore an opera for a fine band in the city. Music dictionaries and encyclopedias have pages listing the transcriptions that Brahms and Liszt made of works by contemporary composers, as well as of their own compositions. The great composers had no misgivings about the concept of transcriptions.
   In recent years composers have experimented widely, and eventually a distillation of the better ideas from this period will be incorporated into the mainstream of musical composition. After 30 years of avoiding melodic ideas, composers are again trying their hands at it as they get away from a fascination with complex rhythmic devices, cluster sonorities, wild and far-out percussive sounds, and the extremes of registers and volume levels. Thank God. I am so tired of hearing only angry sounds and music of shock value in the new, original works for wind band.

What advice do you have about conducting transcriptions?
   In conducting I approach transcriptions with the thought that the essence of a composition should be preserved, but it is impossible to duplicate the sound of the symphony orchestra with winds. The balances can be the same proportions but the sound will differ. Some band directors, such as William Revelli, have come close to replicating the orchestra’s sound on band transcriptions. Revelli, who was the finest university band director I had heard as a young man, was a model to emulate. He proved that a band can play in a refined musical manner with excellent sound, balance, and intonation.
   A band does not have to bang, crash, and boom. After hearing Revelli’s band, I vowed to be identified with that level of playing and sound. I never studied with Revelli, but he taught me the most important lesson: the possibility of obtaining a refined sound from a band. That is the inspiration I draw upon to conduct a band playing a transcription from the orchestral repertoire.
   Transcriptions for band inevitably sound like band compositions. That is at the core of carefully choosing what to transcribe or perform. Avoid compositions that emphasize the strings too much. Music that is idiomatic to a particular string instrument does not work well in transcription.
   The orchestral tremolando poses another problem in transcriptions: the effect is natural in an orchestra but not with bands. Lucien Cailliet used the tremolando in his transcriptions, but as a tremolando-legato. He used it better than anyone else, but it can sound clumsy even in his works, especially on the break of the clarinet. In the past I told players just to sustain for the effect, but soon I discovered that by playing the two notes of the tremolo divisi, they blend and no one is the wiser. Early in my career I tried that technique from the old band-arranging books suggesting that a snare drum play along with the tremolando passage; it does not work.
   Imitating a string pizzicato is a challenge for many bands. Alfred Reed once played for me a piece he wrote called Danza Caribe, which used a string bass to achieve a plucked sound. Many band directors ignore the problem of pizzicato, letting the players make the notes staccato. Pizzicato does not sound Cut; it should have a bit of length and a ring to imitate the resonance after a pizzicato.
   Before conducting a transcription, a conductor should understand the original work and know how it sounds. Many conducting books caution against listening to recordings. That’s a lot of rubbish. There is nothing wrong with listening to how Toscanini plays Verdi. What better example could anyone find?
   When I listen to Toscanini’s masterful conducting of the Preludes to La Traviata, I am not hoping to imitate his style. No copy of another conductor can possibly come off. I am amazed at how many band conductors are copycats. Without knowing it these people act like carbon copies of Fennell, Revelli, or whomever they admire. That is wrong: they should be themselves.
   No two conductors have the same technique or manner. As a youngster I used to sneak into the Detroit Symphony Saturday rehearsals. I watched Fritz Reiner, admiring his wonderfully tiny beat. Afterwards I would look in the mirror at home to see if I could imitate what he had done. Without trying to be a carbon copy of Reiner, I tried out what I had admired. I viewed films of Toscanini with his slow legato motions” and long baton, but did not try to copy him. Anything I learned about conducting came from reading and observation. (I often tell students that what school they attend is less important than what they learn there.)
   If I want to compare a number of performances of the standard orchestral literature, there are dozens to choose from; that, however, is not the case with the band literature. It is important to listen to as much great music as possible at an early age, or at least immerse oneself in it at the first opportunity. Whether or not a conductor assimilates performances, styles, phrasing, and nuances, his style will gradually develop. My university teachers didn’t improve my conducting. Some were pretty bad teachers. Eventually conductors discover a good public library with many orchestra scores and recordings. They listen out of love for the music, but good conductors listen to the work critically. By studying the slow movement of the Eroica Symphony as interpreted by five different conductors, directors would get a good lesson in style, interpretation, tempo and pacing.
   Many band directors cannot evaluate a transcription or original work, perhaps because they don’t trust their musical intuitions. They may have worked under teachers and conductors with strong personalities. One prominent band conductor used to say, “this is the way it’s got to be done” and that’s how his students continue to do it.
   Unfortunately, in the music world’s hierarchy orchestra   conductors receive immediate acceptance at a few levels higher than band conductors. That’s a fallacy. A musician of the caliber of Arnald Gabriel compares well with most orchestra conductors that I have known and observed.
   Unlike the band repertoire, in most orchestral compositions the balances are written into the music. I like Alfred Reed’s music because in it the balances are intrinsic: you don’t have to toy around with them. There are few spots that don’t work in his music for band. He has an acute sense of balance and orchestration. He cites the principles of Rimsky-Korsakov, which he understands and applies.
   Assuming they know the score and have an accomplished stick technique, band conductors should remove the straight jacket. Karl Gehrken used the term, the eloquent baton. Too many band conductors are rigid and militaristic. They should concentrate more on refining their conducting technique.

How would you advise young conductors to establish authority with an ensemble?
   Treat band or orchestra players as you would any professional group: as artists. Speak in gentle tones. Don’t crack a whip. In schools you can occasionally crack the whip and get away with it, but not as a guest conductor. Remember that a professional group will size you up in the first five minutes.
   Don’t give speeches. In those first minutes try to exhibit a clean stick and give clear cues. After the first few cues, the musicians’ eyes will emerge from the music. With any ensemble don’t drop the stick before you have their complete attention. If the players are still talking and fiddling, just wait. Give them the eye and a little smile, and they’ll get the message after a while. Be in command from that first moment.
   Don’t ever doubt yourself; take charge without being ostentatious. Show that you are prepared and look the musicians in the eye when you cue. Don’t stop unless things get out of hand and remember that good players don’t like lectures. If they’re pros or players in a community orchestra, they’ve probably played under twenty different conductors. Now the twenty-first tells them to play differently. If they don’t catch the idea from the stick, you may have to stop and explain it. I don’t agree with advocates of conducting without any words; listen to the Toscanini tapes. Some people think that conducting isn’t teaching, but that is precisely what conducting is. Speaking is appropriate when you can’t represent an idea through facial expression, gestures, or the baton.
   After identifying why you stopped, give a clear solution to the problem. Most conductors neglect to give the cure. Adding “please” at the end of the request works well.

Which of the differences between bands and orchestras are the most striking?
   Less experienced conductors who alternate between the two kinds of ensembles may find the differences striking. When conducting wind players, I discuss two attacks: soft and hard. I describe a D versus a T sound. String players can draw the bow to get a sharper edge on the attack or just glide into the note. Wind players can’t glide the way a string player can; they have to give an attack but can modify it by using a D tonguing instead of a T. That sounds simplistic, but it makes a big difference as far as activating the sound.
   Another difference in articulation is that bands are far more precise than orchestras; the nature of string response encourages imprecision. If twenty strings attack inaccurately, it is not terribly obvious; with twenty clarinets, it is glaringly obvious to the most inexperienced listener. Intonation also poses a bigger problem for bands. Intonation problems in the orchestra are largely covered up by vibrato. In a band, poor intonation cannot be hidden.
   Reacting to these differences becomes an intuitive response that you think little about after a while. An orchestra projects less weight than the mass of sound from a band. Early on I learned to compensate by demanding more sound from the strings. In amateur orchestras most string players don’t use the bow to pull a strong sound; the first adjustment is to get the strings to pull out the sound. Even with professional orchestras, conductors urge the string section to draw more bow.
   This string sound is not at the expense of the wind players, who should project as much as if they were in a band. The wind’s volume should be more, in fact, because in symphonies the winds almost always have solo parts. Seeing a piano marking in a Strauss work, the winds should not play a real piano, because that dynamic would not reach the breadth of the auditorium. Wind players in symphony orchestras use a higher range of dynamics, and to balance the solo winds, the string section should add more sound. Amateur string players rarely understand this. A conductor will repeatedly urge the string players to produce more tone by using more bow, pressing down with the forefinger on the bow, and drawing the bow closer to the bridge.
   On older recordings the concertmaster often sounds distant and barely audible on solos such as in Scheherazade. Compared to the wind solo parts, the violin sounds a block away, an example of the difference in the weight of sound. Not only is the band sound weightier but darker, being more bass heavy. In an orchestra, where strings make up sixty percent of the ensemble, the sound is brighter.

Is this a question of adjusting for resonance?
   Yes, resonance is the biggest difference between bands and orchestras. The strings have a more compact sound, and sonority is built into the orchestra sound. A band director creates the sonority and resonance from the podium through adjusting balances and dynamics.
   The symphony or concert band, like an orchestra, has substantial built-in resonance, but this is not true with smaller ensembles. Few wind ensembles have sufficient resonance. An exception is the excellent Netherlands Wind Ensemble. Whether the whole group is playing the Gran Partita or just an octet of its members plays a Mozart Divertimento or Serenade, this group has resonance. Many of the American wind ensembles could do well to emulate the Netherlands group’s balance, sonority, and resonance.

What kind of mix or balance do you work toward in various ensembles?
   Orchestras have the inherent proportions of 60-40 strings to winds. My predecessors at the University of Illinois transferred that balance to the symphonic band, using about 60 percent reeds and 40 percent brass and percussion. Some may call it old-fashioned, but I adhere to that balance.
   I am not an adherent of wind ensembles. It is very difficult to achieve good balances with that instrumentation, and many wind ensemble directors haven’t even reckoned with the word balance. Large bands can be thinned out to as few players as a conductor or composer wishes; you can always reduce instrumentation to share whatever advantages the wind ensemble has.
   I firmly believe that the clarinet section provides the mass of sound in concert bands, rather than the old-fashioned premise that a band sound should be built around the cornets and trumpets. Band instrumentation is particularly weak at the top. I always use an Eb clarinet to complete the clarinet section range. Some directors avoid the instrument on the mistaken belief that the Eb clarinet cannot be played in tune, but if a player’s got a good ear, it can be as well in tune as a Bb clarinet.
   Despite the differences between bands and orchestras, I conduct the same way with either ensemble. Some conductors note a delayed response to the beat by orchestras; however, even excellent bands use a delayed beat. When I first heard the delay during a symphony rehearsal, I asked my trumpet teacher about it, but he wouldn’t give a straight answer. Over time I discovered that this phenomenon vanishes at faster tempos.
   When I taught at the University, of Illinois, the band learned after two or three years to follow my gestures precisely. Although they could spin on a dime, I still had to wait for the attack in slow tempos. If the band warmed up on a Bach chorale, the players delayed the attack. The delay happened only with better players, the reason being simply that no one wanted to play first. A professional orchestra develops the delay into a science.
   I decided not to control the delay, particularly when conducting an unfamiliar group. If they play on the rebound, I just wait until they make the attack and then go on. After the initial attack, the players have a focal point for the other beats. You don’t think much about it after a while. That comes with experience.
   Both orchestras and bands bog down, mainly because the conductor backs off. Choral conductor Robert Shaw never backed off from the music; he immersed himself in it. There was nothing else on his mind, and he was oblivious to anything but the music. In five minutes of rehearsal Shaw was wringing wet, and not because of moving his arms. His intensity brought out the best from the people in the choir. When musicians see that involvement from the podium, they can’t just sit there, uninvolved and cool.
   A conductor keeps the pace, determines the balances, and inspires the players; he’s the catalyst. Some famous conductors at symphony orchestra concerts seem bored with the Haydn Symphony they are conducting. It is obvious when a conductor is acting as a traffic manager or is uninvolved with the music he is conducting.
   Some say that the players determine the success of a performance. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need a conductor. A conductorless orchestra has been tried many times, but always ends in failure. Someone has to be the arbiter, bringing together a hundred different ideas about how the music should be played. One person might think a tempo is terrible, but another player may think it ideal. In many professional orchestras half the musicians think the conductor is great, and the other half think he’s something less than great because they don’t agree with his tempos or interpretations.

Has your conducting changed over the years?
   It has changed in both its physical and psychological approaches. Physically my conducting technique has improved through observing fine conductors and by reading and thinking about the function of a conductor, why he is there. I have tried to develop my eye contact and baton technique to a point that I convey to players what I think the composer’s music expects from us without a lot of undue stopping and long-winded explanations. Whenever I stop in a rehearsal, I explain why I stopped and offer a cure for the problem. I refer to this two-step process as diagnosis and cure; a conductor who offers only a diagnosis but offers no cure isn’t doing very much for the players.
   I am aware that my conducting has changed in other physical aspects; I am not as flamboyant with gestures or so intent on subdividing beats or giving every little cue where it is unnecessary. Over the years I have concluded that a cue with the eyes is much more effective and appreciated by players than a grandiose gesture with the left arm.
   Having grown up during a time when such conductors as Toscanini and Reiner were the models, I am sure that I may have appeared too demanding
musically to some of the marginal players I have conducted. I learned early on that the truly competent, technically adept players respond best to a musically demanding conductor who has high expectations of himself and the players. For a conductor to expect the best from his players, he must first give his best. Only then can he expect the best in return. Giving one’s best as a conductor, teacher, and leader in a serious, disciplined, and musically charged atmosphere with high expectations can be an exhilarating musical experience for all — players, conductor, and listeners alike. Working at music with concentration and high expectations in mind can elevate the music-making process from having fun to experiencing the joy of making good music. Finally, I have learned that most players do respond to the challenge of doing their musical best and will try to meet the high expectations of the music and the conductor.  

   Barbara Favorito is director of wind studies at Loma Linda University, Riverside, California. She received a doctorate from the University of Miami, Florida, and this interview is an excerpt from her thesis.