For four decades, you have been working steadily to develop the Met Orchestra. How would you characterize your relationship with these musicians?
From the very beginning we had an exceptionally strong rapport, which evolved naturally. You never think of that as a goal in itself—it’s just something you need in the atmosphere. You make a distinction between what you have to work on and what you should just be able to trust. One of the things I still do to this day, when we get near the end of the last rehearsal before performing a new piece, I say, “Is there any place you want me to repeat? Any place where you’re not feeling settled or you feel uncomfortable?” Because part of the point is not just to repeat what I may be worried about, but to let the musicians—who have to play it—tell me what they need to go over. Some conductors use an approach that is more like a coach or a teacher, and some people use an approach that is more gestural. But I was never that way. I always found that if you insist on getting an idea across with just a gesture, you are automatically limited by a kind of “general group response,” and it’s not the same as a response that comes from real understanding. The by-product, it must be said, is that I talk a lot in rehearsals. And if you ask any orchestra musician, even the most dedicated one, they hate it! (It goes without saying.) And I don’t like it much, myself, but it is an honest-to-god necessity. And that’s because you want an entire group of musicians to do paradoxical things perfectly together all the time. You may want them to play really short notes but not to accent them. Or you may want them to play a passage profoundly accented, but not with a hard attack, or a big diminuendo with no ritard, et cetera, et cetera. You can gesture and make faces until you’re blue in the face, but that will not make 80 individual musicians all do the same thing at the same moment. But you can get them to do the same thing if you repeat the passage a couple of times and gradually the paradoxes come out and they can feel what we’re after.
It sounds like you’ve really made the rehearsal room a safe space for them.
These artists know I will not kick them when they’re down. If they come in for a rehearsal and they’re having a lousy day, I don’t say, “Hey, you’re having a lousy day.” Because they need to know it’s safe in there. They need to know that we are here to work, and that we’re not working on our egos or other nonsense—we’re working on the music. If they know that, then all kinds of things are possible under stressful circumstances that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
What are the kinds of things you tell the orchestra players in rehearsal?
I may want to improve a specific thing, but I very rarely take a frontal approach, because I’d run the risk of getting in the way of the unconscious process. That’s the problem. If all a conductor had to do was stand up there and say, “That’s out of tune, that’s too slow, that’s too fast, that’s too loud”—well, almost anyone could do that. The problem is, the player has to feel it, hear it, and know to what degree to change it and how, and that’s what you have to achieve—and it would be a very big mistake to take this process completely away from the player. What you must understand is that one of the biggest components is confidence. Orchestral players are artists and they have nerves. And the more they understand the conductor’s musical conception, the more they will express it directly on their own.
What are some of the specific ways you have improved the quality of their playing?
Well, we work continuously on the relationship of the quality of tone to the weight and the tempo. Or hearing oneself play at the same time as one listens carefully to our colleagues. Or countless paradoxes in one style or another or in one specific piece or another. A lot of what I did to improve our capacities had to do with enlarging the repertoire, so that we would be comfortable with new pieces and new styles quickly. It had to do with putting certain works in front of the company more frequently. That wasn’t always easy on the box office, but it was very important for our artistic growth, and you always have to keep the artistic and financial elements in balance in an opera house. The veristic French and Italian operas, and Puccini and Massenet, and the bel canto operas, and an occasional virtuosic score like Salome had always been played beautifully by the orchestra. But I think we became much better at playing Mozart than we were when I started. We became much better at playing Wagner, and we became very good at new music. We have a much larger repertoire and a much more sophisticated and detailed ability to express the composer’s intentions. It’s what Verdi called “the work of the file”—that is, working away at it every day produces this kind of result, where you can hear the quality and commitment from each person, rather than a general idea.
The words one regularly hears today to describe the orchestra’s sound are vibrant, dynamic, lyrical. Would you say that’s accurate?
Absolutely. The things that have mattered to me in developing the sound of the orchestra have to do with the flexibility of expression, which means you need to be able to capture a vast range of articulation, dynamics, and phrasing. I think “vibrancy” means a sound that has a live tone, an expressive tone, a warm tone, a vocal tone. Vocal values in our orchestral playing are essential. The voice vibrates, it has to breathe, it expresses tension and emotion in extreme registers. The voice functions with a natural legato. And we try to get our instruments to do the same thing, as most of the composers asked.
What has it meant for the orchestra to have regular annual concerts at Carnegie Hall?
It has been invaluable for us—not just the Met Orchestra concerts but also the Met Chamber Ensemble. It has been a very gratifying phenomenon for us to play three chamber and three orchestral concerts in Carnegie Hall every year. These concerts are very well attended by a very enthusiastic public, and I can only think this has got to be because the audience gets a kick out of hearing a great group of musicians play with such freshness a piece of music that they hear symphony orchestras play all the time.
It’s not just the orchestra that has become so strong over the years. Tell me about how the chorus developed.
Soon after I came to the Met, the longtime chorus master, Kurt Adler, retired, and the members of the chorus petitioned Schuyler Chapin and me to take his assistant as his successor. And we did, and that began my relationship with the phenomenal David Stivender. He was a great musician and a great teacher—a major inspiration for the chorus—and he and I had a unique rapport. He really improved the work of the chorus beyond description, and when he died—much too soon—Norbert Balatsch, who was at that time responsible for the extraordinary choral results at the Bayreuth Festival, agreed to work with our chorus and advise me about a successor. He recommended Raymond Hughes, and we were fortunate that he agreed to join us. He continued to improve the personnel and maintain the standard, and in his time the chorus learned a tremendous amount of new repertoire. They also started performing with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, in diverse styles like Haydn’s Creation, Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust, the Verdi Requiem, et cetera, as well as Moses und Aron, Meistersinger, Troyens, Idomeneo—the big choral pieces—at the Met, of course. I had always hoped that our current chorus master, Donald Palumbo, would be able to come to the Met at the right moment in his life and ours, and he agreed to join us in 2007. And now the level of the chorus is higher than it’s ever been. They have a magical relationship with Donald and the results are better than ever. I can feel David Stivender smiling.
Was there ever a moment over the course of your 40 years with the orchestra that you felt, Ah, they’re really getting what I’m after?
I felt it always. It happened very quickly. They work really hard and with tremendous excitement. I have never walked into the pit at a performance and seen them at less than their most alert. These musicians are more dramatic, more lyric, more vocal, more consistent, more profoundly committed, more able to deal with the pressure than you can possibly imagine. They really are an extraordinary— a unique—group of artists, and I love them. —Matt Dobkin
This interview was first published online in December 2010 and in the Met’s Playbill in January 2011.