Friday, March 7, 2014

Conductors and the" hair on the back of your neck" test.

In the world of classical music, the impact the conductor of an orchestra has on a performance can be profound. In the life of this blog, I will often refer to those moments when during the course of a performance, either live or recorded, the hair on the back of your neck stands up, an uncontrollable smile takes over your face, a lump in your throat forms or tears of joy/sadness fill your eyes. Classical music has extraordinary power to move you. Jazz, rock, rap, country, Broadway... you name it... can all move a listener in many ways, but in my opinion, none can match the power and emotional depth of classical music. Not coincidentally, these amazing moments can be directly related to the decisions a conductor makes to interpret the piece of music he/she is conducting. The talent and effort of the musicians is absolutely part of this magical connection. So is the mood you may be in at that moment or.the emotions already filling your heart and mind.
On April 16, 1989, My dad and I drove to Chicago to see Sergiu Celibidache conduct the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra during their 1989 tour of the US. On the program was Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. (I have a feeling just about everyone has heard some of the famous melodies from this epic work).
Celibidache had a very interesting career as a conductor, and was somewhat of a "fringe" artist with unorthodox attitudes and methods. He worked with Munich and other orchestras outside of the "big" name orchestras like Berlin, New York, Chicago he could impose his unique vision on musicians and audiences alike without as much push-back. He therefore did not achieve the popularity that some of his contemporaries like von Karajan, Ormandy, and Solti did. He did very little recording during his career because he did not believe it was possible to capture a performance as it was meant to be experienced live.
So there we sat in Orchestra Hall in Chicago on an April evening and witnessed a performance that made all of the hair on the back of my neck stand up....and put a giant smile on my face....and gave me a lump in my throat....and welled up tears in my eyes because I knew I was experiencing something special. My Dad and I turned to each other near the end of  Pictures at an Exhibition thinking there was nothing else he could do to blow our minds....only to be taken to yet an even higher level when the tubular bells at the very end soared above the already double fortissimo orchestra and sealed the memory forever in our ears, hearts and minds.
Knowing we had experienced something very special, we decided to be spontaneous and drive to New York City 5 days later to see him perform at Carnegie Hall. My then girlfriend, and now wife, Cheryl, joined my family for this trip. (she and my sister went to see Cats on Broadway while my mom and dad and I went to see Celibidache). Once again, he delivered an incredible performance. We were also able to attend an open rehearsal earlier in the day to see how he interacted with the musicians which was fascinating. And, best of all, the performance from April 16 in Chicago had been recorded and was released on CD a few years later, just before Celibidache passed away. You too can experience this incredible performance for yourselves on Youtube: Celibidache in Chicago. I was fortunate to be in the audience that night, feeling the hair on the back of my neck stand up.


  1. Wow, Tim, if only I'd known about this -- I was living in NYC in April of 1989. Anyway, the Chicago performance was amazing, but as you say nothing can match being there. Thanks for this wonderful beginning to my day, complete with hair on end!

  2. Thanks for reading this D! I didn't realize you lived in NYC then. Very small world.