“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”


Brahms: Symphony no. 1 - 4th movement

Interpretation Class
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Reuben Stern (conductor), Boston Philharmonic Orchestra

“Think of yourself in partnership with every member of the orchestra.”

— Benjamin Zander

Video Transcript

Ben Zander: Oh, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. They were confused. One thing a conductor must not do is create confusion. Right? So if nothing else, you’ve got to make them feel comfortable and clear. So what do you do at the beginning? Who are you conducting?

Reuben Stern: The viola, cello, bass, contrabassoon.

Ben Zander: Right. Exactly. Okay, good. They have a rest, and then they play, and they don’t know anything else. So you have to tell them everything else. No, that’s a one, right? You don’t want them to play on the one. So this is one, everybody. Right? Are you clear? One, now. Two. Yeah, but the trouble with that is it’s not clear what it is. It’s the first beat, which you know, you don’t want anybody to play. You say, “Are you ready, everybody?” One, two. Now you play. Right? Is that the one? Where was the one?

Reuben Stern: That was the two. The one was

Ben Zander: I see, I see. It’s obviously not clear. They didn’t know, right?


Okay. Let’s just look at this. You’ve chosen something very difficult. You know it’s difficult. We all know this is a very hard opening. So the first thing to do is to make sure that those three instruments do the first four notes. So let’s do just that. Don’t think about anything else. We’re going to get the C, B flat, A flat, going to forte piano G, that’s all. Okay. Do that.


Good. Good. Now the thing to do, it’s a momentous, it’s a dramatic thing, this opening. It’s doleful, isn’t it? It’s full of darkness, tragic. So the main thing to do is not the beats, but the color of those openings. So you want to do, this is the first note. Now, one.

So I wasn’t thinking beats at all. I was thinking G, C, B flat. So do then, one, one, just let me take this away from you a moment. Just here. You can use it later. One, two.

Good, now we’ve got it. Great. Do it again. Do it again. One.

That’s great. Okay. Now, good. You’ve got that opening very well. That’s very well. I don’t think it’s as angry as you are creating. You have wonderful facial expressions, so we know what you’re thinking. I don’t think of it as angry. I think of it as tragic, it’s something else. So can you be tragic?

Reuben Stern: Sure.

Ben Zander: Good.

Reuben Stern: I can be very sad.

Ben Zander: Great, good. We Jewish people have a huge advantage over the rest of the world. They try to do tragic, but we really can do it.

Ben Zander: Beautiful. Now I’ll tell you a secret. Since they’re drawing their bows, they don’t know they don’t need those extra beats, because they’re drawing the bow like this. So if you do this one, but you’re doing it very beautifully. It’s also very noble. Keep the nobility. Yes.

Wow. Wow. Bravo, Bravo. You’re great. You’re great. Now, the most amazing thing about that, is that that is four bars of music that belongs in one line. And if you can give the feeling to the players that you are stretching it, and stretching it, and stretching it, to the end of the four, nothing to interrupt it.

Also, there’s another thing you’re not quite doing. It’s the forte piano. That’s a very thing, difficult. Just the attack and then come away from it. Now this time, think of it as four huge, huge grand bars. Doing brilliantly.

Now, this, you need to do each note. Bravo. We felt that. You felt it. It was great. You were wonderful. Wonderful. So do from

Yeah. I find that too chirpy, like Gilbert and Sullivan. Right. Right. Get the pitch here. And the violas and cellos keep playing continuously, only the first and second violins keep breaking it up. Concentrate on them.

Speaker 3: It’s a little hard to feel a character.

Ben Zander: Yeah. That’s right. It’s where I would say, it’s not pianissimo, incidentally. It’s piano. So it’s full. Full sound.

Do it from there.

Do you play a string instrument?

Reuben Stern: I do not. I’m a bassoonist.

Ben Zander: Well, if you did, the feel of the So when I conduct that, I think And.

And they get exactly that kind of pizzicato.

Reuben Stern: Reminiscent of the opening of the first movement, the timpani.

Ben Zander: Yeah. That’s like that. That’s good. That’s good. Yeah. Great.

Now it’s going to start. Now. When you make an accelerando, you have to judge how to get faster, because you got very fast quickly, and then you couldn’t go any faster, so you stopped. So think over the whole four bars, first two bars, no stringendo. Then, do from measure eight. That’s where the stringendo, and Brahms knows you are going to have trouble, so he says Poco. Exactly.

Good. One thing you are not doing that Brahms wrote, that is very beautiful, is this crescendo diminuendo. Also, it didn’t go gradual, make sure it’s really gradual. Doing very well. This, you have to practice it in your mind, over and over until you get from bar eight to bar 12 in an absolute logical way. Each note faster than the next.

Good. When you get to this, what is that a reminiscence of?

Reuben Stern: The opening.

Ben Zander: The opening

Reuben Stern: Of this movement.

Ben Zander: Well, yes, except it’s also a reminiscence, or premonition. So can you get that into your body so that they know that you know, that they know that’s what’s happening there? That’d be great.

Reuben Stern: So would you think of this one as less tragic than the first, at the opening?

Ben Zander: Yes. Probably. Although, there are more dissonances, so I don’t know that, I don’t think of it that way, but I do love that. I want to hear this pizzicato all the way from the beginning. So I want to hear the six bars of adagio, two bars of adagio, and then four bars of accelerando.

Reuben Stern: Sure. From bar five, six. Six.

Ben Zander: You’re not helping them with the pizzicato. Let me just show you. I can actually do, they put their finger on, and I take it off. Look.

I actually take. Do you see? I’m feeling their pizzicato. I’m not conducting, in other words. Never conduct, and you’ll go far.

Think pizzicato.

And now it’s going to start.

Now, two, three, four.

Pizzicato. And now. You were great. You were great. He did something very beautiful. He went, don’t play. All right. And then you played, and we say, “How fascinating.” You know that I always say, if somebody makes a mistake, we say, “How fascinating.” Not, “You silly fool, you played wrong.” We never blame anybody. We just say how fascinating.

It’s a discipline. It’s a discipline to say how fascinating when you make a mistake, or something happens, because it changes the mood. We all fall into that trap, but don’t.

Reuben Stern: Should we do the same piece?

Ben Zander: All right. But I thought you did a great job. You just went like that. Obviously it wasn’t quite enough.

Reuben Stern: Okay. Yeah.

Is that the sort of thing that in rehearsal, you would say to the orchestra?

Ben Zander: Yeah, you say, “I’m going to cut off completely.” Absolutely. Or you say when you get to it. But if you do it really convincingly, they won’t play. I promise you. Would you do from, from the stringendo? If you do that, it should be enough. They’ll see you. So there’s going to be a complete cut off. No, no. There’s going to be a cut off there. How fascinating.

There are two responses for a conductor. One is, you’re fired, and the other is, how fascinating. That was great. Do it one more time. Yep.

Right, right, right. If they make a mistake, it’s your fault. You realize that. So just do that. Start right on 21. Yeah, that’s right.

Reuben Stern: Right at two to four?

Ben Zander: Wouldn’t it be great if we really live that way? The people around us made mistakes. We realize, in a way it’s true. If a horn player makes a mistake, flubs a note, which horn players often do. I like to think that I could have prevented that if I’d been paying more attention. It’s not necessarily true, but it’s not a bad way of living. Everything that happens. Ros, my beloved partner, has a chapter in the book, The Art of Possibility, which is called, Being the Board.

And it’s the chapter in which everything that happens on the board, is on our board. On my board. I say that mistake in the horn happened on my board. Who was I being that caused that to happen, rather than what’s wrong with that stupid, why can’t I get a really good horn player? It’s not a bad approach. In fact, it’s a great approach. And it’s taught all of us a lot about how to be in the world.

Reuben Stern: So we do about 20?

Ben Zander: Yep, that’s great.

Good. Let me just say one thing, there’s a crescendo, and then a subito piano. So you have to do that. One, two, three, four. One, and two, three, four.

Okay. Now, I’m Reuben. I’m going to suggest to something here, which is not written, but I think Brahms would’ve assumed it, which is it wants to move. It gets a little stuck if you keep in the same tempo. Because when it explodes It’s too pedantic. So in that bar, this bar, let it move. It’s natural. It says no accelerando, that’s the bit where you do an accelerando, right? So try it again.

Reuben Stern: Two before?

Ben Zander: Yeah.

Reuben Stern: Two before.

Ben Zander: No. Do the same place. Good. Two, three. Now here it starts. It seems so natural. Doesn’t it? It’s so natural to do that, and it puts you in a great position later on. All right. Do it one more time. Piano now.

Good. It’s fine. That’s right. He miscounted, but that’s fine. That’s fine. That’s very good.

Reuben Stern: How fascinating.

Ben Zander: What? Yeah. How fascinating, exactly. But you know, isn’t that interesting when you say how fascinating, what that does? The words, how fascinating. Particularly if you do this. Once I was working with a youth orchestra, and there were 2000 people in the audience, and this trumpet player made a huge boo-boo, and in front of 2000, he went. He couldn’t do that. But he went like that, to say, I understand. I think it just relaxes us, releases the tension. But that was great. I think that’s very natural. Now, Brahms didn’t write that accelerando. It seems to me, self evident, that he intended it, because we don’t want to be pedantic in this. It’s a storm, he’s describing a storm. Right. So be stormy. One last time.

Reuben Stern: From the two before?

Ben Zander: Yeah. Can you give the feeling that the storm is about to brew? Just do it again.

They all feel that. All you are doing is letting it out for them. Two. Now, here it is.

The reason for that, I’m sorry. The reason for that was there were two conductors. I’m sorry. They followed me. But that was great. That was great. And give them the feeling that you are creating a storm of emotion here. Very good.

Reuben Stern: We do six before B? Right on the

Ben Zander: Right. Good, good.

Reuben Stern: 24.

Ben Zander: Do A. Do just right on A.

Reuben Stern: All right, straight from A.

Ben Zander: And don’t go too fast. It’s gradual. And, one, two, now forte. Now flute. No, now, good. Well, you have to be clear. I would suggest that what you do is, in this, this is a technical thing. You do this. And one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

It’s a tricky moment. You have to think it out, but you’re doing great. You’re doing really great.

Reuben Stern: Should that be three before B?

Ben Zander: Okay. Three before B is fine. I’d actually prefer. Three before B is right.

Reuben Stern: It’s three before the più andante.

Ben Zander: But you have to understand. They don’t have anything in their part. They depend entirely on you to tell them what’s happening, for everybody in the orchestra.

One, and two, and three, and four, and one, two, three. Yeah. You hadn’t quite worked it out, but this is a secret for you. These twelves become sixes. Once you get that. Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. That’s exactly right. And you have to actually explain that to the timpanis, so that you look at the timpanis, and say 12 become six, and you could do it with your hand, but it has to be really clear, but let’s not worry about that now, because that’s for you to work out. Let’s go on. B. Letter B. Reuben, have you got a tempo? Have you decided on a tempo for this?

Reuben Stern: On the metronome, you’re talking. 80.

Ben Zander: Oh, that’s too fast.

Reuben Stern: 72, more.

Ben Zander: Yeah. More like that. Yeah. I would do something very, very spacious. 72 is fine. So, and don’t let the horn player move before the fourth beat. Right? They all love to do that. Great. Now very noble sound, and who else is playing under the horns?

Reuben Stern: The low strings.

Ben Zander: No, no. The most important thing of all.

Reuben Stern: Well, low strings are playing, but trombones.

Ben Zander: Yeah, the trombones are coming in for the first time. Right? They haven’t been here before. This is a great moment. And why Brahms didn’t need the trombones before this moment? They’ve been silent since the last moment of the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, and then suddenly they come in. So be conscious, not only of the horn, but the trombones, this beautiful, noble quiet. No instruments can make the sound of the trombone. So try then.

Let me just tell you one thing, Reuben. Reuben. The horn, first horn goes The second horn. In order to keep the first horns, because the first horn has to breathe. So the second horn comes in there, take care of the second horn. He needs you, or she needs you. Once again. Two, three, four. Crescendo. Second horn.

Yeah. Now, Reuben, Reuben, you’re doing lots of things, and you’re doing really well, but I want you to think about what life is like for an orchestral musician. They pick up the flute when they’re about seven, and they practice, and then they go to school, and then they go to summer camp, and then they go to college, and they do an undergraduate degree, and then they do a graduate degree, and then they hang about working in restaurants for a long time. And then, eventually, somebody hires them and they wait five years, and then they finally get to play Brahms One, and they have to wait for three whole movements. And then, a moment comes and this is the moment. And you have to look as though you know that, because every flute player is waiting for that moment.

It’s the fulfillment of their life dream, right? Be with them. And incidentally, that’s a good way to be with all the musicians. One of the reasons I put white sheets on the stand, you know about that. I put white sheets on the stand, partly because I find out what they’re concerned about, what they like, what they have pointed out. Somebody wrote me a white sheet. I was conducting in Australia and she wrote, “I love the chord in the bar before M.” And I looked in the score. She wasn’t even playing in the chord. She was the first oboe, but she loved that chord. So every time we came to that chord in the rehearsal scene in the concert, me too, it’s our chord. So think of yourself in partnership with every member of the orchestra, with the horn, particularly the second horn, because everybody forgets the second horn.

And when the flute comes, oh my God, just open the world for her. You do that. Great. You’re doing a beautiful job. Let’s just try it again. So we set up the whole thing, just so we have enough. Do you know this is one of the greatest moments in Western music, Western art, this moment? He was in Switzerland, and he heard this theme on an alphorn. Did you know that? He actually heard this. He heard this long horn that goes, and he was in Switzerland, and he heard that alphorn and he reproduced. He put it into his symphony. A fantastic memory. And it’s a beautiful scene. You can imagine Swiss sunrise.

He was there. 1868, he visited, and he heard the alphorn. So across the valley, and if you can get a feeling, a sense in your body that you are creating a landscape for them, because they’ve never been to Switzerland. The orchestra players don’t go to Switzerland. You have to say, this is how it feels. The huge spaces, and mountains, and valleys, and our alphorn.

Second horn. And it has to be exact because they’re going, they have to be exact. All of that is happening in your body. Good. Do that. Have you been in Switzerland?

Reuben Stern: I have not.

Ben Zander: Okay. Go to Switzerland.

Reuben Stern: Okay.

Ben Zander: Okay. Go to Switzerland, and just put a tax free journey, because it’s part of your education. The thing to do is to get a body language, which suggests space. Can you just do that opening three, and the sound of a horn coming from far away. Now this chord. Now here comes the flute. It’s one of the reason I take these kids on tours to far away places. They all went with the youth orchestra so they’ve been in Switzerland, and they’ve been in these places, and they can conjure up those thoughts, and so on. So that’s your job, right? Beautiful. Do it. Yeah. Be like a travel guide. You have it in your head. You have this incredible view, and you are taking them with you on this journey. Look at the gestures I make and play.

I’m hearing you. They can get a sense from me that I’ve got some imagination, some image in my head. I’m not conducting. I’m just on a journey. Beautiful. Try it. No, no, no. It’s up. It’s high. He’s doing it great. Good, now he got it. Yeah. Now here comes the flute. She’s been waiting, here she is. Bassoon. And now the brass, the brass. Yes. Bravo.

Yeah. Good, good, great, great, great. There’s one thing that you are leaving out, which is the sound of the contrabassoon. Yeah. Right, right. Because the contrabassoon, there’s no piece of music in the whole world that has as important a contrabassoon.

Reuben Stern: I’ve played this contrabassoon.

Ben Zander: Really? Fantastic. So, you know what it’s like. What that adds is the 30 foot pipe on the organ. So can you get a sound in your body that it includes that contrabassoon? Do it right from there. That was beautiful, incidentally. It’s a pleasure to play for you, and you have a real artistic spirit, and everybody can get how much you care, and how much you understand about music. It’s beautiful.

Is that right? I’m speaking on your behalf. Look at them. Eyes shining. Yeah. Beautiful. Beautiful. So you’re great. So do that. Add the contrabassoon.

Reuben Stern: Sure.

Ben Zander: It’s very rare. Sorry, I was going to say, it’s very rare that a conductor said, “Yeah, I’ve actually played that part.”

Reuben Stern: I even have that C circled right there.

Ben Zander: Oh, wonderful. I was in a restaurant in Concord with Doris Kearns Goodwin, and her husband, Richard Goodwin. And somebody asked him during the conversation, “Do you know that speech that Johnson gave? That civil rights speech.” And Richard Goodwin said, “Yes, I wrote it.” So that’s like that. Play it as though you wrote it. Okay. Write that very play. You can hear the contrabassoon.

I just want to stop you. I just want to stop you. I want people to understand, I don’t know this guy at all, but he changes his body language exactly according to the music, it’s just fantastic. And I looked over at him and said, “Yes, that’s it.” Have you ever conducted?

Speaker 4: No.

Ben Zander: No. You’re actually doing it, but there’s one thing missing from your conducting, which is beautiful at this point, and that’s thanksgiving. You are doing serious German ponders, but this is giving thanks. Can you do that, too?

Reuben Stern: Sure.

Ben Zander: Good. Beautiful. Right on there. One of the great moments in Western music, this one.

Yes, there we go.

Flute. Crescendo.

You have to be conscious of the timpani there. Good. You’re doing it at a slower temp than you started. It’s way below 72, which is what you said. I think 66 will give you enough motion. Just do it again, and let’s get it.

Yes, let’s do it at 66. I don’t have my metronome, so I can’t tell you a bit. It’s like this. About like that. And that’ll get you to play the whole phrase in one. It’s really one breath. You should be able to do this in one breath. Just do C. Three.

That’s right. It should be. If it’s too slow, it’s too slow. That won’t be possible. Right? Do that again, and then we are almost at the end. You’re doing beautifully. A prayer of thanksgiving. Can you do that? This is one of the great moments for trombone in the whole. So a prayer of thanksgiving. Can we just do that very place? Feel it going.

Beautiful. There it is. And now poco forte. Gorgeous. The trombones, and now hold it, and then off. Right. Good. Bravo. Well done. Beautiful. Well done. Thank you all. Thank you. Thank you for joining.

Speaker 6: Of course.

Ben Zander: Great. Beautiful. Conducting is not something you do, conducting is something you be. And the training of a conductor, yes, there’s a lot of stuff you have to learn, but in the end, it’s who you are being that is the key to the hearts and minds of the players, and through them, to the audience. And once you get that, then it becomes a wonderful journey. You’re doing a beautiful job. I think this was really extraordinary how the three conductors, and thank you for taking over. It was just very smooth. Nobody noticed. It was great. Wonderful. In the one minute left, do you have any question either for them, or anything you’d like to say? Any of you. I can feel this one minute.

Speaker 7: You made my trip worthwhile.

Ben Zander: What’s that?

Speaker 7: I said it made my trip worth it.

Ben Zander: Yes. Came all the way from Orlando, Florida.

Speaker 7: Thank you so much, all of you.

Ben Zander: Thank you for coming.

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