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

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Brahms: Symphony no. 2 - 1st movement

Interpretation Class
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Sheila Fuentes (conductor)

“It’s not enough for a conductor to accept what is ordinary about what they get from the orchestra.”

— Benjamin Zander

Video Transcript:

Ben Zander:

Great. Wonderful. Well done. First of all, I declare you are a conductor. This is great. You’re very, very natural. I’m not surprised because the first time I conducted an orchestra, I hadn’t ever conducted an orchestra, but I thought, I felt I had. Like you, right?

Sheila Fuentes:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

And so actually I lied to the lady who hired me when she asked me whether I was very experienced. I said, “Oh, very.” Of course I hadn’t conducted at all, but Google didn’t exist in-

Sheila Fuentes:

Exactly.

Ben Zander:

those days, so she couldn’t look it up. But I knew, like you, that music was in me physically, and I could do it. And you’re the same.

So the moment you started, even before you started, the players said, “Yes, we can do this.” Right? You had the feeling, this is going to be great. All right? And that’s what happens for a conductor is actually happens before the very first note. I once asked a musician in an orchestra, I said, “When can you tell that you are happy to play with an orchestra?” And they said, “Five seconds before they begin.” And you got that. Terrific. So now interpretation. Let me ask you, what about this first bar? Is it a downbeat or an upbeat?

Sheila Fuentes:

I feel it’s an upbeat.

Ben Zander:

It’s an upbeat. All right, great. Very unusual. Very few pieces begin with upbeats. The reason we know it’s an upbeat is because when we get to the first ending Should we just do that? Let’s everybody do the first ending, and let’s say right on the first ending. Do you see that?

Sheila Fuentes:

Mm-hmm.

Ben Zander:

And it’s in four-bar phrases. Right? Shall we try this? (singing)

But do you see what

Sheila Fuentes:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

That last bar is exactly the same as the first bar.

Sheila Fuentes:

Pick up, yeah.

Ben Zander:

So I would recommend that you don’t make a written under, so that everybody understands that the first bar is an upbeat. So do the first standing again. And the thing to think, and you’re doing this, which is wonderful, is you’re thinking not in one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three, but rather one, two, three, four. So this is in four-bar phrases. And that’s so different than if you feel it in three, you divide every bar from the other. Whereas this way you create a phrase with four bars in it, or another way of thinking, four beats in it. Shall we try that?

Sheila Fuentes:

Sure.

Ben Zander:

I would suggest you don’t even think of doing the beats here.

Sheila Fuentes:

Okay. Just-

Ben Zander:

Just-

Sheila Fuentes:

one.

Ben Zander:

do these two together. Do it. (singing) four. One, two, three, four. There we go, right? So that proves beyond any doubt that Brahms was thinking of the first bar as an upbeat. That means that it would be good to get the cellos and basses to play with an up-bow.

Sheila Fuentes:

Okay, good.

Ben Zander:

All right? So that is what we do when we played it. (Singing) That little figure (singing) becomes the acorn out of which he builds the whole oak. And it’s constantly that (singing) everywhere you look. And the other thing, (singing). When you think of that theme, what do you think of? What is the image you have for that?

Sheila Fuentes:

Maybe because I know, it’s a very countryside Austria.

Ben Zander:

Yes.

Sheila Fuentes:

That way.

Ben Zander:

Austrian countryside.

Sheila Fuentes:

Yes.

Ben Zander:

He wrote this in a village, which he said, “There were so many melodies lying around in the grass that you had to be very careful not to step on them.” It had that open-air feeling. And you’ve got that if you can be even more generous with it, because horns are very generous instruments. They want (singing), like an embrace. And Brahms was about 280 pounds, so if you get a little bit more weight into your body. Can we do that again with the upbeat at the beginning?

Speaker 3:

Not the first ending.

Sheila Fuentes:

From the beginning?

Ben Zander:

From the beginning, yes. Because we’ve done the first ending, now we understand the opening. Anybody who thinks that the first bar is a downbeat has misunderstood this piece. Is it a matter of opinion? No. It is not a matter of opinion. Brahms has made it absolutely clear. So if you go to a concert, and you see the cello and basses beginning on a down-bow, try to get back to the box office to get your money back before it closes. Right? But if you see all the cellos going (singing). And the more you can get them to move that way. (singing). Try that.

Can I suggest? There’s two ways of doing this. One is like this. Play the horns. (Singing) Which is what you’re doing. Or like this. Play together. (Singing) You see, by giving a little bit more physical energy, they realize that you want them to make it warm and full and loving and rich and gorgeous. Can you do rich and gorgeous? Help you. It’s a little timid. You want to begin with generosity. So what I do is I think, one, two, three. (Singing) You see? And then I’m (singing) still in one, but with a warmth and richness in the sound. So try it again. Try and imagine you were 220 pounds.

Sheila Fuentes:

Okay.

Ben Zander:

All right?

Sheila Fuentes:

Hard to imagine that.

Ben Zander:

Hard to imagine. But if we’re playing music of a composer who thought big, we have to think big. And it’s all in the brain anyway. Weight is in the brain. Right? Thank you. That’s confusing ’cause they got two beats. Think to yourself, one, two, now three. (Singing) So don’t conduct the third bar. Think it, and then do the fourth.

Beautiful. Beautiful. You’re great, you’re great. Can you think of a little difference of the sound of the third and fourth horns playing in E rather than the D major? So when that comes in, in the minore, there, can you make it richer, warmer, fuller, more just warmer? Everything about Brahms is warm. Can you do? You’re doing beautifully. Do it once again.

And before you start, listen for the sound before they play. Listen for the sound and then get the sound that you want, you have in your ear. Try it again.

Speaker 3:

Sorry.

Ben Zander:

Can I just say one thing? Valeda made a mistake. Valeda almost never makes a mistake, but she did.

And we have a rule in our organization throughout, that if somebody makes a mistake, we say, “How fascinating.” Because the trouble is that mistakes cause people to get very anxious. And this is a general thing for conductors. If you made a face and say, “Ugh,” like that, she would start thinking, oh my God, I’m going to get fired, I’m going to lose my job. How am I going to feed the children? All of that downward spiral. Instead, if you say, “How fascinating,” everybody says, “Okay, that’s over. Nevermind, it won’t happen again.” All right?

Sheila Fuentes:

Okay.

Ben Zander:

Beautiful. Thank you. And she’ll never make another mistake again.

Speaker 3:

Well

Ben Zander:

What are you thinking? Because what I think you need to think is Let’s do it together. One, two, three (singing).

Watch the pianist. (singing)

Can I just say a word to the pianist? You’re really violins. So play inside the sound of the violin, if you can. Less like a piano. You’re strings. But do you see how you have to feel, all the time, pulling apart and always thinking in four-bar phrases? So each bar is a beat in a four-bar phrase. We get it? One more time. (Singing) Flutes. Beautiful. Now violins. John?

Yeah, if the orchestra plays wrong, it’s usually the conductors fault. So this was a little confusing, what you did. Can you just go from the timpani roll? You know where that is?

Sheila Fuentes:

Mm-hmm.

Ben Zander:

That’s the first bar of a phrase. Then the trombones come in on two, three, four, and they’re joined at that point by the flute and clarinet. You’ve got that? So let’s do that. It’s actually flute and oboe. So just do from the timpani roll.

Speaker 3:

Which bar?

Speaker 4:

32.

Ben Zander:

Yeah, that’s a bar before you come in. You remember the timpani is a very stunning sound. It’s mysterious. It’s from the back of the woods somewhere. Otherworldly sound. Should we just try that? Timpani. A little ominous. Do you know? Like fairytale?

Sheila Fuentes:

Mm-hmm.

Ben Zander:

Can you do the timpani over there? Yeah. Timpani like this. Now you turn to the trombones. No, no. Do the timpani. Timpani? And two, three (singing) Trombones. (singing)

There you have to watch because we’re going to take a little time. All right, shall we do timpani? Can you be ominous? Yeah. I don’t get timpani. Trombones. Two, three.

Good. That arrival in the violins is one of the great most. The first D major chord we’ve had with a resolution. It’s home. Everything up till now has been an upbeat, to that moment. And it’s very, very special. And before it, (singing). Ah, we’re home. D Major. All right? Good. Now, there’s lots to think about. You’ve got the sound of the horns, you’ve got the E minor sound of the third and fourth horn. You’ve got the warmth of the cellos, you’ve got the flutes floating up. It’s all in four bars phrases. You’ve got the timpani roll, the grandeur of the trombones. They’re magnificent.

And then the beautiful oboe. (singing) And of course (singing). That’s (singing). Same thing. Always that tonic with a leading tone, which goes everywhere. So should we go from the beginning?

Sheila Fuentes:

Okay.

Ben Zander:

And if you do it from memory, by which I mean by heart, you can look, but by heart. And make every moment special, so nothing sounds ordinary. And one of the problems you have here is that the pianists are playing like pianos instead of strings and winds. So you have to pay particular attention with your hand to get them to be very fluid and not percussive. Okay, great. From the beginning. Three. Remember two, three? Trombones.

One, two, thee, timpani. Trombones. Flute. (singing). Beautiful. Bravo, bravo.

Sheila Fuentes:

Thank you.

Ben Zander:

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. It was great. It was great. That was great. So much more informative than when you began. Right? Now, do you think I’m just going to say, “Fine, go home”? No, we’re going to do it one more time.

Sheila Fuentes:

Okay.

Ben Zander:

All right. And the reason is because when a conductor gets into what I call automatic pilot, orchestra players turn their minds off. After a while, they see the same thing, and they don’t get interested. They say, “Oh, I know this piece,” and then they just play. So in order to get their attention, you actually have to be doing something all the time.

And a lot of the time, you’re just being this beautiful thing, just floating along, and they close off. So we’re going to do it again. And this time we’re going to get It’s great what you’re doing, but more. More information, more difference. For instance, (singing). When you think of it, the D is the end of the previous phrase. Isn’t that right? Because it’s being D (singing). So if you could separate the first D from the C sharp and make it an upbeat to the horns, that would be great. So that’s the first thing. The other thing: (singing). Lucy, my hands are going through molasses in order Heavy. (singing)

And I’m saying with my face, “God, this music is beautiful.” (Singing) And the horn players sit there, say that “he obviously likes this tune.” And they give back the same love that I’m giving them. If I do this, (singing), they’ll give me what they ordinarily give. But it’s not enough for a conductor to accept what is ordinary about what they get from the orchestra. Do you get that?

Sheila Fuentes:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

So you’ve got to ask of them something beyond what they would give without you. Otherwise, you should stay home.

Sheila Fuentes:

Makes sense.

Ben Zander:

All right. You get it?

Sheila Fuentes:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

So think as you are going, all the time, what do I want? What do I want? What do I want to hear? (singing) And another thing is (singing)

There’s another thing. (singing). Sounds as though it should lead to the high note, but actually it’s a heavy bar (singing). And now come the horns, those rich, full third and fourth ones. I want to see something grand and noble and just warm and special. Right? So every moment, something. And when you get to the pizzicato You know the pizzicato? Timpani and double bass pizzicato?

Sheila Fuentes:

Mm-hmm.

Ben Zander:

Paw, paw like that. So they feel, first of all, when it is to be together, and second of all, with portentous amazement. And then the oboe. (Singing). And then the violin (singing). “Thank you for playing a D major chord.”

And then a subdominant chord? So beautiful. So we would do it again and give everything you have in your mind. Give to the players so they get maximum information all the time. It’s going to be great. All right, are you excited?

Sheila Fuentes:

Yeah, I am.

Ben Zander:

Fantastic. If you’re not excited, they won’t be either. Isn’t that interesting? Their excitement depends entirely on yours. So one of the most important thing for a conductor to give to an orchestra is enthusiasm. Love what you’ve discovered. The sense of discovery, the sense of, this is so beautiful. Right?

Sheila Fuentes:

Yes.

Ben Zander:

Wonderful. From the beginning. Think four-bar phrase. Yes, now we’re talking. Great, great. Now, when you’re playing without the music, don’t play it from memory, play it by heart. That means whatever you have discovered is in your heart and mind, and you’re revealing it to them, not remembering what’s in the music. Do you understand the difference? Beautiful. Here we go.

And you know what? They’re excited too ’cause they want to find it. Isn’t that great?

Sheila Fuentes:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

Yeah. And I love your smile. Pizzicato. Oboe (singing). Violin.

Good. Great, beautiful. You’re amazing. You’re just amazing. Absolutely fantastic. And look. Look at the smile on the face of the musicians. When the eyes of the musicians are shining, you’re doing a great job because they get to play with a lot of mediocre and boring. And when somebody comes along like you, has so much to give, it’s a joy. It’s an absolute joy. And it’s a revelation.

So this tempo change is tricky. He doesn’t say very much about it. It has no tempo marking’s, no metronome markings, anything. So (singing) Now, there’s another passage in the Brahms violin concerto. You know the one I mean? (singing) Can you remember that? (Singing) Right. That’s the one. It’s almost identical. And so is the allegro ma non troppo of the first movement because (singing) and thing (singing). The opening of the violin concerto is almost identical.

So if you’re thinking, how do I get that tempo? Think of the violin concerto and think of it. (Singing) What I love about what you’re doing is you are understanding that sometimes you have to be in three and sometimes you have to be in one. But essentially, it’s all in one. I love the way you did the second theme because you’re not only a great flutist and a great jazz player, you’re a great dancer. And this is dance music, isn’t it? It’s waltz. It’s like a Viennese waltz. And you’ve got that feeling fantastically. Do that again and let’s see if we can get into the poco ritenuto. Can you do the few bars before the second theme? Yeah, there.

Speaker 3:

Right there? Seven?

Ben Zander:

Can you make the crescendo happen through that, so they see that each note is louder than the last? Do that again. Just before you begin, can you make your face like an invitation rather than like, “Are we going to get this right?” Because if you do that, they’re going to pick that up. What they want is the invitation to the dance. Okay? Try. Yeah, you do need that bar. You do need that beat. Do it again. Let’s do it together. One, two Two. (singing)

You just hold it as long as you want.

Sheila Fuentes:

Okay.

Ben Zander:

All right, try it again. Here, I just want to put on record how lucky we are that we have Elizabeth, who wasn’t planning to play and is the managing director of this entire organization, but took out a viola to play, because without her this would be nonsensical. ‘Cause for one thing, it’s wonderful, the cello is above the viola. Isn’t that interesting? It’s very, very rare. The cello and the viola playing together, a duet. But instead of putting the viola on top, which is the higher instrument, she puts the

And the other thing I want to say to you is you have two very exceptional musicians here. And so if you had 12 cellos, you’d have to help them more to make that three one. (singing) That feeling of the pulse of the waltz. This is a Viennese waltz.

I had a very interesting conversation with a very great musician who most people know. Colin Davis was a great conductor, and he did this piece with the Boston Symphony. I went to the concert. He was a friend, and so I went to see him afterwards. In the concert, he conducted it like this. Just do that right on the waltz itself. No, really. Quite different.

That’s how he conducted it: in three. In fact, he conducted the whole first movement in three, the entire thing. And I went back to him afterwards, and he said, “How did you like it?” And I said, “I thought it was very boring.” He was quite taken aback ’cause he’s very famous. But he said, “Why?” Well, I said, “No, it’s a waltz.” And I went to the piano, and I said, “Look, it’s a waltz. (Singing) It’s like a waltz. (singing) And he said, “That sounds like chamber music, not orchestra music.” And I said, “What’s the difference? There’s no difference.”

So to get a whole orchestra to do that, you actually have to work quite hard. Should we do that?

Sheila Fuentes:

Sure.

Ben Zander:

Great. And pull up the whole that you’ve got 60 string players dancing. All right? Are you ready?

Sheila Fuentes:

Okay. Same place?

Ben Zander:

Same place.

Sheila Fuentes:

Four with four?

Ben Zander:

Four by four. Why did we do four? And then be very aware of the viola. (singing) Generous. Not in three. Not in three. One, now flute. (Singing) Now hold it back, there’s no crescendo. No crescendo.

Great, great. Now, he held back for the (singing). Where does he come back to the tempo? Where is the place? ‘Cause I think it’s (singing). Right. So you have to inform him of that. And the way to do it is, just before the first beat, give the upbeat in a faster tempo, and they’ll pick it up immediately. It was great. It was great. You’re fantastic. You know what I want you to do? I want you to be a conductor. I really do.

Sheila Fuentes:

I’m trying to.

Ben Zander:

Yeah. So we have to make that possible now. So look, flute is great, jazz is great, but this is fantastic.

Sheila Fuentes:

It is.

Ben Zander:

And there are not that many people with your heart and your spirit and your warmth and your natural gift, out there doing this. So let’s make it possible somehow. Do you agree? Do you agree? Right.

And you come from a country where music is so deeply embedded in the psyche of the people. I don’t know anywhere on the planet where people And people even walk down the street as if they’re dancing. In Cuba, everybody’s dancing all the time. Isn’t that right?

Sheila Fuentes:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

And it’s in your natural blood, so it’s not an effort for you. It’s completely natural. And the musicians pick it up. I’m putting words in their mouth, but I know what’s in their mind, partly ’cause I can see their faces. Don’t mind the mask. But isn’t that beautiful with the cello and the viola? That’s as beautiful as music gets. There’s nothing in jazz as beautiful as that, I’m sorry. Maybe there is. But anyway, just give away what you have and let’s find a path for you which leads to being a conductor. Whatever it takes.

Sheila Fuentes:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

Okay? That was good.

Sheila Fuentes:

Great.

Ben Zander:

Thank you so much. Beautiful. Bravo. Well done. Great. Oh.

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