Born July 3 (The Day of the Commemorator)
Carlos Kleiber was born on the first day of the Week of the Unconventional (July 3-10), a word that certainly describes his approach to orchestral conducting. A highly expressive, joyful and flamboyant musician, off the stage he was inaccessible to interviewers, unreliable in committing to a performance or even showing up, unable to accept a permanent conducting position with fixed responsibilities after his early years in opera, becoming a virtual recluse at the end of his life. On the podium, he conducted as much with facial expressions as with his arms, and was able to convey his musical directions to the orchestra in a bizarre, almost psychic fashion. At times he would stop moving altogether and just let the orchestra go its own way. In rehearsal he insisted on giving symbolic and poetic names or analogies to a given musical phrase in order to convey its inner meaning to the musicians.
Orchestral conducting is a strange occupation. To the general public, perhaps attending a concert for the first time, the spectacle of a man standing in front of 90 musicians waving his arms might be a somewhat disconcerting display to watch. But bringing the beauty of orchestral sound out of black notes printed on white paper is an extremely demanding task that requires the ability to read up to 24 separate staves simultaneously, to hear the slightest error or deviation embedded deep within a group of players, leadership skills including the ability to give clear direction, and a musical, technical mastery as complete as that required of any string, wind or brass instrumentalist.
The great conductors have had these skills in spades. Their authority both as leaders and musical experts was unquestioned, demanding that orchestra members follow them through hell, if necessary. (In the case of Fritz Reiner, the members of the Chicago Symphony claimed that he did just that). Probably the first important modern orchestral conductor in the new tradition was the composer Richard Wagner, who seated the orchestra differently, introduced new instruments and was the first to conduct the complete Beethoven symphonies. Wagner was almost completely self-taught as a conductor (also as a composer, poet, librettist, he proved a hopeless violinist and pianist in his early years) and this auto-didactic tradition has persisted until the present day. The greatest and best-known conductors such as Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Fürtwängler, Sir Thomas Beecham and Carlos Kleiber learned the art of conducting by doing it and not by attending music conservatories or schools. Perhaps this is because conducting was such a hands-on activity that demanded working with high level professionals from the very start, rather than unnecessary classes and lectures or the necessity of working with student orchestras. Thus, a conductor was a professional from the get-go, not a music student. In our day, after the generation of great conductors that included the above mentioned ones (plus Bernstein, Ormandy, Swallisch, Ansermet, Van Beinum, Sargent, Von Karajan and many others) passed away, their places were often taken by recognized professional musicians already of the highest caliber, frequently concert pianists such as Daniel Barenboim, Andre Previn and Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Recently the BBC conducted a poll among the leading 100 conductors of today to determine the top 20 conductors of all time. Carlos Kleiber, whom many in the general and even musical public never saw or even heard of, was surprisingly voted number one, despite the fact that he only conducted a fraction of the number of orchestral concerts of today’s conductors and spent most of his time directing opera. This was largely because of Kleiber’s insight into the scores, his visionary rendering of them in sound, and his immense influence personally as an inspiration to these 100 conductors taking part in the selection.
– Gary Goldschneider