Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Using the Left Hand

It was said of Maestro Eugene Ormandy that his was the most expressive right hand in classical music.  As music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra he could pull more lush sound out of 110 players—particularly string players—with just his right hand than anyone else on the planet. 

A short man, accustomed to getting his way, he spoke softly, wielded a small stick and demanded perfection from every musician that worked under his direction.  His left hand, for the most part, hung by his side and only rarely made a small gesture to players to indicate their cue.  These, however, were nearly always invisible to the audience.

Only once, in four summers of singing with the Saratoga-Potsdam Chorus under his direction, did I see Maestro Ormandy use his left hand to dramatic effect.

We had rehearsed Verdi’s Requiem for weeks and there was a particular choral entrance he wanted emphasized.

“I’m going to wind up and give you the biggest cue you will ever see, and I don’t want just the basses to enter.  I want the tenors and altos to also come in on that note.  I want the audience to be knocked flat by this entrance.  So watch for it.  Don’t be late…”  So there we were, rehearsing again and again that five-second moment that would make or break the performance.

The night of the performance, Saratoga Performing Arts Center was sold out.  7500 in the shed and another 2500 on the lawn; a beautiful evening; the soloists sounded amazing.  Our big moment arrived and we geared up for the entrance.

A couple of measures before we were to sing, we all realized something was not quite right.  Having been drilled by our chorus preparer, the late great Brock McElheron, we kept the mantra “hearts on fire, brains on ice” close to our thoughts.  Sure enough, it happened.  Maestro Ormandy, with a look of intense concentration on his face, took a short step back and fired off perhaps the biggest cue he had ever given to the largest chorus he had ever worked with…

…a full measure early.

Not a single person came in.  Ormandy, leaning forward to brace himself against the expected wall of sound, almost fell into the second violins.  Then, with his cue fresh in our minds, all 300 of us, with the full brass, wind and percussion sections of the mighty Philadelphia Orchestra, entered in full voice. Maestro Ormandy, in the process of recovering from his near fall forwards, was now knocked backwards—nearly into the front row of the audience.  What saved him was the railing that stage management had thoughtfully built into the podium.

Reeling, Ormandy recovered his footing and, by now panicked, wildly looked around trying to fix what surely had been one of the greatest missed entrances of his career.  But as a few more seconds passed and those incredibly fine-tuned ears of his reasserted themselves, he realized that we had come in exactly on time, in exactly the manner he wanted us to, and that the only thing wrong was that he had given us our cue a measure early.  All was, astonishingly, well.

A few more bars passed, the chorus continued through the “Salva me…” section of the Requiem, and then it happened.

Up came the left hand.

In full view of the audience, and in the slowest and grandest of all gestures, Maestro Ormandy pointed his left index finger at his left temple, his thumb “cocked,” and pulled the trigger—all with the most beatific smile on his face. 

His full and very public acknowledgment of his mistake, while the orchestra was still playing and we were all singing, was one of the greatest moments of my life.  It left me reassured that any of us, no matter our aspirations, can find ourselves having to confront failure.  The lesson was not in avoiding the failure but in moving past it with grace, dignity, and greater wisdom.  In that sublime moment, Ormandy demonstrated his humanity and his greatness.

I wish all politicians, all public servants, could have lived through this experience and seen for themselves how Maestro Ormandy handled himself.

The quality of our political discourse, including the debates we are seeing from our Presidential candidates, is disheartening.  Even worse is the quality of discourse on the internet by people on all sides of the aisle who parse every action, every statement, and every fashion choice, and lob the most withering, incendiary comments that demean and denounce the candidates from the safety and privacy of their living rooms.

The chief executive of any enterprise, whether it is a small business, a symphony orchestra, or the President of the United States should be judged not just by what he (or she) knows or by his past actions, but by the qualities and capabilities of those with whom he surrounds himself, and the degree to which he is comfortable in taking responsibility for their actions.

I no longer believe we elect a President.  I believe we elect a Presidency.  We elect a point of view; a set of values; a change of scenery.  The President, while aspiring to be as communicative, as expressive, and as clear as possible with the right hand, must also know when to use the left hand.  And so, for the record, should all of us.

A President or CEO that has not learned yet the importance of his/her left hand is lacking some critical skills…

…and probably should attend the symphony more often.

1 comment:

ENielsen said...

Great story about Ormandy! It's certainly a truism that orchestral players are used to smaller cues than choristers, but this was a great lesson for all of us, inside and outside music, about the need for humility. As an aside, watching a filmed performance of that very Verdi Requiem with Herbert von Karajan conducting was instructive in that, at least at the beginning, he seemed to be concentrating on washing his hands in imaginary water with no looking at the orchestra at all! There must have been a lot of germs there!