It seems simple on the surface, but there is a lot to discover in Ravel's most famous work (much to his dismay!). Joshua Weilerstein, one of today's in-demand conductors, joins John Banther to offer his perspective on the music and all the details that need to be addressed to pull it off in performance.
“One of the most promising podium presences of his generation” - Los Angeles Times
Learn more about Joshua Weilerstein here.
Listen to his podcast, Sticky Notes, here.
Performances of Bolero mentioned
Sergiu Celibidache conducting Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (1971)
Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1973)
A clear picture of the long crescendo, is seen in the waveform.
John Banther : I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we take you behind the music. In this episode, I'm joined by one of today's in- demand conductors, Joshua Wallerstein, to talk about Maurice Ravel's Boléro. Wallerstein has conducted orchestras like the San Francisco Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the London Philharmonic, among many others. In addition to his years as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and music director of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, he's also the host of the well- known classical music podcast called Sticky Notes. So, who better to talk to about one of music's most intriguing works, Boléro?
Thank you so much for joining me, Josh. It has been quite a while hasn't it, since you and I have even played together? I'm wondering where has the time even gone?
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, it's been a very long time, thanks for having me. I was just trying to think when the last time we played, would've played something together at NEC 10, 12 years ago.
John Banther : Yes, I think, actually, I was reminded by looking at our Facebook messages. I believe it was a Stravinsky piece you were conducting for a recital.
Joshua Wallerstein: Oh, right. Yeah.
John Banther : Rite of Spring as a reduced orchestra, I think it was.
Joshua Wallerstein: An extremely reduced orchestra. Yeah. I think in the former St. Batoff hall, we bashed through that Rite of Spring. I remember that.
John Banther : I remember, it was a lot of fun playing both parts on one instrument, but thank you so much for joining me. We're here to talk about Ravel's Boléro. Now, I really love this piece and I don't want to put words in your mouth. I assume and I hope that you do like it, but what do you love about this piece?
Joshua Wallerstein: It's funny because it's a piece that your listeners might not know is a little controversial among orchestra players and among conductors. A lot of people don't like it very much, they think it's too repetitive. I mean, Ravel would've countered himself as one of those people. I think Ravel was always really offended that this was his most popular piece because he didn't think there was much to it, but I just, I love it so much. It definitely depends a little bit on the performance. If the performance is sort of committed and there's a sort of love for it on stage, I think it can be a live concert experience like nothing else. The buildup is so incredible and then at the very end, when the key changes for the first time in about 15 minutes or 14 minutes, depending on what your tempo is, it's like the roof is literally raised off the building. It's a really ecstatic experience to hear a great performance of this piece.
John Banther : I love that you've said " experience" a couple of times describing the performance of it, because it feels like that is a part of performance art, if I can say that, in itself. Where you push this one little domino and you are on one trajectory for the next 15 or so minutes, and it's just going to get bigger and bigger and bigger until the very end. For me, I love that. I mean, Ravel's one of my favorite composers and I love the colors and tambour he brings. When we've been playing and performing all our lives, when you can hear something that makes you stop and say, " Wait a second, what instrument is that? What's happening here?" It's always magical when you get that experience.
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, and he takes, what is essentially just a regular old orchestra, and creates something that you don't think a theme repeated, I think nine times one theme and nine times the other theme, can be that interesting. Again, for some people, it's not that interesting, but for me, there's a passage where he puts two piccolos and a horn and a celeste, this sort of tinkly keyboard instrument, together and it sounds, as you just said, it sounds like otherworldly. It sounds like an organ is suddenly on the stage, especially if the balance is exactly right and that just takes you a little bit out of the hall and back in again. Again, it's that inexorable, inevitable buildup that makes this piece so exciting.
John Banther : That actually is one of my favorite moments in the music, especially early on and we'll get to that. And looking at what Ravel said, because you kind of alluded to it as well as to his feelings to the piece here is what Ravel said about Boléro.
He said, " I am particularly anxious that there should be no misunderstanding as to my Boléro. It is an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and it should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before the first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece consisting wholly of orchestral texture, without music, of one long, very gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts and there is practically no invention except in the plan and the manner of the execution. The themes are impersonal, folk tunes of the usual Spanish Arabian kind. Whatever may have been said to the contrary, the orchestral treatment is simple and straightforward throughout, without the slightest attempt at virtuosity. I have done exactly what I have set out to do, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it."
That is such an interesting thing to hear from a composer about their own piece.
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, and I'll take it. It's interesting to hear someone like Ravel, who is known so much as this composer who worked with color so much and if you compare him to the person who he's always compared with Debussy. Debussy was sort of the wild man, like he was always in these scandals in French society, and he was a very kind of disorganized writer in some ways, disorganized composer, and he would always be changing things. And Ravel, I think Stravinsky called him the Swiss watchmaker of composers. Everything had to be in its place and everything was exactly right and he could create these amazing colors with real precision. My impression is that Ravel just felt that a lot of that work hadn't gone into this piece. So he was again, kind of offended that people considered it so brilliant, but I think he sells himself short.
That passage I was talking about with the piccolos and the horn and the celeste, and the way the saxophone and the trombone solo. I mean, the colors that he creates and you give a mediocre composer these themes and tell them to write a 15 minute crescendo, you're going to have half the hall walk out and the other half fall asleep, but Revel's brilliant. And it's not just the way he orchestrates the melodies, it's also the way he orchestrates the accompaniment, so it just builds and builds and builds and builds and builds and builds. So I think he, out of being insulted that this was so popular, kind of sold the piece short.
John Banther : I think so too. It's almost like he's saying, " I've got this music, I'll play it for you, but you don't have to like it. In fact, maybe you should not even like this." You know, a painter puts a dot on a canvas and everyone loves it and they keep saying, " Don't like, this, please don't like this", but of course, we love it.
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, exactly.
John Banther : So how did this piece come about? Ravel did not just sit down and write this out of the blue, it was actually a commission for a ballet of dancer, Ida Rubinstein in 1928 for her troupe. It was going to be originally an orchestration arrangement of Isaac Albéniz's piano piece collection of works, Iberia and then Ravel learned that someone else had actually already done that, and wanting to do something different thought, " Well, I'll arrange some of my own piano music for orchestra."
Changed his mind again, and eventually wrote this piece on an old dance form, the Boléro, which was already well out of style at this point in 1928, when Ravel wrote this. A Boléro was, before this, a moderately slow Spanish dance in three four, so three beats in a measure. And it was very popular in the late 18th century and early 19th century, so already well out of fashion. Ravel takes this, and writes this over a few months, and it has its premier in Paris in November of 1928. Very well received, I think, but then the American premier in 1929 with Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic, I think that one was a huge success, wasn't it? There was all kinds of drama at that premier as well.
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah. This is where the piece took on so much of a legend of its sensuality and of that buildup and of the controversy over whether it was a piece of classical music at all. Some people said this is just child's play, this is not worthy of a great composer like Ravel and then other people were saying this is Ravel's greatest work. Which I think those two extremes, I don't think this is Ravel's greatest work, but it certainly has a power of its own to polarize people and to give a very different reaction depending on how they perceive of the piece.
John Banther : It was at this premier, the American premier with Toscanini, apparently he took it too fast and Ravel was quite upset with this, and there was like an argument backstage. He's saying, " You've ruined it, you're playing it too fast." Toscanini saying something like, " It's the only way to save it. What are you talking about?"
Joshua Wallerstein: Well, there you go and sorry, I'd forgotten that story. I think that really gives you an idea of, maybe Ravel was protesting a bit too much when he said, " This is the themes are impersonal and it's not simple and straightforward." He clearly had an idea for what it should sound like and Toscanini I think didn't really get it and wanted, as Toscanini often did, try to take a little bit of a faster tempo. The fact that Ravel felt so strongly about it, I think it's a pretty clear indication that he did think a little bit more of it than he, than he led on.
John Banther : I think you're right. Actually in the premier in Paris, there was a little note attached into the program, which I don't think Ravel had any part of. But it said that a description of the valet was " Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. In response to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated." That's an interesting description, actually, I wasn't even aware of that description of the ballet at the performance. I'm not sure if that's something you knew as well.
Joshua Wallerstein: I wasn't aware of that either, but I think that, again, just as another indication, that there was obviously a sensual aspect to this piece that was going to be controversial in 1928, 1929. I was reminded while you were reading that, of this amazing performance by the dancer, Sylvie Guillem, of her own choreography to Boléro where she's on a raised platform surrounded by men. She's sort of dancing and there's this sort of this real give and take and she has this kind of power to her dancing that's really remarkable to see. I think there's performances of that on YouTube if your listeners want to check that out, it's an incredible performance.
John Banther : Okay. I'll definitely look out for that and also try to put videos of that on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org, and we're going to get into all of the music right after this.
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Okay. Looking at the music now. This is also really interesting to look at for Ravel's Boléro in that, usually in a symphony, there's parts for all the instruments, and they're all pretty much unique to their part. But in this, there's only really three different parts happening on stage. We have this snare drum playing this rhythm that starts off in the opening, and it's an ostinato we call that, because it's a repeating pattern. And other instruments join in with that ostinato rhythm on the snare drum. We also have a second part, which is the melody, of course, that we're hearing over and over again. And then there's this third part that is just the quarter note or sometimes eighth note line, that's a very, very subtle beat underneath. In fact, the piece opens with that snare drum, but also very, very light pizz, in the viola and cello. It's almost imperceptible, I think, in some recordings that light pizzicato trying to keep the beat along with the snare drum.
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah. I think it should start as softly as the snare drum player can possibly play it because it really gives you the impression that this dance is approaching from a distance.
John Banther : Approaching from a distance. Okay, so there's multiple ways to look at it, from it's a large crescendo or also that it's coming from a distance, almost like I think of the Ox- cart in Pictures of an Exhibition by Mussorgsky.
Joshua Wallerstein: You would think of that as a tuba player, wouldn't you?
John Banther : Yes, I would. That's exactly where I go. I'll say, unfortunately for this piece, the tuba part is very, very lackluster, but it's very similar to Dvořák Symphony No. 9, where you play almost nothing for the whole piece but, you also have the best seat. So you're sitting there the whole time hearing this amazing music, you're not playing for a lot of it, but you do have the best seat. That's another tuba player thought. So the snare drum starts this off and it's as soft as possible. Now, as a conductor, when you're starting this off as soft as possible, is there anything you say or is it just kind of understood when you start, this is the dynamic we're choosing?
Joshua Wallerstein: I think you try to get a sense. This is a very complicated piece to rehearse because, as you were talking about with the tuba part, this is not a piece that orchestras enjoy rehearsing very much because of its repetition. For many of the parts, not just the tuba apart, it is remarkably repetitive and kind of just single notes that don't really contribute so much to the melody, but they're important in the way that Ravel orchestrates them. So you kind of have to get a lot done very fast when you're rehearsing this piece. And the first thing to do is if you don't like the dynamic of the snare drum players playing, you probably want to stop right away and ask them to play softer or louder. You also, one of the most important choices a conductor can possibly make in this, is the tempo as the argument between Ravel and Toscanini shows you, it's very, very important to choose the " right tempo".
John Banther : It seems like when you have so few creative decisions to make, when you think of a symphony by Beethoven, there's so many things happening, things are starting and stopping, new phrases, new lines, new keys, new parts of the symphony. And in this, it's just this one track motion that you are following from beginning to end. And in fact, we're talking about repeating, I think the snare drum repeats 169 times. Someone must have counted that out, I read that somewhere, 169 times.
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, it's remarkable. I think, the best performances, they don't all stay completely exactly the same tempo all the time. I remember I did this piece with the New York Philharmonic and I talked with all of the individual wind players about their solos. And of course, I talked to Chris Lamb, they're amazing percussionist, and who was playing the snare drum part. In talking with them, I realized that every orchestra really has its tempo for Boléro where it just sounds the best. We had five performances and I think we got it right at three of them where it just felt like right from the start we had this groove and that inexorable build. The other two times, I think I had started it a little too slow, and it was really hard to get it to build that way. So it's very tricky to find that tempo and to find the tempo that works for every individual orchestra because every individual orchestra has different players.
John Banther : That is so interesting that, when you think of great recordings, this orchestra plays Beethoven a certain way, or they play Dvořák a certain way. And with this, they have their own tempo as an orchestra that just makes it work. I think there's some recordings, especially as musicians and conductors, we can hear where it doesn't feel quite settled or comfortable. Is that kind of what that is? It doesn't feel just in the groove, if it's too fast or too slow for an orchestra?
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, I think it's sort of like a jazz term of like " in the pocket". You know when you're on stage and you're just like, " Yes, this is the right tempo." I think I had come to that week with the New York Philharmonic with a certain idea of the tempo in mind, and it morphed throughout the week, as I realized, " Oh, this player needs a little more time to get over that. This player wants to move a little bit."
My dad is a wonderful violin teacher and he talked a lot about the metronome, it was something that all musicians have to practice with. He said, " The metronome is not a fixed thing. You can play on the front of the metronome beat, or you can play on the back of the beat, or you can play right on top of the beat." So that's the same with Boléro, where the snare drum acts as a sort of metronome and you can kind of play around the beat, which can give a piece that has no freedom in tempo whatsoever, a hell of a lot of freedom when you actually are listening to it, which is the best.
John Banther : It seems like it's one of those pieces where, " Oh, this is Ravel's Boléro, it's going to be easy, we're going to rehearse it." And then for a conductor, they step into it realizing, there are actually a lot of things that influence how this is played from one, just knowing the score, to having your own tempo, to then being flexible enough to realize, well, as you're saying, " These musicians need this, they need this, and this orchestra plays it this certain way." There's so much more to it than just, " All right, let's set the metronome to a certain beat and then go for it."
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, absolutely. I think it is a piece that you don't rehearse much, but there are important points where a conductor can make an influence, or to maybe remind the musicians of, this is actually what Ravel wrote for this version of the theme, like it's slightly different. There's an accent here and there wasn't an accent before, an emphasis on a certain note or the balance of certain harmonies. Say, " How about here the clarinets come out a little bit. How about here let's make sure we hear the celeste, so piccolos play softly enough." That kind of stuff just heightens a performance from what you said, just set the metronome and go, to really feeling like you're in this real atmosphere.
John Banther : So we have this rhythm and this snare drum that is acting as this metronome for us in the orchestra. We also have the melody, but it's not just one melody, there's two here and they're alternating.
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah. The first one is, at first, it's very innocent sounding, to me. This is all subjective, there's no objective truth to these things, especially because Ravel didn't really tell us what he meant with these themes. Ravel sometimes gets called a bit detached and I think there is a little bit of, I'm trying to think of the word, reserve, to the first theme. Then the second theme has a few more of those blue notes and it starts to become a little bit more sensual and you can hear it. I know some conductors hear it as a dialogue between the two parts and some people think of it as one voice with two personalities. Then some people actually don't hear it how I do with the difference and some people hear both the same. I think it's a little more fun to hear the variety of these two themes and how the first one is a little cool and the second one is a little warmer.
John Banther : I love how you describe that. It sounds like, when we have this first one and the second one and they repeat, so you have the first melody, that's played twice. We heard it first in the flute. Then the second time it repeats on the clarinet before it goes to that blue note theme, we'll call it for now, and the bassoon and then that's repeated in a clarinet before it goes back to that first melody. So it's repeating in these kinds of groups.
Joshua Wallerstein: It is. There's one of the first changes that Ravel makes. Not changes, but one of the first colors that Ravel creates because he has A theme, I just call them A and B theme. The A theme is played by a regular clarinet in b- flat, which is just the typical clarinet sound that you hear. Then he has the B theme played by an E- flat clarinet, which is a much higher pitched clarinet. It can be a little bit squeaky sometimes if you are familiar with Till Eulenspiegel, that's an instrument that Strauss uses a lot to create some of silly music in Till Eulenspiegel. So Ravel uses that here again to give it a little bit more tension, that B theme, I think the B theme always has a little more tension.
John Banther : Yes. This is where we get to one of my favorite parts of this piece, or my favorite ideas. And that is that, once you've played your solo, when it basically all the principles and you get your solo line, you get your moment in the sun, but you don't just play it and then go home. You have to play it and then a lot of times you have to then play the rhythm that the snare is playing, you're joining and making the orchestra bigger. So it almost sounds like, it's like elementary school to me. It's like, " Yeah you just won the talent show. Now, come off the stage and help us stack these chairs."
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah. Everybody's participating and that's how the buildup happens and he does it so carefully. Again, I don't believe him when he says it was simple and straightforward. To build something with this level of care and precision takes a gift like Ravel had.
John Banther : There is that third part, which is also quite monotonous and just that quarter note, eighth note line that's repeating and giving a subtle beat underneath. I think we can hear how the snare is used and the measure I'm talking about playing on or before or on the backside of the beat, the melody. It doesn't seem like there's much really to do for those that have this line, this just kind of even simpler metronomic role.
Joshua Wallerstein: I think that's the line that almost can make or break the piece because if that line is played sort of just like plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, it dies, it can't go anywhere. You have to think of it like a great bass player in a jazz band or a great accompaniment figure. I'm thinking of the Dvořák New World Symphony, the second movement where the basses play this kind of walking baseline.
If they play that sort of laid back and without any connection, this section kind of loses its momentum. So one of the things that I always talk about when I rehearse this piece with the orchestra is like, " I know it's boring. I know you're not doing anything, but you have to keep the momentum of bum bum one bum dum." So it has this kind of swing to it and that can only come from that rhythm because that rhythm moves throughout the orchestra in a way that the snare drum thing doesn't.
John Banther : Yes and that's one of the difficult roles or parts. I think not everyone understands about playing instruments like the bass, or for me, like the tuba. We often have these oom- pah kind of lines that it looks like that's all it is and you just sit there like a toad making noise, but you have to be just as musical, just as musically minded as if you are playing the solo with the orchestra. Because it's up to us in a way to set that foundation, to set the momentum of the rhythm pushing forward. If you just play it straight with no character or anything, it just falls flat. So I feel like oftentimes we have to also push music from the bottom, not just let it, as you say, you can't just let it go. It can make or break it.
Joshua Wallerstein: Absolutely.
John Banther : It's quite interesting that you have these three different roles, three different parts, in the orchestra, snare drum ostinato rhythm, the instruments that join the melody, and this moving line underneath these, the quarter note, eighth note. For me, the best moments are, one that you mentioned right from the start, which is when we have those two piccolos with horn and celeste, and it outlines how you were talking about how precise he is. Because, in the orchestra, in this part, each of these players have different dynamics. So, the piccolos have pianissimo in their part, the horn player playing the same line has mezzo forte so it's a few dynamic levels louder, and then the celeste they're in between, they are at piano. So he knew very precisely how he wanted these instruments, in relation to each other, to create this new kind of sound.
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah and he creates what are essentially, what you hear is the horn sound and then you hear these sort of false overtones from the piccolo and the celeste rising above the horn line. So you get three layers that sounds like one synthesizer, almost. It's funny because he would never have heard this instrument, but that's what it ends up sounding like to our modern ears. Again, if the orchestra takes the care to play it exactly the way that Ravel wrote it, it's like an otherworldly, it's so eerie in that moment.
John Banther : It is, I think it grabs a lot of us. But, as the piece goes on, it seems like these barriers between dynamics start to break down, it becomes more homogenous in the sound when you have a whole wind section playing together or all the strings joining in as well.
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, that's where the build is and he's so careful about which instrument he chooses to use. Like, one of the variations has all of the winds and the saxophone, and then the next variation, he adds just the first violins to the theme. I'm just flipping through the score. Then the next one, he adds the second violins and it's this little by little, and it's the kind of thing, if you took out one of the parts, it wouldn't work.
John Banther : Yes. Another section for me that I think is quite unusual, is really right at the end, when we have the trombone section doing these glissandos or getting all the notes in between, which on the trombone is easy because you've got that slide, like a slide whistle when you're a kid. I don't know of many pieces that have the entire trombone section do repeated glissandos on a piece before this by Ravel. Even after him, you don't hear this very often and it's such a particular sound that he's bringing that I don't hear in any pieces before this.
Joshua Wallerstein: Well, it's interesting that we talked about for a second, the Rite of Spring, because there are trombone glisses and (crosstalk)
I don't remember who said this, I might have come up with this myself, I don't remember, but somebody has called this the sexy Rite of Spring, the end. I think there's something really to that, it is so raunchy at the end and it's no wonder some people were offended by this ending with these trombones, just the grit in the sound as they make those glissandi. Three trombones can overpower an entire orchestra. So to have that instrument do that again, he knew exactly what he was going for and it has that extra raunch to it.
John Banther : I'm wondering, as a conductor for you, are there specific moments like that for you that just make you happy?
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, the first one, actually, it's also the big trombone solo. It's such a famous moment. It's a big excerpt in auditions for trombone players to play. I also love when the violins, the strings who basically are playing that accompaniment the whole time until very late in the piece. And they finally, the violins get to sing the theme, but it's influenced. It's already starting to boil, it's like simmering at that point. Then as more and more of the strings come in he adds the violas, then he adds the cellos and he starts adding more and more accents and lines over the notes to make them emphasize them more and more. It starts to boil and you really get this sense that the whole hall is getting hotter and hotter and hotter and hotter until finally. My favorite moment of the whole piece is when that key change to E major.
John Banther : Yeah, it goes to E major. Tell us about that because it's so striking. Going from C major to E major, that is quite a leap.
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, C major is like the basic key that has no sharps or flats in the key signature. So it has what some composers would consider kind of a neutral sound, C major. Then E major, in the course of musical history, was often thought of as one of the brightest keys, because it has four sharps in the key signature and Beethoven talked about Immanuel Kant saying that E major was "he key of the stars above us". That was for Beethoven and through musical history, the characters of keys have changed. They also depend on what country you're coming from.
But in this moment, you go from this neutral key of C major to this bright, blazing E major, and there's no preparation for it, and it just happens. Again, it happens after about 15 minutes of C major and that's the hardest thing to do. The best performances save that extra, you're already at 10 and then it goes to 11 for that moment. It's just like the roof comes off the place. I'm smiling just thinking, remembering that moment when I've been performing it.
John Banther : Same here. It's out of the blue, it's immediate, there's no preparation for it like you'd expect in a lot of symphonies before you go to a new section, we nicely, cleanly end this area. But no, this is just out the blue C major to E major, and Ravel's already kind of bright in the texture and this just amplifies it even more. Right after this in the final seconds, is also one of my favorite moments where, this is why I think of it sometimes as like a performance art kind of thing, where he's building up this whole thing we're watching this very, very particular, very detail- oriented piece, and then he just throws it all away. Like he just burns it to the ground in the last section, in the last seconds where it just collapses into itself.
Joshua Wallerstein: Absolutely. It's like an earthquake and all of a sudden the building just collapses. It's incredible.
John Banther : Yes. That's what makes a live experience also so much more fun.
Joshua Wallerstein: Absolutely.
John Banther : I'm also wondering, as a conductor, how you prepare this piece compared to something like a symphony, being that there's so many factors from personal ones, when you're talking about what an orchestra needs, how do you prepare something like this before the first rehearsal?
Joshua Wallerstein: You just know the piece as best you can. You know the order of who comes next. You know the balances that you want to hear. You know basically the tempo that you are envisioning though, that could adjust depending on how the orchestra plays. But I think most importantly, you have to know what character you think this is, because my idea of the sexy Rite of Spring, that is not how other conductors might think of it. Some conductors think of it much more stately and graceful. So if you have an idea very strongly in your head of what you think the trajectory of the piece is, you can communicate a lot to the orchestra without having to stop at all.
Then you kind of, again, because I was saying, it's not a piece that orchestras like to rehearse very much, you kind of just pick your spots and you kind of play through the piece and maybe stop a couple of times and say, " Make sure you do this accent here. Make sure this really comes out." But this is a piece, almost more than any other that I know, that depends on the energy of a live performance to really work it. It's one of the pieces, it's just not fun to rehearse because there's no audience and there's no fire being created, but when the audience is there and you can tell the audience is sort of buying into it, you get that fire burning.
John Banther : Oh yeah. The atmosphere can be electric.
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, absolutely.
John Banther : One thing you said that went by really quick, is you have to know which instrument comes in next. Because, I cannot imagine any more of a heart attack you could give a musician if they're sitting on stage and all of a sudden you point to the trombone player one repeat too early or something like that. I imagine you'd be in pain.
Joshua Wallerstein: You would be. I know that there was a very famous conductor who did not conduct this piece with a score. But, he would have a little piece of paper on the stand, just with the order of who was coming in next because he wasn't 100% sure he would remember each subsequent entrance. It's a kind of piece that, even if I had it memorized, I wouldn't do it from memory because of that fear of possibly bringing someone in one repetition too early.
John Banther : Oh, not worth it.
Joshua Wallerstein: No, not worth it.
John Banther : What else as a conductor is unique to this piece or is something that I guess you just don't do with other pieces when you're rehearsing or performing or preparing or otherwise?
Joshua Wallerstein: Well, I learned from experience with this piece because when you look at the score, you think, " What is the conductor going to do here? This snare drum is playing the rhythm the whole time. Just start the snare drum player and shape it." But actually, I learned that the conductor really has a huge role to play in this piece to keep the momentum going because each soloist can have their own idea of the piece, which can maybe slow things down or can kind of break the tension. So the conductor, sort of like a steady hand on the wheel, is really important in this. So the snare drum player and the conductor can kind of work together to build it as it goes.
I remember with the New York Phil, that Chris and I were in constant eye contact with each other. I was subtly pushing him one way and then he would subtly push me another way. It really felt like a duet between the two of us and the accompaniment in some senses was controlling where the melody would go and that was really, really fun for both of us.
John Banther : That sounds like quite an experience. This is a piece where the conductor's conducting, but the percussionist on the snare drum, it feels like maybe they're a little bit of a conductor too, then.
Joshua Wallerstein: Oh yeah. I mean this piece has two conductors, 100%.
John Banther : So do you have a favorite recording? Is there a personal one for Josh Wallerstein that just checks all the boxes?
Joshua Wallerstein: It's been a long time since I've listened to it because it is a piece that I don't really like to listen to on recordings because when you're just sitting alone in your office or whatever, living room, it doesn't quite give you the same effect as live. There is a video of Sergiu Celibidache conducting it in Denmark, I think it is. It's completely not how I would personally conduct it, but he was such a powerful figure as a musician. I just love watching that one, because he's just enjoying himself so much and you can tell the orchestras really enjoying themselves.
John Banther : For me, a favorite recording would be Seiji Ozawa and Boston Symphony Orchestra. The balance that Ozawa is bringing out with some of the winds, but also for that recording, the snare drum is not polite. On a lot of recordings and even performances, the snare drum, they are doing the crescendo, but it is more polite, it's not quite linear. They get a bit bigger later on but with this recording, it is almost like mathematical and so at times it seems like this snare is quite loud, but it's almost unsettling in a way. It's something quite performance art to it, having it like that and it just gets bigger and bigger all the way to the end. It's a little fast, I think for some conductors, but it's the fastest that I would like it and for me it just checks off all those boxes.
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, I should get to know that recording.
John Banther : It's a good one and like you said before, you don't sit around and often listen to this piece. Sometimes it's years before I even think about it. Then when I put the headphones on, I have to go from start to finish, I almost can't stop. It feels like a performance, in a way, but of course it's better to be in an actual concert hall. So where can we find you online? You have the Sticky Notes podcast and we'll put a link on the show notes page. Are you on Twitter or where else?
Joshua Wallerstein: Yeah, just on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. I think it alternates between Josh Wallerstein or Joshua Wallerstein depending on how much character limit there was on that specific website. My podcast you can find just about everywhere, not Spotify, unfortunately, because Spotify limits the amount of recorded music you can play. But you can find it just about anywhere else you can get your podcasts.
John Banther : Well, thank you so much, Josh, do you have anything more for Ravel's Boléro?
Joshua Wallerstein: It's just a piece like if you see it on a program and you think you're sick of it, just go because I think about 10 minutes into it, you'll get totally carried away and will remember why it is so, so great.
John Banther : Awesome. Thank you so much.
Joshua Wallerstein: Thank you.
John Banther : There is so much more to this unusual work than you probably thought and what a great perspective, hearing from a conductor all the details and things you need to do to pull it off. A big, thanks to Joshua Wallerstein for joining me, I'll put a link to his podcast, Sticky Notes, on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org and I'll include there, a couple of performances to enjoy as well. Also, thanks to local percussionist, Tim McKay for playing and recording that snare drum part we heard earlier. For episode ideas and comments, you can send me an email at classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA classical.