To the editors:

Although Dennis Polkow’s review of several Grant Park concerts (Aug. 3) made many valid points, it had me wondering how many music critics have ever actually sat in an orchestra or attended a rehearsal. Orchestral musicians are constantly amazed at the habit of attributing the merits of a performance mostly to the conductor, a habit readily embraced by the public and perpetuated by the media. On the contrary, if the orchestra sounds good it doesn’t always mean the conductor is a genius, nor does a bad performance demand that a “hack” be on the podium.

In the case of the Grant Park orchestra, where each program gets two rehearsals and conductors are around for a few days at most, their impact is minimal. In their rehearsal time of four hours and ten minutes, they can usually run through the program a couple of times, and perhaps make a few comments or work out a tricky spot or two. It is the job of the orchestra to pull together and give a reasonably polished performance, despite poor playing conditions–a noise level that makes hearing each other sometimes impossible, wind that can blow one’s music off the stand at any time, clouds of insects, extreme heat or cold (when it’s 102 degrees onstage and a piano is tuned to A-440, winds are going to be sharp to it, Mr. Polkow, no matter how valiantly they struggle to play down to pitch).

But even under good conditions, conductors aren’t quite what critics make them out to be. Contrary to the impression made by televised concerts, in which conductors use their carefully rehearsed facial expressions to fullest effect, most are workman-like at best. In rare cases, someone special will come along who inspires the orchestra to a higher level of music-making. Quite often, the person on the podium is excruciating to work under and must be diligently ignored. Mostly, conductors can help the orchestra by not getting in the way. The responsibility of a good or bad performance is usually the players’.

James Paul, whom Mr. Polkow found so objectionable (while another Chicago critic was pushing him as a candidate for Music Director!), is representative of the majority of conductors–fairly competent, not very interesting, but not too difficult to work with. In his favor, he has a good sense of humor and demonstrates some respect for his players. But his programming is dull (we all could have done without Sylvia) and his rehearsal technique consists mainly of playing through the music. Not having much to say, he even lets the musicians go early, which they love (even if they know what good use a fine conductor could have made of it).

Andrew Parrott is refreshing to work with; he’s a conductor who truly has something to say about style, is passionate about it, and challenges the orchestra to really play, even if they don’t all share his approach. Unfortunately, his conducting technique is far from clear. But the conductor who has it all–good technique, good taste, musical knowledge, the ability to rehearse efficiently, a sense of humor about his invariably large ego, and the charisma to inspire the players–is extremely rare. Most musicians experience one only a few times in their lives.

George Cleve is deficient in most of the above-mentioned requirements. His conducting is very hard to follow and his use of rehearsal time is wasteful. As to specifics in the review, Cleve never made any comments about balance to the soloists in the rehearsals (in Grant Park this is primarily the responsibility of the sound technician); nor did he say much of anything about the “subtleties” of his “solid conception” of Davidde penitente. He pretty much beat time (a conductor most surely is responsible for tempo and nuances of timing), and the musicians responded to Mozart’s beautiful music by playing as well as they could, given the conditions and their various levels of skill and musical insight. As for “dynamic contrasts,” almost all of those were printed in the music already.

Yes, if a conductor has extraordinary charisma, conviction and technique, he or she can convey much to the orchestra through movement alone–but Cleve is not that conductor. Rarely smiling or relaxing, he seems constantly annoyed with the musicians. At one point in the piano concerto, through an error of his own, some players made a wrong entrance and things started to fall apart. Did Mr. Cleve try to help the orchestra get back together? On the contrary, he put on a disgusted look, almost stopped conducting and seemed as though he was about to abandon the podium. Not very inspiring, especially for a grown man.

Incidentally, Polkow states “Cleve is one of the most lyrical and musical Mozart conductors you could ever hope to hear.” Personally, the only conductors I have ever “heard” were ones who directed from the keyboard, etc. It’s the orchestra that plays the music–batons are silent.

As I write this, we have just finished a concert with Paul Freeman, a man who has next to nothing to say about music and sometimes can’t even put the stick in the right place at the right time, but who, like Cleve, consistently gets glowing reviews. Why? Is it his conducting from memory (although he needed it for the concerto, he had his music stand removed for the overture and then carried back out, clearly so that the audience would be sure to know that he wasn’t using a score)? Or do TV-fed audiences and critics love his theatrical posing–crouching down, leaning on his special railing, stepping off the podium to conduct over the violins? Orchestral musicians everywhere would like to know–and please check out the view from this side sometime.

A member of the Grant Park Symphony