Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Celibdache conducting Ravel's Bolero

I recently reposted a 1971 film black and white of the conductor, Sergiu Celibdache conducting Ravel's Bolero. The film concentrates entirely on him. The piece is a giant crescendo over 17 minutes, from ppp to fff and he goes from very delicate and precise holding the orchestra back to abandon that becomes wilder and wilder, as an increasingly messianic and primal Celibdache steers it towards its massive ending. At  times he swoops to the playful and joyous dancing to the music assured of his absolute power over the orchestra.Towards the end of the piece he veers unpredictably from absolute technician to playful clown.The viewer is not quite sure if he is subject to their will, he is dancing to the orchestra, or he is conducting them. I have a friend who on seeing the  film, said 'I think I have fallen in love- with the most alive (sadly, deceased) man. I am totally smitten after viewing this clip.' Others have found him frightening.
He was knowledgable passionate and uncomprising. His concentration on  the task is absolute, every gesture facial expression, every bead of sweat communicates is a beacon of love directing  his intention, his will  onto the orchestra and the music they are playing.
Although I think he is masterful and inspiring, and even if my gut says they are wrong, I  have  to listen to the voices that find him disturbing. Why do some find him wonderful wild and liberating, but others find him gross megalomaniac and frightening? I cannot deny they're there and I want to understand what they are seeing
The conductor/orchestra relationship is as close to a fascist relationship without being in a military uniform as you can get; one man ( it is usually a man being the leader of over a 100,  where the codes of gender and class privilege are enshrined in the structure, the behaviour and dress is set, which enables Celibdache to  go wild be free and wonderful. His ego is massive. It  accepts  the power granted him and he fully inhabits it.
At times during the film he goes cold looking directly and precisely at some section or person in the orchestra. His look is terrifying - there is something in the coldness and absolute focus and aim of his eye and gesture akin to the hunter or assassin who cold heartedly knows exactly precisely what they are doing.
Maybe those who find it frightening are disturbed by the power structure that allows him to go there, and that destroys any possibility that they might enjoy his performance. I reckon he would find an outlet for his work any way- he transcends the structure within which he works

When I see the film now- I see it as a  something from the past, almost humorous I don't know if the unquestioning acceptance of his genius and power would happen in the same way now. I don't know if he would be given licence to do what he does, but whatever, it is worth seeing now and however one sees, it it is compelling, entertaining and food for thought.

As a postscript -  I did a little light research around him which revealed a feud he'd had when conducting the Munich Philharmonic in the 80s with a woman trombonist who took him to task for sexism when he tried to ostracize her, saying he needed a male trombonist. They both dug in, it was a long feud that went on for years. She won. An account of it is in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink apparently. Does his old school sexism and bigotry negate all his virtues? Does his acceptance of the traditional orchestra structure and his 'maestro' status make him  creepy and neuter his gifts? one of the charming aspects of the film is his playfulness- it is androgynous, that is surprising and charming- maybe later he felt he had to hide behind the masculinity of his position ...

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