An interesting post by Alex Ross, regarding conductor Carlos Kleiber’s voracious reading habits, reminded me of an interview I had a few years ago with the singer Bobby McFerrin, who, of course, is also a gifted conductor.
Kleiber, apparently, was also a mensch. Here’s a transcript of that part of my conversation with McFerrin that applies:
McFerrin: “Kleiber’s just my favorite conductor period. Yeah, he was just brilliant in just about every way. I haven’t heard it on recording but I have a DVD of him conducting Beethoven’s 7th symphony. … It’s unbelievable. He’s like sublime, he was like on a planet all by himself.
“And I’ve got to tell you this story. When I first started conducting I was greeted with a lot of sort of, you know, ambivalence, because I just had this hit, right, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy.’ And so what do I have to say about Beethoven? A lot of people weren’t aware that I loved classical music and I grew up that way. So I was working with an orchestra in Germany. I’d only been conducting at this point maybe maybe 4 years. I think 3. I had no idea of what I was doing. None. …”
Me: “You think you weren’t qualified to be up there?”
McFerrin: “Yes, oh I did. I had a lot of self doubt about it. Though I enjoyed it and was getting some really good feedback from musicians, I was kind of a little wary. So I wasn’t really too sure. So one day I’m working in Germany and I’m having a really hard time with the orchestra, they’re not playing for me. You know how orchestras will play for you if they want to. If they don’t they won’t play for you.
“So about 20 minutes before the concert — this was in Hamburg, and yeah it was in Sept/Oct. of ’93, so I had been conducting about 3.5 years — I got a note from Carlos Kleiber. Just out of the blue, he faxed me a note through the hall’s office. My agent brought it to me, and I flew, I mean I literally that night I didn’t care what the musicians thought of me, I just was ah — Carlos Kleiber knew that I even existed and that I was conducting. That’s the other thing — he not only knew who I was but he knew that I was conducting, and he gave me just this note of encouragement, you know.
“So, I wrote him a letter to thank him for his note and he wrote me back. And so since he wrote me back I wrote him another letter and asked him about conducting. And so he wrote me a two-page letter on conducting which I — well, I haven’t framed it, no, but I have it. Every once in a while I’ll open it up and read it, you know, it’s very, very, very interesting.”
Me: “It has suggestions?”
McFerrin: “Yes it does.”
Me: “Do you try to follow them?”
McFerrin: “Well, you know, he says every conductor has got their own way of doing things, and it doesn’t really matter how you get to the music, as long as you get to it to your satisfaction and that the musicians enjoy playing with you. He says musicians don’t want to be taught anything, they don’t want to be taught, they just want to make music with you. As long as they’re doing that it doesn’t matter how you got there. He even sited Danny Kaye, he said Danny Kaye was a great conducting talent and he couldn’t read a note.”