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.”
That a great story, Tim. I followed some links from the Alex Ross post and came to a transcript of a BBC radio program. My favorite part was what Kleiber told the Chicago Symphony:
“Don’t try and play together. I’m just going to bring my hand down, from up above, slowly and you will come in when you feel like it. And then it will be alright.”
Thanks for this post! I am great fan of Carlos Kleiber, just check my blog for him:
I never imagined Carlos Kleiber to be so approachable, generous, and easy-going. Never had a reason to think he wouldn’t be, except that to me he was the God of Conducting. And now he is terribly missed. Got to hear him in person conducting Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, unforgettable.
“Got to hear him in person conducting Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, unforgettable”
Was that the early 90’s, maybe 90 or 91? I remember that, I had just moved to New York and there was a frenzy to get tickets for that. My friend and I could only get tickets for the score desk, we couldn’t see the stage but we brought a piano/vocal score along and followed it. Kleiber cut the score to ribbons but what was left was totally sublime.
A couple of months ago i saw Simon Rattle being interviewed by Charlie Rose and in response to one of the questions Simon called Carlos Cleiber the greatest he has ever seen. He was then asked what exactly made him so to which Simon replied (and i am paraphrasing here) that Kleiber’s conducting was such that one can turn the sound off completely and just enjoy watching the guy conduct because that is like a work of art in itself. This was a bit odd for me to hear because i believe the main purpose of conductors is to make the music sound good, not to make themselves look good; but this statement does make for a good quote and since Simon is the one who said it i am not going to argue with it.
The last name is Kleiber, of course.
DAMN! I interviewed McFerrin last year and we did talk a bit about his conducting but he never told me that story!
Also there’s now posted on YouTube (in five parts) this new TV documentary about Kleiber, Traces to Nowhere, that was recently boradcast in Europe. Pretty fascinating and yet he still remains a mysterty
Mr McFerrin’s comment about Danny Kaye is correct. Kleiber admired him tremendously, and once insisted I run out and pick up a VHS (we remember VHS) of Kaye conducting the NY Phil. He described Kaye as offering some of the best conducting he ever saw.
CK held the same very high opinion of San Végh, btw.
As you may know, Charles, Danny Kaye was one of Carlo Maria Giulini’s closest friends when Giulini lived here in Los Angeles.