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DOES Familiarity Breed Contempt?

I recently did a pre-concert talk for which I was totally unprepared!  So I chatted about the music at hand for a few minutes, and then threw the floor open to questions.  This always seems to illicit interesting threads in every conceivable direction, as conducting is a very mysterious art, and I encourage the discussion to explore anything on the minds of the attendees.   But one question totally intrigued me.  I often get, usually after an awkward silence, the inquiry, “What is your favorite piece of music?”  But this time, a gentleman asked, “Is there a piece that you are totally sick of, and would just as soon NEVER conduct again?”   I was tempted to say “YES!” immediately, and rattle off all the difficult pieces that I would rather not have to face again (Bartok 3rd piano concerto; Rite of Spring, etc).  Or list the pieces from my younger days that appeared on the inevitable audition list (I still can’t face Copland’s El Salon Mexico because of the audition trauma it caused!).  But the notion of being so “over” a particular piece that I really couldn’t perform it again, did make me think. I’ve performed Tchaikovsky’s  The Nutcracker, well over 100 times, yet I find something new every time I traverse that marvelous score.  I led performances of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors over 50 times during my years with the Canton Symphony, yet I would love to have a chance to lead it again now.  Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 has seen probably 20 performances under my leadership, yet I think I am finally feeling comfortable with the piece.  So I think the answer to the question is a resounding, “NO!”

I have always believed that one must be totally convinced by a work before programming and then performing it.  I recall with horror a few times when I was coerced by some artistic administrator into performing a piece that I didn’t fully embrace, and the lack luster results were just that.  Often as a guest conductor or even a staff conductor, one is simply handed a program and given no input whatsoever as to the potential success.   I remember one program I was assigned that ended with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  But then, I was instructed to follow it with an encore of the Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker.   As we painfully learned, you cannot follow the 1812 overture with anything (well, maybe Stars and Stripes Forever, but that is a whole other issue!).   I also recall being part of a commissioning project that yielded quite mediocre results.  I felt obligated to give the new work it’s premiere, but doubt I will ever inflict it on an audience again.

Certainly, there are pieces in the repertoire that do not convince me, or I have yet to be enlightened about.  There are also works that I only now feel comfortable conducting.  I recently made my sixth trip through the score to Tchaikovsky’s Pathatique Symphony   and was amazed at how my perceptions had changed on the piece since last performing it, over a decade ago.

So the notion that I am sick and tired of a particular piece, I have yet to experience, thank goodness.  Now, where DID I put my fresh new score to Mozart’s Eine Kliene Nachtmusik!?