The first time I met Antonio Ballista he was very frank with me: “ I studied orchestral conducting with Antonino Votto at The Academy of music in Milan, a wonderful musician as few. During my first lesson he told me: “This is the pattern of 2, this of three and this of four, that’s all!” It’s already been 30 years I have been conducting contemporary music, I never met difficulties, for me it’s important have a clear control of the metric structure, but If I have to conduct Brahms I don’t know what do…
In 1994 Carlo Maria Giulini came to St.Petersburg (Russia) on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic ( Brahms 1 and 3 in the same concert, a movie was made but I never found it, what a shame, Giulini was able to incarnate the score that he had on the stand). That day I had the possibility to meet the Maestro, a lovely and affable person, and to have a talk with him. I was astonished listening to him that he had no idea how it was possible to teach conducting: “How is it possible to explain the way in which the students can show an upbeat? I can’t imagine it” my colleagues and I still remember our shock listening to his words. The same day I helped the widow of Evghenij Mravinsky converse with the Maestro. Mrs. Mravinsky asked him a precise technical question: listening to his answer we understood that even if he worked three days with the Leningrad Philharmonic he didn’t understand the connection between gesture and the particular reaction of that orchestra and how to overcome the problem. After I had a talk with him in Italy, I definitively had the confirmation that he was far from the problems deeply connected to the teaching of the orchestral conducting technique. Moreover, later I read an interview where he stated that each student must search for his own personal gesture and technique.
A few days ago Riccardo Muti ( classmate with Antonio Ballista) during an open lesson at the Academy of Music in Milan said: My teacher in this Academy was Antonino Votto, during the first lesson he told me: “This is the two… this the three…this the four…the five changes…depend on metric… that’s all…but if you ask me how to conduct the beginning of Brahms IV, what kind of sound, what kind of color, what kind of phrasing, all this I can’t teach you…”
After these three examples, the people who supported the idea that is not possible teach orchestral conducting technique will enjoy, (actually we know that it is possible, that gesture is personal but observes very precise rules) but I want to talk about Brahms as his figure binds the three examples and considering we have a video, with the first of the two Votto’s students mentioned above, which give us the possibility to analyze a common technical problem: conducting in two in slow times.
The pattern for two can be used in , 2/4 2/2 6/16 6/8 6/4
There are different ways of beating 2. They vary according to the music, time and dynamics. Sometimes what is right for one piece may not be right for another, we don’t have time to analyse all the cases but I want to make a focus on the slow tempo in 6 which must be conducted in two.
The main difficulty in conducting slow tempos in two -but indicated in six- consists in the filling of the space (or time) between the two impulses or rather how to show their connection. For a conductor a slow gesture makes it hard to transmit to the orchestra the flow of information. If time is not excessively slow it is not a big problem (for example Brahms III 1st mov). But when tempo is slower and the distance (or time) between the two impulses begins being larger an extremely slow gesture can compromise the rhythmical precision, the exact tempo (becomes slower and slower), for the players becomes hard follow the gesture, the conductor is awkward and he has few resources for resuming the right time, the first violin starts to do deep breathing and to move his instrument up and down, the orchestra doesn’t pay attention to the conductor anymore.
In a certain kind of times in six, in which the conducting in two would require a very slow gesture, the best solution is the pattern of “six alla siciliana”. By using this pattern you can have a control over the tempo even if it is slow, achieve rhythmical precision, and show the phrasing and the construction of the period. Practically it is made from the pattern of 6 without the second and the fifth impulse. Watch to it in different situations
Ps: about the beginning of Brahms IV, if you remember the first movement try to “listen” to the following video