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Sergiu Celibidache

September 20, 2011

Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibudache doesn’t often come up in American discussions of great conductors – we often reference Karajan, Bernstein, Abbado, Rattle, Muti, Barenboim, Carlos Kleiber and, recently, Dudamel. (Dudamel so much these days that the latest crop of young conductors have what I call the “Dudamel Syndrome” – but more on that later.)

Take a few minutes and watch this clip from a documentary about Celibidache.  Don’t worry, English subtitles appear after a few seconds. My comments follow.

During the first 20 seconds it is hard to tell what Celibidache is referring to, since we come in mid-sentence. But, it made me think about how often we say No, Don’t, Never, and Stop in a rehearsal.  Think about it the next time you conduct – you’ll catch yourself. For the past four years I have been actively seeking to start sentences with positive language. Not meaning the words “Great” and “Excellent” each time the group stops, they can see through that and don’t listen to it after a short while, but real positive language while rehearsing.  So, rather than, “Horns you aren’t playing together at letter D,” I say, “Horns listen carefully to each other at letter D and work together.” I have found that this seems to help the productivity of the group and their morale. (My morale is affected too.)

0:24 to 2:12 features a student conductor rehearsing a student orchestra with a small Bartok excerpt.  I watched this clip repeatedly and remembered back to a time that I participated in conducting workshops where I would watch some poor student conductor on the podium while the teacher was hunting for a specific answer – which the student couldn’t find. In one example I watched the teacher (someone very well known) boil over and start yelling at the student, even bordering on using a racial slur. While Celibidache’s dialog with the student in this example isn’t nearly that over-the-top, it reminded me of the mind reading exercise that often accompany this sort of workshop. A little semantic slight-of-hand closes this section wherein Celibidache implies that the final musical product at hand isn’t his interpretation but the objective result of the way the passage has to be. 

2:20 to 2:59 is in some ways my favorite part of this documentary excerpt. This could have come out of a Christopher Guest movie. Oh the awkwardness!

3:00 to 5:12 (end of segment). Here Celibidache focuses on something that, at first, might seem like a parlor trick or a silly game.  But, I think it’s more than that. He has the musicians play whatever they want and purely respond to him. He sets the basic rules: two bars of four beats followed by a fermata (“Corona! Corona!”). He then changes the texture, dynamic, pacing, attack, and more.  This is pure interaction and communication at its root. I believe that’s what he is after here, and his facial expressions show how much fun he is having.

Celibidache certainly did not lead a perfect life (like so many of us), and some things he did were downright controversial. But, isolating this clip provides some interesting thought for us as conductors.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. szm permalink
    September 27, 2011 10:29 am

    Dudamel in one group with Bernstein, Karajan etc, is exaggeration I would say… Despite he’s a very good conductor of course 🙂

  2. Dr. Michael Gielniak permalink
    March 31, 2012 11:15 am

    It is unfortunate that more Americans didn’t have the chance to hear a performance under Celibidache. It was a transformative experience for me. I studied with Celi for 3 years (86′ – 89′). The video above is from one of Celi’s masterclass retreats. The video was shot at his farm house in France in the mid 80s. I think it is from 1985 – the year before I started with him.

    Celi was very demanding of us, but also very open and caring. The fact that he opened up his home to us, spent several days (all day, several times a year, on top of our weekly sessions) with us, and never charged a dime, is one small example of the type of relationship he had with us.

    It was not easy becoming a “Celi Shuler.” His precise use of language (in many languages), for example, was very difficult for me and many others. It took most new students several months to begin to understand his teachings and to be able to take part in discussions.

    There were four major components to his teaching: 1) the Phenomenology of Music 2) beating technique 3) rehearsal observations 4) weekly sessions and other master classes. The master class in the video was not as harsh at the video portays. Everyone in the room is one of his students, many close students like myself. These sessions, and our weekly instruction were much more than the master dictating and our attempted mind-reading. It was always a highly engaging and dynamic environment with some of the most brilliant thinkers and talented musicians in Europe. If you look at the section of the video at the start of the break, for example, you will notice Juan Jose’ Chuquisengo. He is possibly the most important pianist of our generation.

    I guess the bottom line for me was that we were all looking for “truth” in the music, not “beauty.” Celibidache is the only conductor that I am aware of that strove for and found the truth on a consistent basis. If you are interested in random, abstract and mind-reading, I have lots of Bernstein (and others) stories from Schelswig Holstein, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. Going to Gasteig, on the other hand, was like going to chruch.

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