To the novice concertgoer, the role of a conductor frequently seems superfluous. You have a person standing on a pedestal of sorts, making vague and frequently hieroglyphic gestures towards an ensemble of musicians who are, more often than not, staring at the music. Yet the maestro is crucial. Like a general in battle, the conductor is vital because, as the volleys of music start flying, he or she is free to coordinate and examine the bigger picture.
The importance of the role is clearly critical when speaking to Jerome Hoberman, conductor of the Hong Kong Bach Choir, before an upcoming performance of the immensely challenging Missa Solemnis, a mass in D major written by Ludwig van Beethoven around the same time as his Ninth Symphony. As Hoberman states, it’s an immensely challenging piece, pushing vocalists to the absolute limits of their vocal range. “For a choir that’s serious about itself,” he says, “or a musician who’s serious about their work, it has to be confronted.”
Hoberman conducted the mass with the Hong Kong Bach Choir once before in 1998, during the early days of the institution. As then, the New Jersey son is well aware of the difficulties of Missa Solemnis. He reflects: “The choir [in 1998] wasn’t anywhere near the standard that it is now. We lost 25 percent of the singers in the course of the rehearsal process because it was more than they could handle physically... We’ve essentially lost no people [this time].”
Naturally, conversation with the maestro turns to Hoberman’s evolving relationship with the mass. He relates his experience writing the programme notes for his 1998 performance, versus now. Hoberman states that, despite the years in between, “The ideas in [my old notes] are exactly what I was thinking of this time. In that sense, things haven’t changed.”
Probing for further insights into his opinion on Beethoven’s construction and design of Missa Solemnis, Hoberman states that: “Beethoven really wasn’t a Christian. He was a deist, but not a card-carrying member of any denomination.” This only serves to demonstrate Beethoven’s focus on highlighting the musical elements of the mass. “While respecting and conforming to the traditions that had to do with mass writing,” Hoberman explains, citing the movements and form of the fugue, “he examined every word of the text in a linguistic way and tried to echo the moment-to-moment language specifically in music, painting in sound the literal – as well as the implied – meanings of much of the text.”
Finally, Hoberman describes Beethoven’s ethos. “Beethoven was very slow and meticulous, having decided that he was going to write the mass to end all masses. He worked at a phenomenal level that most of us never come close to in our lives, and these are completely dominating emotional, professional and physical challenges that have to be dealt with.”
So how does a conductor deliver all of this spirit to an audience? Hoberman’s answer is, reassuringly, resolute and profound. “If you’re placed in the position of bringing to an audience an example of the most sublime thing that can be produced in this medium without reverence and humility, you’re operating at a level of willful arrogance that’s criminal within the laws of music.”
When asked to elaborate on the office of conducting, his answer is succinct. “The conductor establishes the context within which the musicians make music,” he states. “He or she does this by opening their ears to perceive and recognise the relationships that are being made in a moment. What it too often is, because of a lack of rehearsal time or overdevelopment of egos, is a dictatorial relationship where one person has all the answers and others obey. But all you get from that is an imitation. You don’t get artistic creation.”
Hoberman strikingly resembles Beethoven as he continues: “The purpose of music is transcendence. You can’t have a room full of robots imitating someone and have that transcend.” He goes further: “As a conductor, the less I do, the better. If I can do physically less today than I did yesterday, that’s good. If I can be invisible, that’s perfect.”
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