2005-01-05

Frederik Prausnitz

Frederik Prausnitz, former professor of conducting at the Peabody Conservatory, passed away on November 12 last year. For an idea of his wide-ranging career see the obituary in The Times (UK). In addition to being a mentor of conductors he was a compelling writer. His book on conducting is one of the few I know that goes beyond teaching baton and rehearsal technique to explore ways one goes about developing a fully-formed image of a work in one's mind and memory. His book on Roger Sessions, a composer for whose music Prausnitz had a special affinity, is likely the first full-length biography of the composer ever produced.

A sampling of Prausnitz thoughts shared in seminars:

Think of all your life up to this point. You lived through many moments. Now you look back and see all of them complete in one picture. That's how musical memory works. You want an image of a work that sees the music whole.
The goal of musical training is to become an artist. Not a good student. There's a difference.  
Smile with your mouth but not your eyes.  
I keep a list of new compositions I want to conduct. I sort them into two categories: Audience Applauds and Audience Walks Out. The first kind can be put anywhere. The second kind must be played just before intermission. The audience can satisfy its urge to walk out, then it will return for the big symphony it paid for and the concert will still end with applause.
The worst conductors in the world are those trying to prove they're good conductors. No, forget that. The worst conductors in the world are those trying to prove they aren't bad conductors. 
The most challenging audience is made up of your students. 
I would much rather be a guest conductor than an orchestra builder. You go into a town and the timpanist needs to be fired? Enjoy the concert. You'll be rid of that timpanist next week. Someone else has the headache. 
My wife says I spoil the dog. Why shouldn't I spoil the dog? I'm not preparing him for grad school.   
More conductors have lost jobs because they made a mistake wearing formals than because they made a mistake in Mahler's tempos. Your board members don't know Mahler's tempos, but they know how to dress. Mind even details you know are trivial. People are watching. 
Some people mark up one score and always use that one. I can't. I get a new score every time I return to a piece. I consult the notes I made in earlier scores but often find myself arguing with them. 
You're talking to players, not instruments.   
There's no end to the repertory. Conductors have to take responsibility for everything. You can't conduct eighteenth-century concertos and twentieth-century serial pieces and sacred choral works in Hebrew, Latin and Greek and mixed-meter ballets and Renaissance dances and full-length operas in Italian, French, German, English, Russian, and Czech and electronic-acoustic theatre pieces and aleatoric works and then say 'I don't do Tchaikovsky.' 
Frederik Prausnitz has three generations of trained conductors to testify to his art. Farewell, Maestro, and thank you.
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