Itay Talgam at TEDGlobal 2009: Running notes from Session 12

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Itay Talgam begins by inviting us to imagine that we are sharing his magical moments of conducting. You get on the stage, the orchestra is warming up and you get on the the podium. In front of all the noise, he says, you make a small gesture and suddenly you get order out of that noise. Now, Talgam says, it would be nice to think it’s just him that creates that order out of noise, but he’s tried making the same movements out in the regular world and it doesn’t work.

He shows a clip of an orchestra playing with a vibrant conductor at their head. “Was that nice?” he asks, “If that was a success who should we thank?” There were several parts contributing, he explains. The musicians played beautifully, then there was the clapping audience taking part in the music (which is not normal in Vienna) and is being happy. He’s spreading happiness. The joy of conducting, Talgam says, is about enabling other people’s stories to be heard — the story of the orchestra, the story of the audience. the story of each person in the orchestra, the story of those who built the concert hall. And, he notes, all those stories are being told at once.

Next, he shows a clip of Riccardo Muti, describing him as one of the great conductors. When the clip is over Talgam adds that even though it was very short you could see a completely different feeling. It was so commanding and so clear, he says. Then he explains that he is going to conduct the audience at TEDGlobal. He makes everyone sing a note and then stops them by holding up a finger. So, you see I can stop you with a finger, he declares. He repeats the exercise, but this time to stop the audience from singing he makes a huge movement similar to Muti’s and then jokingly gestures like he’s going to choke someone. He describes Muti’s approach as “It’s Mozart as I say it.” Then he tells story about Muti saying that even though he is one of the greatest conductors, three years ago he received a letter form all 700 musicians in his orchestra saying: You’re a great conductor, please resign. This, Talgam says, is because he didn’t let them develop.

He shows a clip of another conductor, Strauss. In this clip the conductor barely moves, and looks almost bored. Talgam explains that when Strauss was 30 he wrote 10 commandments for conductors. The first was that if you are sweating by the end of the performance, you’ve done something wrong, and the second was never to look at the trombones, it only encourages them. To him, Talgam says, it was not about his story, it was only about yours and he gave his orchestra room to explore their story. He did not interfere at all.

Then, he shows another clip of a conductor, this one the German Herbert von Karajan. At the end of the clip, Talgam remarks that this one is more subtly different but that it does look different in a way. Karajan’s eyes are closed and his hands are flowing. Talgam conducts the TEDGlobal audience again, once like Muti and then like Karajan. The crowd doesn’t seem to able to follow the Karajan style of conducting. Let me tell you, Talgam says, even the philharmonic looked at Karajan and then they had to look at each other. He explains that Karajan’s philosophy was that the worst damage he could do to his orchestra was to give them clear instructions because that would prevent them listening to each other.

Talgam shows another clip of a German conductor, this time Carlos Kleiber. He interprets the clip by saying that in this one Kleiber’s dramatic movements may look very different form the other conductors, but he is controlling his orchestra in the same way. He’s making the gesture of the music. It is another layer, another story. It’s like being on a rollercoaster — there are no instructions but the process itself makes you do something. Kleiber creates the rollercoaster in the players heads. It’s very exciting for those players, Talgam says. He shows clips of Kleiber correcting mistakes, showing that when it’s needed, authority is there. In the last clip of Kleiber, he is conducting Mozart and Talgam says he’s not there commanding the music but enjoying it. Control is no longer zero-sum game, its about partnership.

Then he show a clip of the conductor Lenny Bernstein, who he says always started from the meaning of the music. After the clip, Talgam asks “Did you see Lenny’s face?” He explains that the pained expression on his face is there because the meaning of this piece is pain. He’s suffering, but in a good way. Talgam calls it “enjoying in a Jewish way.”

For the last clip, he shows us a conductor that makes no body movements, but communicates to the orchestra using only the expressions on his face.

Photo: Itay Talgam at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 12: “Enquire within,” July 24, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson