The Fanfare Magazine Interview "Plumeri—Vocal When It Comes to Conducting" by James Reel
Nearly 100 CDs currently available contain Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. There are also about 100 discs of Tchaikovsky's Fifth, and nearly 130 of the "Pathétique." So why would Johnterryl Plumeri, a conductor-composer few people know by name, add his own recordings of these three symphonies to the mound of little silver Tchaikovsky platters? And why should you care that he has? Well, for one thing, Plumeri has recorded the symphonies because he loves them, not because he was grasping for something with commercial potential. For another, he respects them, and he's out to demonstrate how much musicality lies within the symphonies, musicality that can be elicited without the imposition of some conductor's own personality.
"One of the things I've never really liked about a number of the interpretations I've heard in the past is that sometimes there's a lot of conductor ego that goes into the performances. I guess it has much more to do with the bravura than the music itself. I try my best to present the music as it is. I'm a composer; I don't need to make those pieces my own, because I already have pieces of my own. So I display them as Tchaikovsky's pieces the best I know how. As a composer, one of the real nightmares is to hear a conductor give things to the music that you've not written. A good example in Tchaikovsky is the second movement of the Fourth Symphony; there are tempo changes that almost everybody does, but they're not written into the music at all. It's always a nightmare to hear someone think they know more about the music you wrote than you do."
Plumeri is also a bassist, with experience as a jazz player and as an orchestral musician (most notably in the National Symphony during its Antal Dorati years). So Plumeri knows this music from the inside, from its underpinnings and crossbeams. The first time he was involved in a performance of the Fourth, though, was as a drum major in his high school band. The band director inspired Plumeri to seek a career in music; he attended the Manhattan School of Music from 1963 to 1967, where he studied with Robert Brennand, then principal bass of the New York Philharmonic. "He was very inspirational as a player and as an individual," Plumeri says. Once ensconced in the bass section of the National Symphony in the 1970s, he studied conducting and composition with Dorati. Plumeri also had several encounters with Leonard Bernstein, in performances of Bernstein's music (Plumeri was a member of the orchestra when it recorded Bernstein's Songfest ). "Bernstein was all music, and a lovely person, and he was never in a hurry," Plumeri recalls. "If we were talking music, he had all day, no matter how busy he was."
Plumeri left the orchestra so he could devote more time to composing, an activity he initially found difficult when he had other people's music in his head and hands all the time. "Sitting in that orchestra on a daily basis was an incredible orchestration lesson, but it became severely restrictive on the composer and improviser in me. But now that my knowledge of the elements of composing is so much more consciously clear, I don't have any trouble. When I didn't have a conscious understanding of the vocabulary I was using, or a serious focus on my choice of vocabulary, I didn't know who I was as a composer. Now, at this point, I have a much more conscious knowledge of everybody's vocabulary, how Bach relates to Bartók and how Tchaikovsky influenced Stravinsky. When I began to understand those aspects of composing, I could be myself as a composer more consistently. It's in certain kinds of gesture. In The Firebird , for instance, that moment where the clarinet solo comes down to nothing, and then the King Katschei dance slams you against the wall, it's identical to that spot in the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony where the clarinet comes down to nothing and then you're suddenly thrown into absolute Tchaikovskyan fury. The gesture is the same, but it's a different vocabulary. Composing technique has to do with understanding gestures and distinguishing them from the vocabulary; two things can use a similar gesture, but sound totally different because of the choice of vocabulary."
During the 1980s, he taught an ongoing class in Los Angeles that analyzed 20th-century works. "On The Rite of Spring ," he says, "we'd have an in-depth analysis of bar 1, then bar 2, right to the end of the piece. I covered every instrument and every bar from thematic development down to the rhythmic textures, everything you can imagine that was in the piece. I did the majority of the well-known masterpieces of the 20th century, and some pieces of the Classic period, like the Beethoven Fifth Symphony." So, if he hadn't already, he was learning a great swath of the repertoire through and through, not just from a bassist's perspective.
"My initial entry to conducting was to get my own works performed," he says. Gradually, he was asked to conduct other people's music as well. That activity has intensified over the past 10 years, particularly in his work with the Moscow Philharmonic. Film projects took Plumeri to Moscow starting in 1992, and eventually that developed into a close relationship with the Moscow Philharmonic, not just in film work but also in the concert hall. "Very quickly, because of my orchestral background, when I started working with them I felt I was home. We immediately connected. That turned into doing concerts together, which culminated in these recordings of Tchaikovsky."
When he got the chance, Plumeri did not hesitate to make the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies some of the first music with which to present himself as a conductor on CD. "I really love the pieces, and they're pieces that I was influenced by," he says. "They're beautifully orchestrated, and there are all kinds of elements in them that feed you as a composer and a conductor. I connect to the music from an emotional point of view, and this orchestra plays the pieces naturally.
"I'm very vocal when it comes to conducting. My whole approach has to do with vocalizing the music. I even think vocally when I write. One of my greatest influences is Palestrina. Even though I'm an instrumentalist and can appreciate the technical gyrations that an instrument is capable of, I think of composing from the point of view of the voice, which is the greatest instrument in terms of communication. I'm always singing the orchestra parts when I'm conducting. So because I think vocally, I don't get into pushy tempos, because they're exciting but they don't give you the music of the piece.
"Another important element is my relationship with this orchestra. They're good friends after all these years. So it's a serious team effort, and having been a player, I'm very conscious of giving them room to play and making it a musical journey in time as opposed to pushing my ego-driven version of what I want the piece to sound like. In the horn solo in the second movement of the Fifth, or the oboe solo in the second movement of the Fourth, those players are friends and I love them as people and musicians. They've played those solos for years and years, so what right do I have to put an iron hand on how they play them? I wanted to set a comfortable tempo for them to express their feelings for those solos, because that serves the music in a greater way than for me to express just whatever feelings I may or may not have about it."
That's probably not the way he was able to play under Dorati. "Well, Dorati was more of a dictator than that," Plumeri admits. "But he was really great with the orchestra. He wasn't a hard-core, stamp-your-foot individual. In general, he had a decent relationship with the orchestra. I love musicians. They are my family. So when I'm making music, whether it's as a conductor, or playing bass in a chamber piece, I'm there as a team member. I'm not a committee kind of musician; it does need direction, but the direction must take into account the team itself and the capabilities of the team. It's like directing a movie and understanding your actors, who they are, what they're capable of, what the script is. One of my greatest influences in conducting is Boulez, because his tempos always seem to be in consideration of the musical character, which for me is a priority as a composer. You don't want the tempo to be so pushed in time that it alters the character of the music. Specifically, the Cleveland recording of The Rite of Spring with Boulez conducting was real impressive to me; somehow I feel the Boulez version was more considerate than Stravinsky's own of the musical personalities in the orchestra and how they felt comfortable expressing themselves in their pace and timing."
Plumeri says that his experience as a bassist also comes into play in his approach to balance and voicings as a conductor. "Very much so. The double bass is a great composition lesson, because you're consistently playing the underpinning and the structure of the piece, especially in Beethoven and Brahms. It's kind of a foundational education that always lives in you, even if you're not conscious of it. Now, from a point of balance, the bass section is not the greatest place to listen from. It's not like sitting in the violas or the second violins. In the National Symphony, if I wasn't playing I would often sit in the center part of the orchestra, which is an incredible place to hear, like having the greatest pair of headphones on. But the real sense of balance comes from standing up front, because there you are a little more objective to the composite sound of the orchestra.
"I was the mixing engineer on these recordings. In the last five or six years I've developed the ability to manipulate the electronics and the mixing board to represent the music as best I could. It was a serious panic in the beginning, because it's very technical. There was a lot of headache, and a lot of times I cursed it, but I kept at it to the point that now I'm fluent as an engineer. So in these recordings I was able to give a composite of the orchestra from the point of view of the conductor. With all due respect to the great recording engineers, I've spent a lot more time with those pieces than they ever would. And I was working with Arnie Acosta, who won a Grammy last year for mastering; he is a very good friend, and he has magic ears. We never find ourselves in difference; we're always at the same place in terms of what we hear and choose to display."
Coming from Plumeri in the next few months: a disc of his own chamber music for diverse instruments, and his Symphony No. 2, which he recorded with the Moscow Philharmonic. And his next foray into other composers' music? Perhaps not surprisingly, he's negotiating with the record label to go back to Moscow and record Tchaikovsky's first three symphonies.