Danail Rachev with the Eugene Symphony
Commentary by Tom Manoff
NOTE: I have recently written a commentary for Eugene’s Register Guard about the future of Danail Rachev with the orchestra. In that piece I suggested that the symphony consider not renewing his contract.
EUGENE: January 2012
I really like Danail Rachev. He’s a gentle soul with an innocent love for music. Nothing would please me more than if he quickly finds more conducting and analytical skills to take his musical heart to a more structured and commanding position.
Rachev has some very attractive qualities. (See the video link below). His sense of lyricism is unstoppable. He connects emotionally with the music. And by accounts, most of the Eugene Symphony musicians are very happy with his conducting. When comfortable with the score he has a fluid beat that captures the rhythmic flow, although technically it can be unpredictable.
He is also a very attractive figure onstage, which these days, counts for a lot.
Rachev took over this orchestra from Giancarlo Guerrero, a top-rank conductor who is now at the Nashville Symphony. Guerrero is on the way up. He makes his second appearance with the Boston Orchestra this month, stepping in for Ricard Chailly.
During the Guerrero years in Eugene, and despite contentious interactions between conductor and musicians, the symphony started to play distinctly above the regional orchestra level and, on occasion, was quite splendid.
Guerrero was growing technically and artistically. Unlike Rachev, he started out with an accomplished technique (he was a percussionist) and intimate knowledge of the basic repertory or the ability to learn works at a solid level quickly.
Guerrero conducted the standard works without a score. His interpretations were thoughtful and forceful. He had a focused sense of orchestral colors for particular moments which at times had the orchestra producing glowing colors and textures – the kinds of magical sounds that arise from a composer skilled in orchestration.
In the last several years of Guerrero’s contract, tensions with the players grew. Both conductor and orchestra were ready for the end of his tenure in 2008.
Rachev had a strong bio: Assistant at Dallas and Philadephia, and director of the Juilliard Preparatory Orchestra He has very strong management. It certainly didn’t hurt that he’s with the same outfit that represents Eugene Symphony luminaries Marin Alsop and Giancarlo Guerrero.
Over-conducting the first violins
When I first went to see Rachev in 2010, I was astonished that he conducted the first violins for perhaps 75 per cent of the time. Moreover, he often faced them completely, his feet planted sideways (from the audience view) directly at them and away from the rest of the orchestra. I had seen this before with some mid-level conductors, but never from a top-rank maestro.
Rachev’s constant attention to the first violins (one might say obsession) was more than distracting. With little or no attention to other sections, the musical result was at surface of the score- obvious and shallow. The sound from the stage was always out of balance — the left side (looking at the stage) had energy and volume, while the right — where the cellos and bassists are situated —had much less of both.
The result was disconcerting and complete obstacle to the integrity of the score. And Rachev always conducts with the score in front of him.
While doting on the firsts, Rachev rarely gave phrasing gestures to other sections. There were times when he gave no entrance cues either, other than the most obvious.
Over-conducting the firsts while ignoring phrasing throughout the other sections were a manifestation of a deeper issue: Rachev’s interpretations lacked focus and direction. There was no recognition of harmonic movement, no arrival at structural goals other than the most obvious, no motivic sculpting – a different thing than fussing over some lyrical passage in the first strings. In short, there was no clear recognition of musical form.
A particular problem is complete inattention to the inner workings of a score. This may be part of Rachev’s concentration on the firsts, or perhaps the lack of understanding the depth of the music, or both.
Conducting with head in the score
Even in the most famous of the standard repertory, Rachev always used a score and his head is too often in it.
It’s one thing to use a score for a Mahler First, but another during the final pages to have his head and eyes completely in it right up to the last note. I’d never seen anything like it from a top rank conductor.
Conducting without a score is not a memory trick but an outward indication of complete understanding of all aspects of musical structure. It is not unknown for some conductors to use scores, though most of the legendary ones did not on most occasions. But it becomes an issue when the conductor doesn’t know the score intimately and using the score seems more a crutch than a reference.
Two videos demonstrate these issues: The music is the first movement of Brahms Symphony No. 2. Carlos Kleiber conducts the Vienna Philharmonic on YouTube. Rachev conducts the New World Symphony, an excerpt found at his management site.
I realize that some will consider this comparison unfair. At some level, yes. But at another, Kleiber is a model for showing how to conduct the real substance of the work. And that is the starting point for any discussion.
One doesn’t expect Rachev to be in Kleiber’s league, of course. But one wants to see some qualities that might lead that direction. That was certainly the case with Guerrero.
The video of Rachev does show some of his best qualities – a fluid and flexible beat, his emotional connection to both music and players and his sense of pacing.
You may wish to pay close attention to measures ( 224-293 ). In the Keliber performance they begin at 6:43. These same measures are the opening of the Rachev video.
Danail Rachev conducting an Brahms Symphony No. Two, 1st movement (excerpt) Choose the video by clicking on the top of the right side menu under FILMS.
Musical analysis of Rachev’s conducting CLICK HERE.
Rachev talks about music
I finally went to a pre-concert lecture by Rachev. I wanted to hear him describe the music he would conduct that evening. Perhaps this would provide some insight about his strengths and weaknesses.
Schumann’s Third Symphony in Eb major- the Rheinish was on the program. Rachev talked about the background of the work, especially Schumann’s trip down he Rhine with his wife. Rachev pointed to the wavelike music in the second movement. There were a few other tidbits, but no mention of the symphony’s large form or its relationship to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 E flat major.
Could it be that the reason I never sense the tonal organization of music forms in a Rachev performance is because he doesn’t consider it when conducting ? Is it possible that Rachev doesn’t know the harmonic structure? I think this might is the case.
Alisa Weilerstein in Eugene
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein was on the program as soloist in the Dvořák Cello Concerto. I attended the pre-concert talk specifically to hear Rachev speak about music. In one part of the discussion Rachev says that he thinks that the Dvořák ist he best cello concerto in the repertory. He turns to Weilstein and says straight out, ” don’t you agree ? ” Weilerstein said something like, “it’s certainly a great one which I really enjoy playing. And there’s the Elgar, the two Shostakovichs, Saint- Saëns, Golijov, Hadyn….” Rachev says then, “I know I shouldn’t say this as a conductor, but I think the Dvořák Cello Concerto is the best orchestral music he ever wrote.”
That is certainly a statement that requires some reflection.
An audience member questioned Weilerstein. “You move almost like a ballet dancer when you play. How did you learn that ?”
Weilerstein: “I grew up in a musical family. We just played. It came naturally. I have no idea how I will move from once performance to the next.”
Rachev said enthusiastically, “It’s the same same for me. I have no idea how I’m going move when I conduct either.”
This explained quite a bit about Rachev’s problems. It also pointed to one thing he might do to raise his conducting skills – plan completely how he will conduct scores for a period, and certainly not leave it to spontaneous impulse.
Music critics as cheerleaders
Rachev and the symphony are reviewed mostly my amateurs or, in one instance, a person with training but without either the ability to listen with precision or the willingness to write anything critical about the conductor or symphony.
There has been a great dumbing down of the classical music culture. Part of that dumbing down has been the disappearance of reliable and professional music critics in many cities. It’s possible, even likely, that Rachev has come this far without critical input. Cheerleading sinks standards for conductors and orchestras alike.
The absence of first- rank critics in Eugene certainly won’t help Rachev become a world -class conductor. The opposite is true. To move forward, Rachev must address the weaknesses in his conducting and, in my opinion, his lack of attention and knowledge of musical structure.
I’m not sure what my course will be with this symphony. Many musicians, ESO staff and members in the community they think I have a special agenda against the symphony. Some have asked publicly and privately that I be banned from reviewing them in the local paper, The Register Guard.
I have a long investment of time in this symphony, not because it’s in Eugene, but because it has had some extraordinary conductors. I’m interested these days in conducting on several levels, not the least of which is that I trained as a conductor and worked in New York with small choruses and orchestras performing mostly Bach Cantatas. I almost chose conducting as a profession but opted for theory and composition. I thought that I wasn’t at the top level, the level where I should have been in those years. But this doesn’t mean I don’t know conducting at many levels. And when I see Rachev conducting works with a score that I can still conduct from memory, I’m disturbed.
There’s also the question of ticket price. At $50 per ticket or more, the money adds up in a year. Music critics don’t get a lot, and some of what they get is tangential (like this site) – but that doesn’t mean we should be working for free.
I’ve been told several times that I should not be criticizing Rachev. I should be supporting the community. I’m interested in supporting music period. If the tickets for this orchestra were 15 bucks, that calls for supporting a “community orchestra.” At fifty bucks or more, they proclaim themselves a professional orchestra. I don’t think you can have it both ways: High ticket prices with cheerleading from critics. And audiences deserve $50 of artistry from all the musicians onstage. Most especially Danial Rachev.