Over the past 30 years I have seen 100s of classical music concerts. With 65 different conductors, 38 different orchestras in 22 cities in 9 countries. And I have never experienced a more unprofessional conductor than Claus Peter Flor.
When I went to hear the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi last week in Milan I didn’t know anything about the orchestra. I was in Milan to practice Italian and to hear opera (more on that later). I didn’t know that La Verdi (as the orchestra is called locally) had only been founded in 1993 and that their first music director was Richard Chailly. All I knew was that I was looking for additional classical music options while I was in Milan and they were doing Elgar’s cello concerto and Prokofiev’s Suite from Romeo and Juliet. Although I had heard of conductor Claus Peter Flor I didn’t know anything about him and I didn’t know that he had been Principal Conductor of La Verdi nor that they named him to a three-year contract as music director.
After a really substandard Bruckner concert the night before given by the orchestra of La Scala, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Elgar was up first. The fact that I don’t recall the name of the soloist is indicative of her playing. It was beyond lackluster. I didn’t expect her to be Jacqueline du Pré, but I didn’t expect her to be so bland and timid. The principal cellist played with more feeling and fire in the Prokofiev than any note played by the Elgar soloist.
Before I go any further, let me just say that I am not an expert. I love classical music but when it comes to the finer points of interpretation I’m not the person who is going to notice the types of things that a critic or professional musician is going to notice. I know what I like. I know what moves me. And I know, in general, the difference between bad, mediocre, good, and great playing.
But even to an amateur, when the conductor looks over and gives the violins a half-surprised, half-angry face that is visible to someone sitting in row 14, you start to get the feeling that something is wrong. It was somewhere toward the end of the Elgar. I didn’t notice any sort of slip up so the only thing I thought was that Flor was unhappy with the section’s responsiveness. And perhaps I was reading too much into it, but when he left the podium, he rather forcefully moved one of the violin music stands away from his path.
Things seemed a little odd, but nothing more. Then after the intermission, the Prokofiev. I’ve seen many a conductor jump around on the podium in an animated way, but I have never seen a conductor work so hard to get so little out of an orchestra. They were so non-responsive to Flor’s machinations that I began to think he was conducting from the wrong score. At first I thought he was hitting the baton on his stand by accident but then I began to have the feeling that he was trying to get their attention or to mark time or otherwise express displeasure.
I started to feel like when I was a kid and a friend’s parents started to argue in front of me. It was uncomfortable. And then clear as a freaking bell–at least to me in row 14–Flor yells out “fortissimo!” I was gobsmacked. Sometimes when listening to a recording with headphones you can hear the conductor grunt and moan and occasionally hum, but a shouted fortissimo? And it seemed to go downhill from there. Although I couldn’t make out any other words, there were several more times in the piece where Flor called out instructions to the orchestra. Did he think this was an open rehearsal? It sure felt like an open rehearsal–with an angry conductor who doesn’t have the ability to get what he wants out of the orchestra so he takes to just yelling and stomping, and hitting the stand with his baton. It also seemed like the more he raged the more amused some of the players got. There were more than a few smirks and giggles on stage.
As I mentioned, at that point I didn’t know he was the orchestra’s music director and I assumed he was a guest conductor pissed off over a lack of preparation. Perhaps his first time with the group and unhappy with the result. Maybe not enough time for rehearsal or jet lag or something. Now some might think that the orchestra is partially to blame for this situation. Perhaps. But all I know is that if a conductor isn’t able to lead the band and get them to play it his way, he shouldn’t throw an on-stage tantrum. It made him look ridiculous and made me (and perhaps others) uncomfortable. The piece itself, the barn burner that it is, was pretty enjoyable. I closed my eyes occasionally so I didn’t have to look at Flor, but his vocal gesticulations made that pretty useless.
Thankfully La Verdi only hired Flor for three years. One and a half of which are over. It might be time for them find someone else.