A study in contrasts: 25-year-old conductor has one foot in pop world, other devoted to art music
A profile of a 25-year-old conductor by Philadelphia Inquirer music critic David Patrick Stearns is supposed to be about how no one really knows what it is that builds the foundation of a great conductor. Instead, the article made me wonder why there is such a large group of people in the classical music world who look askance at pop musicians.
Forget the nature and structure of the music itself; classical -- art music -- is usually carefully structured according to a large-scale intellectual plan. Pop music tends to be instinct-driven. The ideas tend to be simpler (but it wouldn't take more than 60 seconds to start a list of complex and sophisticated creations in every pop genre).
But that's no reason to dismiss the pop dabbler. Just as youth should not preclude a conductor from tackling the work of a mature composer, or a Latin American from contributing her thoughts on the German canon.
A passage from the article made me laugh. Stearns wonders how the 25-year-old can wrap his head around and transmit the meanings of the music of Gustav Mahler:
"But I mean it more than everybody else," (McDonald) says. "Mahler has been the reference point for everything I've done. Whenever I learn a new idea . . . I bring it back to Mahler. That's the proving ground for any idea I might have."
How can someone McDonald's age connect with the existential hopelessness of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children"), which he has conducted? "I've always had a crippling self-doubt," he says, "enabled by a healthy dose of Jewish neurosis, my last name notwithstanding."
Our real judgment should come in the hearing of a concert performance -- be it in a club or concert hall. Can the artist effectively communicate the musical message? Yes or no.
We can use the young musician as both Exhibit A and B in a random pairing of opposites. It's hard to believe it's the same man in both videos.
Here is McDonald (on cello) and his band, the Miracles of Modern Science, in action last fall, followed by McDonald's own YouTube video post from May of his conducting the school band at the Mannes School of Music in Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn (I've spared you the second clip):