Expressing music with joy

2008-10-21 00:00

AFTER maestro Dr Leslie Dunner has bowed to the audience in the city hall tomorrow evening, they will mostly see his formally attired back as he conducts the KZN Philharmonic in their 25th birthday concert. But don’t think he won’t be able to communicate with them.

When I met a more casually dressed Dunner last week over a cup of coffee (actually, hot chocolate with cream for him), he insisted that a conductor’s job is to unite the players in front of him, and excite the listeners behind him. He tells how, when he was a conducting student at the prestigious Tanglewood Institute in the United States, his teacher asked him to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun.

“I got up and he asked me to face the audience, and then said: ‘Now conduct’. So I said ‘but the orchestra’s behind me’. So he told me to conduct with my back.”

To the fascination of everyone else in the coffee shop, Dunner then turns his back to me and conducts me by wriggling his shoulders and his body. If I had been an orchestra, I would have known exactly where he was directing his attention. It is a very expressive back.

“That opened up a whole new vista for me,” he says. “My style is unique — I’ve never been able to keep my whole body still and just move my arms and face. The music goes through my whole being. Orchestras have to get used to my physical style, but once they have assimilated it, it works.”

Dunner is considered a populariser of classical music, a vital approach if a new audience is to be developed. He wholeheartedly supports Chris Hodgkins’s plans for making music accessible, plans which have brought the popular picnic concerts to the Botanical Gardens and Symphony in the City — and are responsible for tomorrow’s Beethoven and Bach concert.

Classical music can be seen as formal, ritualised and intimidating. “People feel as if they are walking into a royal palace, they won’t know how to behave. My goal is to walk in like a ‘gentleman of the manor’, to be charming, and disarming, so that the guests feel at home. And they can sit back and enjoy the braai. It’s a braai, even in the manor,” says Dunner.

Dunner doesn’t normally conduct much Bach or Beethoven — he likes to encourage the exposure of less familiar music. He chose the Bach for the programme — although he says his reading won’t be as traditional as most. “It’s not in my nature,” he says. For him, the Bach will give the concert a bright, jubilant and bouncy opening — “purity, joy, contentment — love in its purest sense”, he says. And then on to Beethoven’s massive Ninth Symphony.

Dunner pulls out the score and shows me that he has been working on his own translation of the text. “I don’t know if it has been done before, relating each movement to a piece of the text, but it’s the way I do it,” he says. “Everything in the last movement [the famous Ode to Joy] relates back to something in the earlier movements, and to the Bach.

“The programme will reflect the history of South Africa. Starting with a pure simplicity, then on to a time of fear and chaos and on to joy.”

Growing up in Harlem and the Bronx, music was always a passion for Dunner, but his first love was dance. “I’m often asked by people who see my style of conducting if I am a dancer, and I say no, not really. I think they mean, did I do ballet. I’ve studied ballet to help with conducting, but I was involved in African dance as a child — Yoruba dancing from Nigeria, Ghanian dance and South African gumboot dance. Maybe I should do a bit of that on the podium here one day — I often want to do a pirouette after conducting ballet.”

Before a performance, Dunner warms up with ballet exercises, Pilates and stretches. Conducting — particularly Dunner style — is an energetic job. When he first started, he says he used to lose up to 2,3 kilograms a week when on a heavy schedule. “It’s a good cardiovascular workout — that’s why so many conductors live to be old. But the lower body and back take a beating.” Just watch that expressive back tomorrow night and see why.

• Today’s concert is at 7.30 pm in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. Bookings: Pearl at Pmb Tourism in the Midlands Mall at 033 342 4512. The concert will be repeated on Thursday at 7.30 pm in the Durban City Hall. Book at Computicket.

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