Jun 10, 2004

Evaluating Conductors

This month's column is going to be on a very important topic which should be of concern to all orchestral musicians. How do we judge a conductor? Most orchestra players rate conductors on how comfortable he makes their jobs on a day to day basis. By this, I mean how easy the conductor is to follow. This is an important consideration, but not the only one. Some of the greatest conductors in history had quirky baton techniques but achieved great music making anyway. Since I've been on both sides of the stick, I have a little different view of the player-conductor relationship than someone who has only been on the receiving end of the baton.

First, let's talk about history. Today, the orchestra-conductor relationship is vastly different than the tyrannical dictatorships of past eras. Conductors can't get away with terrorizing musicians into compliance as in the old days, and thank goodness for that. Now conductors are more likely to curry favor with the orchestra. This can also be a problem, because the leadership which is so indispensable to an ensemble is abdicated in favor of a desire to be re-engaged. It's as though the pendulum has swung as far as before, but in the other direction. With this new-found freedom comes a problem. How do orchestras assume the artistic responsibility other than their own personal musical contribution, that will take up the slack between tyranny and anarchy? Fine conductors take an orchestra off what I call auto-pilot, which means the orchestra plays the way it would if someone on the podium was only beating time and nothing else. What is the biggest giveaway that an orchestra is on auto-pilot? The answer is: not observing soft dynamics. Dynamics are the single most overlooked aspect of orchestral performance today, and soft dynamics are the most neglected part of dynamics. It takes a conductor with a vision and a relentless persistence to make a difference in the sound and style of an orchestra.

Musicians need to judge conductors on their interpretations and not only the physical part of music making. Tempo is the most important aspect of interpretation. If a conductor takes a tempo 30 mm slower or faster than indicated, he'd better have a darned good reason for doing so. A great interpreter can take a piece and make it a realization of the printed score without it becoming a mechanical exercise of correct notes. If I had to coin a term for such a concept, it would be "Disciplined Romanticism." The discipline comes from not taking a piece and contorting it into something unrecognizable in order to sound more musical. Such a balance is like walking a musical tightrope, and few conductors achieve it. Another factor in judging conductors is the width and breadth of their musical tastes. By this, I mean: does the conductor have one style which he is hopelessly bonded to and insists on for every piece he conducts? A great interpreter has a huge palette of musical tastes and never pigeonholes an orchestra into any one of them. Mahler said a "Symphony must embrace the world." The same thing should apply to an interpreter of music.

Conductors are very aware of the demeanor of the players they conduct. Since the Music Director / Conductor is probably the person responsible for whether or not you keep your job, it is helpful to know how to keep that interaction on a positive basis other than just playing well. A player that constantly appears to be unhappy in the orchestra presents a negative image. Sometimes boredom can produce that impression. Many people are unaware of the image they project in an ensemble. Also important is the reaction players give when given instructions by the conductor. If every correction is taken as an affront, this gives a bad impression. Conductors like to see people attentive, but at the same time confident and somewhat independent, so that the conductor feels the player is not totally dependent on them to make an entrance. Body language is important in maintaining this impression. I also don't think conductors like payers constantly looking at them, because it could be construed as discontent. Treating big names and lesser known maestros the same shows maturity and a well-adjusted personality. Conductors get a constant barrage of insincere compliments and become experts at deciphering people who are only trying to ingratiate themselves. Conductors respect someone who is honest and not trying to get something out of each exchange. I caution musicians over time not to become conductor-haters or succumb to the "them and us" syndrome. Such an attitude can sour a musical career that took a lot of time and work to achieve. Despair of the incompetent ones and revere the great ones.

Jay Friedman's conductor evaluation checklist:

1) Does the conductor come to conduct the orchestra or the music?

2) Does the conductor curry false favor with the orchestra in order to be liked?

3) Does the conductor have a vision of how a piece should sound, even with a resistant orchestra?

4) Does the conductor have the courage to persist for that vision in a tactful but determined way?

5) Does he show relatively the same amount of intensity and emotion in rehearsal as in concerts (proving the intensity and emotion are real)?

6) Does he have favorite instruments and bias towards others (the sure sign of a narrow musical mind)?

7) is the realization of the composer's vision more important than the virtuosity and beauty of the conductor's hands?

8) Is he an efficieant rehearser?

9) Can he interpret a reasonable amount of 19th century repertoire in an exceptional way?

10) Finally (and most importantly) can he conduct an exemplary Brahms symphony?

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