Jul 12, 2006

Take me to your leader

Lets talk about conductors this month. OH BOY! What a subject. Where do we begin? I've played for a multitude of conductors as I'm sure many of you have, from your school days to when you got a job in an orchestra or just playing part time in an amateur group, we just can't seem to get away from them. I want to explore the concept of what makes a conductor and also how musicians react to conductors, which may be the most important aspect of this subject.

The conductor business these days is more influenced by show business than ever before. In the old days someone would get a recommendation from a famous conductor, such as Mahler, and go to an opera house to become a repetiteur, and gradually work their way up to being a conductor if they showed the requisite talent. Nowadays you achieve stardom by getting a conducting certificate and a hair dryer from the Sibelius Academy, no doubt picking up (like a parasite) an agent; and VOILA! You are a conductor. Instead of working your way up musically, you have spent your time perfecting "pretty hands," which unfortunately for the musicians that have to play under your direction, has nothing much to do with music or interpretation. Since you've become an instant celebrity, you won't start with small ensembles; no, you will be conducting orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony etc. Since the curiosity of the public over the latest "wunderkind" will sell a few tickets for a while, the orchestra managers are happy and the general opinion is; "he must be good or else he wouldn't be famous." Meanwhile the poor musicians are pulling their hair out, or what's left of it, while another opportunity for a great performance is lost forever. Personally, I'm sick and tired of of playing for the latest wiz-kid whose only claim to fame is his fancy hands. Musical understanding in symphonic music comes from years of gestation, experience, trial and error, and lots of rethinking.

The old way was not foolproof either. I have played for quite a few conductors who came through the traditional opera house route who hadn't a clue about symphonic music. Maybe they were musically lead by the singers, and when left to their own resources didn't know what to do to fashion a convincing version of a symphony. I've conducted both, and believe me symphonic conducting is childs-play compared to opera. Which brings me to the point that; CONDUCTORS GET TOO MUCH CREDIT FOR PRODUCING PERFORMANCES. They didn't write it, and they didn't play it. They're not even comparable to actors who function as the orchestra and the conductor. They are directors who unheard, DIRECT MUSICAL TRAFFIC. So let's not lionize people for modest achievements when they are reproducing other peoples works of art. Do we call someone a genius who arranges exhibitions of paintings or other graphic arts? That's not that much different from what a conductor does. Let's be realistic and value conducting for what it really is, recreating works of art. Since music notation is an imperfect form for preserving a composers ideas, that leaves room for a certain amount of interpretation. Basically there are two extremes of interpretative style. One is taking a piece of music and distorting it to a degree that it is almost unrecognizable. The other extreme is to act as a metronome and mechanically reproduce what is on the page without any interpretation. All conductors fall between these two extremes in various degrees. The difficulty is to combine the best features of both of these extremes and end up with an interpretation which brings to life the composer's wishes and dreams, which may be only hinted at in the score. Conductors must walk a fine line between the two extremes, and that line changes according to the music. This requires knowledge, judgement, and an innate sense of how something will sound before it is played. That said, the conductor must be able to communicate the interpretation with his hands and face, generally without the aid of words. Excessive explanation is unnecessary and not appreciated by orchestral players in general. Conductors who also spend a lot of time grinning at the orchestra are not generally taken to be sincere, and seriousness seems to be a desirable trait. I also believe that a conductor who is demanding in a musical sense is respected more than someone merely trying to curry favor. Case in point; the late Gunter Wand was one of the most serious and forthright conductors of all time. I have never been glared at so intensely for missing an entrance in a rehearsal by any conductor, and yet we knew it was only musically inspired and not meant personally. He achieved great performances by the sheer sincerity of his purpose.

The way conductors are received by players provides some interesting discussion. Generally speaking, the more notes a player must execute, the more the ease of execution becomes the most important attribute of a conductor. Those instruments that play fewer notes and less often, have more opportunity to appraise annterpretation rather than only judge the technical prowess of a conductor. Even so, I have found that a very small percentage of players judge a conductor's interpretative skills independently from physical mannerisms. This is why orchestral players are not the ultimate authority on the musical qualifications of a conductor. Certainly players can almost immediately detect if someone is technically qualified to conduct, but even this can be deceiving. I have seen conductors who where physically very awkward, but achieved wonderful musical results. I have also seen conductors with fabulous conducting techniques that hadn't a musical clue.

What makes conducting so difficult? Actually it's pretty easy. Toscanini said; "any assino can conduct, but to make music is difficult." And that's the problem. Because it's technically easy, to be a great one is really difficult. The most important trait a conductor must have is a natural music instinct. This has nothing to do with intelligence. Natural musical instinct is something someone can be born with or can develop over time, usually a long time. Georg Solti once said that a conductor should not conduct Bruckner until they were over 50. I think he meant that a person needed to be past youthful, athletic exuberance to have the patience and wisdom for this music. This idea could be applicable to most of the symphonic literature. This is why it takes someone so long to become a great musician/conductor.

Over the last umpteen years years I've noticed a strange phenomenon, and that is generally when a conductor makes a spectacular debut with an orchestra, the succeeding engagements are many times diminishing in quality. At the same time, another conductor will make a debut and be very professional, hardly say much in rehearsal, but achieve an excellent performance, possibly of a piece that doesn't elicit a tumultuous response from the audience, and virtually go unnoticed by the orchestra and organization. However in succeeding visits the competence starts to be apparent and eventually the conductor is recognized as an exceptional musician and conductor, if somehow he is re-engaged after the first appearance. I don't know why this is, but perhaps it is a symptom of the instant gratification world we live in and become accustomed to today. That's why I would caution ensembles everywhere to not make hasty decisions hiring conductors, on the basis of a splashy debut, until a more in-depth musical analysis can be measured.

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