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Why did the conductor cross the road?

February 28, 2012 at 4:44 PM

What is the difference between a conductor and a chimpanzee?
It has been scientifically proven that chimpanzees are able to communicate with humans.

What is the difference between an orchestra and a freight train?
A freight train needs a conductor!

So, my experience this past weekend prompted me to go and find some conductor jokes, as a way of dealing with extreme frustration.

I play in two orchestra...one is local-ish and one requires a 2 1/2 hr. drive for the concert weekend. This past Saturday was concert day for this orchestra, so I drove that direction on Friday afternoon, listening to Beethoven 2 (on the program) the whole drive. I was excited to play this concert, as my local orchestra had just 2 weeks prior played a brutally difficult concert. While there is no such thing as 'easy Beethoven', this is a very accessible piece and I was looking forward to playing a great and exciting work with a good group of musicians.

Well, that was the plan, anyway. However, also on the program was the Walton Viola Concerto played by a young artist concerto winner.

One last preliminary point...this conductor is one I'd only played for once before, as I'd taken a leave from this orchestra, and he's relatively new. When reading his bio, it all sounds great... but, for the life of me, I can't find a downbeat anywhere. Ever. In any meter. His arms sort of wave around in emotive circles, and I guess we're supposed to be divining some sort of guidance from them, but I sure can't find it.

So, the Friday rehearsal goes like this: A quick blow through of a Rossini overture, at high speed. It's sloppy, but on we go. Then, the Walton... 1st movement. 1st movement again. 2nd movement. 3rd movement. Break. 3rd movement again. Finally, a quick (no, not quick, BREAKNECK) blow through of some of the Beethoven. 3rd movement. 1st movement. 3rd movement again. 4th movement. Oops...out of time. First 3 minutes of 2nd movement. Done.

Saturday: Blow through the Rossini, badly. Walton: 3rd movement. 1st movement. 2nd movement. 3rd movement. 1st movement. Break. Beethoven: Hack up the 1st movement from top to bottom, badly, at supersonic speed, pausing only to play certain wind fragments in the introduction over and over and over. At times I hear 3 different tempos around me and stop to try to figure out who to go with. Play the 2nd movement, most of which we've not done the night before. Play the 3rd movement, badly (b/c it's going so fast). Play the 4th movement. Out of time.

After this rehearsal, I spoke to the concert-mistress. I told her I was having a terrible time even finding the beat and that the Beethoven seemed ridiculously fast for the amount of rehearsal time invested. She told me, "Oh, we don't even watch him anymore. No one can follow him...we just start and go". This is highly NOT reassuring to those of us coming in, especially since I cannot see her bow from where I'm sitting. She also told me that the rehearsal tempos may or may not be the concert tempos and that they vary every time.

So, concert. Rossini overture- not terrible, but totally not clean. The only thing that saved it is that it is not very difficult.
Walton: The audience was charmed by the soloist. We hardly knew where we were. (remember the 'no downbeat' thing? This is a difficult orchestral part with changing meters..). Beethoven: an absolutely sloppy, rushing mess that sounded like we were all falling downhill at high speed.

I'd never in my life played a concert where the result was so unsatisfactory, ESPECIALLY in light of the fact that the piece was very playable by the group. It would have felt stressful in a different sort of way if the piece were just too hard, but it wasn't. It was too fast, under-rehearsed and without any help (and a great deal of hindrance) from the podium. This is a piece that truly would have gone better without a conductor...at least, the orchestra would have chosen a playable tempo. It was so disappointing and so stressful.

My roommate was a woman who had a 20 year career at the Kennedy center. She said she'd never heard the Beethoven done so fast, and felt as stressed and unhappy as I was.

This is serious enough for me that I'm going to have to think long and hard before I sign any more contracts for this orchestra. To take something that could have been so good, and kill it like that seems almost unforgivable to me.

Sadly, this conductor has been given an extension on his contract. The orchestra is unhappy about this, but his manner with the audience is fun and engaging and they love him. So, the supporters are fans.

Why did the conductor cross the road? Who knows.....sigh.


From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 29, 2012 at 5:25 AM
The best conductors don't "emote" -- at least not by design. They have too much actual work to do for any of that. But I get the feeling that sometimes they don't realize the primary importance of their job: to keep the beat.

Let's say the conductor is the heart of the orchestra. The heart has an important job. Sure, a person feels emotion in his or her heart. But its most important job? It beats. Simple, yes, but vitally important. If the heart stops beating, if it beats irregularly, or if it tries to pass off a big wad of fat like it's normal circulation -- there's trouble. A breakdown, an attack, death throes -- the patient dies.

From Dottie Case
Posted on February 29, 2012 at 5:51 AM
You must have been in the audience...
An interesting aside- The conductor for my more local orchestra was in the audience for this concert as his wife is a member of both orchestras. In an email to him, I expressed my frustration to him about the Beethoven and he told me this: "The ____ Orchestra is very hard to listen to. There is plenty of talent on the stage but there is not the means of making music". Bingo.
From Allyson Lyne
Posted on February 29, 2012 at 6:52 AM
When the beat splits, stick with the loudest section! You have to remember that all you can do is be available with your alertness, willingness, and fantastic skills. If the person on the podium doesn't call on these things, there is nothing you can do about it. That makes orchestra work inherently frustrating, so make sure you have some musical activities where you have a little more control - chamber music or teaching.
From Paul Deck
Posted on February 29, 2012 at 1:34 PM
So I guess if choosing between Tragedy and Triumph, you're going with the former? What needs to happen is for good-quality videotape of this orchestra to find its way to YouTube. The bright spot does seem to be your young violist. Looks like she's claimed a few of these prizes (thereby earning multiple orchestral appearances) with her Walton.
From Karis Crawford
Posted on February 29, 2012 at 2:25 PM
Or, may you need a cyber conductor?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=CFltd2838gc

From Amber Rogers
Posted on March 1, 2012 at 2:23 PM
Ugh, I've been there. I'm sorry, it's super frustrating. On the upside, it sure does make the orchestra have to listen like crazy to one another to play together.

I recall hearing a player in the SPCO venting about a disaster of a conductor (who shall remain nameless) they had for a while and how they had to ignore him completely and do their best to play together on their own. Though it's easier with a chamber orchestra rather than a full on symphony.

From Malcolm Turner
Posted on March 1, 2012 at 9:27 PM
Possibly the oldest conductor joke - what's the difference between an orchestra and a bull?
The bull has the horns at the front and the ******** at the back.
From Peter Charles
Posted on March 3, 2012 at 4:15 PM
If this is a paid job then take the money and run.

If it is not - tell the idiot on the rostrum to take a running jump ...

(I've been rude to conductors even when it has been a paid job. Well, if you are not going to ever want to work for them again, you might as well tell them what you think).

As for the audience liking him, well, what do audiences know? If the band hate him, then they should collectively refuse to play for him. Immediately before a concert is the best time!

From Dottie Case
Posted on March 3, 2012 at 7:26 PM
It is a nominally paid job. And it's not my main gig...so in that regard, I guess sticking it out in hopes that this too shall pass is probably an acceptable plan. No experience is wasted, right?

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