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Sometimes it really isn`t fair...

July 2, 2010 at 4:31 AM


poking fun at conductors goes with the turf and is very healthy.  The currentt discussion on conductors coincides very neatly with some very dark thoughts I have been having about conductors over the last week.These originate  from the following events:

I decided to sit back in with my local amateur orchestra which also happens to be one of the top three in Japan according to ther Amateur Orchestra Assocation.  It was lovely to sit at the back of the seconds and enjoy a wonderful progranm consisting of Beethoven 7,  the Nutcracker and Russlan and Ludmilla. It does not  get much better except for the absence of prunes.  What made it all the more enjoybale was the sheer amount of private practice and extra sectionals the players were putting in.  On top of that very good professional coaches were being brought in and doing a marvellous job.

As is usually the case the conductor only came to about four rehearsals. One at the beginning so we knew what his basic ideas were and the final run up of rehearsals.   Well, I know this conductor of old and although he is a -very- nice person and perhaps quite gifted as a musician as a conducter he is wishy washy,  boring and unoriginal. His rehearsals are utterly inefficient (`oh, lets take it right form the beginning one more time,` or  `oh I`m going to sit at the back of the room and you just play together`). 

Come the concert and the atmosphere was really kicking.  Everybody was raring to go and pouring their guts out. None of this was an emotional response to the conductor.  His contribution was virtually non-existent. Indeed, the one place in the concert where too much enthusisam coupled with nerves and an orchestra that can`t really handle the dotted rythms of the first move Beethoven and things almost came unglued. At no time did the conducter kick himself up a gear and intervene to correct things and bring it back under control. We didn`t crash but it was close.  Thankfully after that everything was miraculous.  So much so that aside from the expected encores the audience wouldn`t stop clapping and the conducter received more curtain calls than I can remember.  Now,  irrespective of the fact that he is a nice guy, the truth is he contributed virtually nothing to the prepraration of the concert and realistically did little more in the gig itself than look pofound while waving his stick around in an ineffectual manner.   Everyone but him had worked like nothign on earth to create this event and he got virtually all the kudos. To be frank, it just does not sit well with me.

What then is a good conductor? One defintion I have that certainly din`t apply in this case was that one walks away from a rehearsal feeling that one has really learnt something.  In another sense I would say a great conducter appears to be creating the whole score as he/she goes along.   A lousy conducter is one who appears to be created by the score as it goes along.

No prizes....



From Tom Holzman
Posted on July 2, 2010 at 1:05 PM

Buri - an interesting post.  Two things come to mind.  One is that during the baroque period, there was no conductor.  Maybe that was a good thing, although how possible it is with some of the subsequent repertoire is debatable.  The other (and it is in a sense related to the first) is Beethoven conducting when he was deaf.  Everyone looked to the concertmaster for cues and ignored Beethoven.  Anyhow, in many cases, a really good orch will develop its own coping mechanisms and enthusiasm. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 2, 2010 at 1:55 PM

 Loved reading this, Buri! (But I'm confused -- where are the typos? I felt so disoriented...)

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on July 2, 2010 at 3:58 PM

I have several criteria for conductors.  First, a good, clear downbeat.  Sounds overly simple, but it seems to be one thing musicians complain about all the time.  Second, they should show up at the first rehearsal with a clear concept of what they want from the piece.  Is their concept of Beethoven a little more classical, or more romantic?  What's the goal for a tempo?  Is the tempo steadier or more fluid?  Who has control in a long solo stretch, the principal player or the guy with the stick?

Next, he or she needs to be able to articulate their concept, and how they want the orchestra to achieve it.  I once had a conductor, trying to get a certain articulation he couldn't explain, ask, "Can't you do something with your bows?"  Yes, we can.  Many things.  Which of them would you like?  Obviously, no one is an expert on the technical issues of all instruments, but can we get closer than that?

How to spend rehearsal time could be debated forever, but there needs to be a happy medium between detail work and reading the piece through.  Both have their place.  Too often the bridges in a piece don't get enough attention, and the transitions end up rocky.

Finally, please just be nice.  Insults, snarkiness, and rudeness don't endear anyone to a conductor and do nothing to enhance the quality of a performance.  By definition, anyone who goes into conducting relishes being in control.  Concertmasters and solo winds also tend to be strong personalities- you have to be to do the job.  If everyone stays civil, all the better.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on July 2, 2010 at 11:33 PM

Hi, what a story... it makes me think of when students work hard on a science project at university supervised by someone and that "someone" who just looks after the students gets all the credit when the students find something! 

Bravo to you all!!! (except the conductor...) You are all very amazing to have done this!


From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on July 3, 2010 at 4:06 AM

One of the things I find that separates a really fine conductor from one who seems to just be "competent" is their ability to know how to achieve organic changes of tempo so that the music flows even as it is played with technically excellent ensemble. Few conductors seem able to know how to pace things. They are often too busy, perhaps worried,  to control the ensemble and not have anything that isn't "together" that the ebb and flow in phrasing and from one section to another feels either stiff or reigned in or amorphous and not thought out and well considered.

 That said, there is Norman Lebrecht's Maestro Myth if one wishes confirmation on the fallability of  these "wheelers of the baton". Milstein notably did not trust them and, to be honest, some of the best performances  and rehearsals leading up to performances I've  enjoyed and gotten the most out of  have been those in which the players have had a considerable say in the collective shaping of the music. Good musicians shouldn't be relegated to being obedient slaves. They have minds and hearts and often have insights that conductors should be willing to consider and learn from. Even if one person must ultimately take charge there's much to be said for what  a few famous conductors have noted as their primary duty- trust your musicians and let them  play- they are artists on their instruments and know what they are doing.

From Ray Randall
Posted on July 3, 2010 at 6:33 PM

The conductor of my orchestra, the St. Louis Civic Orchestra is also the Professor of conducting at the University of Missouri. He has a long commute for our rehearsals. I really like what he said when he was chasticing the group for not playing pp even close enough. He said, "your job as musicians is to play what's written in the music. My job as conductor is to convery and conduct what's not written on the page." He went on to explain that the conductor can modify what's written on the page, softer, louder, slower or faster, but you have to start playing exactly what's written and then I conduct the nuances.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 7, 2010 at 7:55 PM

I always want to know this: Is a conductor primarily a musician or a manager? What kind of authorities does a conductor have with respect to choosing the music, performer and other 'business' aspects of a concert?

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