Crazy things done by conductors

December 22, 2011 at 10:07 PM · I just thought it would be interesting to see if we can have a holiday laugh about the people we love to hate - conductors. So bring on your stories about your encounters with those crazy and dangerous species!

Replies (44)

December 22, 2011 at 05:17 PM · I guess I'll start: Darius Mikulski - playing Brahms' 4th without vibrato,

singing out loud parts to Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" Overture...

Anyone?

December 23, 2011 at 02:26 AM · All three parts of The Messiah, with no intermission or break.

Worst. Messiah. Ever.

December 23, 2011 at 05:06 AM · Playing the chicken dance and forcing the audience to participate.

December 23, 2011 at 10:16 AM · Emily - I want to play in your orchestra!

December 23, 2011 at 11:02 AM · A particularly ill-judged decision by the conductor of an English orchestra, of which I was a member, led to us playing a Strauss Waltz as an encore in the holy-of-holies, the Musikverein in Vienna. We were pretty much laughed off the platform. "I brought the waltz back to Vienna" croaked the Old Man.

In the spirit of seasonal amusement, I'd like to suggest a violin re-design. Remember those heads in the shape of a face seen on some fiddles of the Stainer school ? I propose replacing the traditional scroll with a sculptured representation of a human hand, with fingers raised in a traditional gesture of abuse. This would of course be directed towards the conductor.

December 23, 2011 at 12:35 PM · This is not my personal story but one told to me by a composer leading a summer school course. He was also a trombonist and a friend of his, a conductor of a military band, asked him to dep on trombone for a concert in a prison. After the concert he thanked the prison inmates for being such a wonderful audience and added "and I hope to see you all here again next year".

December 23, 2011 at 12:50 PM · well...I watched a conductor who sang the melody out so loud that I could hear him at row 5. and...I had a conductor who conducted different in rehearsal than in concerts. Needless to say, everyone was confused !

December 23, 2011 at 01:54 PM · The craziest thing I have seen a conductor do - and I have seen it, unfortunately, many times - is for a totally incompetent conductor to get up on the podium at all and presume to conduct a professional orchestra.

December 23, 2011 at 02:19 PM · Do professional musicians really need a conductor? Wouldn't a metronome sitting on a stand be just as effective?

What does a conductor really bring to the table other than a baton? Vision, motivation, direction, but don't the orchestral players possess these attributes as well?

December 23, 2011 at 03:33 PM · Raphael - that is something all we orchestral players have had to experience far too often.

As for having a metronome, many conductors do just beat time. So I suppose a lump of wood and metal is not a lot different to the average conductor.

Please don't think I'm a cynic ...

December 23, 2011 at 04:19 PM · String section has to sing the last bar in a pop concert since our mouth is not busy doing other stuff...

There's reason why I decide to play violin not singing!

December 23, 2011 at 04:39 PM · We had a conductor with my chamber orchestra who, in the middle of a concert, decided to cancel the next item and replace it with Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik, which we hadn't played for a couple of years, at least. The librarian had to fish the parts out of his "emergency box" and put them out to us to the bemusement of the audience. Actually, all things considered, and two or three players were sight-reading, we did a reasonably accurate job of it.

December 23, 2011 at 07:26 PM · In an orchestra rehearsal the conductor screamed at the top of his lungs:

"QUIET!!!"

It was sooooooooo un-conductor like. Usually if a conductor wants "quiet" it's done with a shrinking of stature, postage stamp beat pattern, and a facial expression perhaps of putting a finger up to his lips.

Smiles! Diane

December 23, 2011 at 07:33 PM · Raphael, Peter - yes, I think we've all been there. Normally, the orchestra starts (roughly) together on some sort of down splurge and then just plays. On one occasion, the idiot decided to really try and rehearse the orchestra to get things "his" way. Comment (quite loud) from our principal viola "If this silly b******* doesn't shut up, I'm going to play on his b***** beat".

On one occasion years back, a guy obviously with more money than sense, booked a freelance orchestra for a gig. Right at the start, we were doing William Tell. He stood there getting worked up, and eventually exploded "Violas - why aren't you ready". That's when we realised just what we were in for. The leader did a great job getting us through somehow. He'd also booked a very fine singer, Ivor Emmanuel, who was very professional - stood at the fron of the stage, he conducted behind his back for us to follow. The joys of a musical career!

December 23, 2011 at 08:17 PM · Why is a conductor necessary?

Last week, my wife and I saw Hershey Felder's one-person show in which he "became" Leonard Bernstein. The show is called "Maestro."

Felder was fantastic; it was one of the best things of its kind we have ever seen - ever. Felder did it all - acting, singing, playing the piano (at a virtuoso level), entertaining, and educating. He really became Leonard Bernstein, and looked and especially sounded just like him.

Before the show, as the audience was being seated, on a huge screen at the back of the stage, was an old film of one of Bernstein's famous TV music appreciation programs, this one about the art of conducting. I've found pieces of it on You-Tube (see below).

In it, Bernstein gave the most intelligent, logical, and compelling explanation I have ever heard or read regarding the role and importance of the conductor. If you can find the rest of this, let me know where.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrILZgv_0oQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmhnFjaBW1A

December 23, 2011 at 09:43 PM · From Evelyn Woodhead

Posted on December 23, 2011 at 02:19 PM

Do professional musicians really need a conductor?

Why, of course we do! We need the arrogance, the megelomania, the abuse. Where would we be without such qualities - happy, maybe?

OK, to be fair, there ARE some conductors who are really competent. And there are some conductors who are nice. There are even some conductors who are good AND nice - though now we're getting into the proverbial region of the needle in the haystack. Yet I must admit that 3 times so far this season I've worked with such rare "needles" - one gentleman in a classical orchestra, and two ladies in pop situations, so it can happen. But why am I being fair? 'Tis the season to say "Bah, humbug!"

December 24, 2011 at 01:14 AM · Another Messiah one-A couple weeks ago being asked to play the recitatives that have 16th notes pizzicato. "I once scored this for harp it was lovely" he said. It just sounded weird to me flying pizz in Handel I thought I was going have stigmata in my fingertip.

-M

December 24, 2011 at 09:52 AM · Malcolm - don't get me started!!

One Italian conductor whom I won't name treated all the rehearsals as if they were performances with a towel around his kneck to soak up the sweat. He managed to get quite a few of us helpless with laughter and strode off in anger, so we had an early and longer tea break.

In a concert in some Cathedral somewhere the solo pianist was held up with fog at a German Airport, so we had to do the Beethoven concerto in the concert with no reheasal (this was a recording for later broadcast) and as we all knew it well the producer thought it would be OK. But of course he hadn't allowed for the idiot waving his arms about. He tried to bring us all in too early in the cadenza, which we ignored, but he was so useless at following the very good pianist that the broadcast later had to be without the concerto.

A few weeks later I heard that the same conductor was doing a bog standard Italian opera (don't forget he was Italian!) at English National Opera, and just before the dress rehearsal all the singers demanded that he was replaced or they wouldn't turn up. So he was replaced and never heard of again on these shores!

More recently a rather poor conductor here in London asked us to be aware of following the singer (again in a bog standard aria) and I don't think I was very popular with him when I assured him that we would ignore him and follow the singer.

But I mustn't be tempted to tell more!

December 24, 2011 at 10:59 PM · Peter, when is your book of reminiscences being published?

December 24, 2011 at 11:54 PM · Not in the near future as I've been gagged - it's all because my comments have got Simon Rattled ...

December 25, 2011 at 02:15 AM · Ouch!

December 25, 2011 at 02:24 AM · Piano concertos - one fairly awful conductor we had in a Mozart concerto was blethering on about"play on the beat". Leader turned to me and said "Why should we take it second-hand - I can hear the soloist as well as he can"

But for all the idiots, I have the memories of playing for people like Boult. Once did Enigma with him. He told us "I've just discovered ... " - he was still learning. He'd have been about 82 at the time. And after about an hour and a half's rehearsal (booked for 6) "Well, I want to go home and I'm sure you do. I'll see you tomorrow" And the performance the next day was magical. Makes it all worth while.

December 26, 2011 at 06:34 PM · Then there was the conductor who was also the composer of a piece entitled oleum canum (dog oil),

He had not finished the piece, so on the day of the concert he instructed the players to play everything he had written, and then go on and play "modern music noises" until he stopped conducting.

December 26, 2011 at 07:04 PM · Malcolm - i totally identify with that. One awful conductor had his wife (a second rate pianist) doing the Mozart concerto (I forget the K No) which starts with all the strings playing accross the beat - in other words syncopated - or stinkacapated. He complained that we were getting on his beat, but in fact he couldn't hack it and was down beating on the stinkapated quaver. What a ****head!!

I do agree about Boult. I played for him many times and he was usually wonderful. The only problem was the rehearsals which were a bit chaotic sometimes, and very amusing. I ached from laughing.

December 26, 2011 at 11:43 PM · re "oleum canum" – "canum" does not mean "dog", it is an adjective meaning "old". The Romans would have understood "oleum" to refer to olive oil. This gives us "old olive oil", probably gone off a bit and not useful for much except perhaps in oil lamps and describing the composition in question :)

December 27, 2011 at 02:04 PM · ...on the day of the concert he instructed the players to play everything he had written, and then go on and play "modern music noises" until he stopped conducting.

Were the audience, I wonder, aware of what was happening? If not, what does that tell us about "Oleum canum"? ;)

Many years ago, in my much younger days, I heard a radio broadcast on the BBC Third Programme (as it was then) of a symphony by one of the madder modern mid-european composers. After about 10 minutes of impenetrable complexity the music suddenly stopped and Sir Malcolm Sargent (the conductor) was heard saying that they seemed to have got a bit lost and would now restart. Which they did, and I couldn't tell the difference.

December 27, 2011 at 03:46 PM · A bit off-topic as it's not to do with conductors - but for "modern music noises". One of my colleagues told a story of a new composition with "viola solo ad libitum". At the rehearsal, Les made the expected squeaky gate noises. Come the concert, he played either God save the Queen, or a G major scale - can't remember which! The composer went totally bonkers with "You ruined my whole piece!" - at which Les told him "If you wanted something different you should have ****** written it".

In my view, just what this nonsense deserves.

December 27, 2011 at 03:57 PM · Lots of stories involving conductors. :)

One had invited me to do a certain Mozart concerto, and I arrived in town to find that it was a different concerto than the one on the schedule for two years.

I had a conductor swing his hand into my violin scroll during a broadcast performance....that was fun.

I can't neglect the Beethoven concerto 3rd movement that was started in THREE.

Need I continue? :)

December 27, 2011 at 04:29 PM · Sander - Felder also does a terrific show about Gershwin.

December 28, 2011 at 01:29 AM · @Anne Horvath-Talk about a Nightmare Before Christmas! That wasn't just crazy it was cruel too.

December 28, 2011 at 01:43 AM · [Aside: is there a conductors.com forum somewhere where they share insane stories on wrong-way-soloists and lost orchestra sections? er, just sayin.... ]

December 29, 2011 at 08:22 PM · I'm still trying to get my head round HOW he could attempt the Beethoven 3rd movement in 3? It must take a virtuosity beyond most conductors. Mind you, I'm sure we've all come across the ones who conduct the Pathetique 5/4 in 3 - 1,2 3,4 5 and a bit. Much easier that way!

December 29, 2011 at 09:57 PM · Having lead I church choir with a guitar for many years there were a couple of times when within a particular mass setting I confused a couple of pieces and started in the wrong time signature.

One of the greatest orchestras I got to watch was the group accompanying the musical Cats 20 plus years ago here in Austin. I was in the second row.

During one piece I leaned over to my friend (a church organist) and said that it sounded like they were improvising. She whispered that they were just very good and it had a free sound to it.

At the beginning of the intermission I heard the conductor say “I’m glad you all caught that time change.” He went on to explain that the scheduled dancer was sick and the one who took her place preferred the other time signature.

Personally I am not developed enough to do something like that. We did have an accompanist (also a very good violinist) who would occasionally keep us on our toes by changing a piece from major to minor, fortunately only during rehearsals.

December 29, 2011 at 10:36 PM · Well, my conductor once had me conduct him as he played my violin. Just to show everyone that he could play a violin. It made no sense whatsoever, and I couldn't stop laughing when I got home.

December 30, 2011 at 04:00 PM · Our chamber orchestra conductor composed a commissioned concerto for double bass earlier this year, and in September presented us with the parts to prepare for the first performance in late November. It is a thoroughly post-modern work (but it does grow on you after a while), and while most of it is fairly taxing the last movement is one level up in that it is rare to find two adjacent bars with the same time signature. The conductor helped us (and probably himself) a lot in that movement by inserting in the parts (Sibelius printed) clear indications of what his baton would be doing in 7/8 followed by 5/4 followed by 3/4 (etc). A large printed triangle would show he was conducting a triple, and what looked like a large uppercase Greek letter Pi was used for a duple beat. Hence he was able to clearly indicate how a 7-beat bar was to be conducted, either as 4+3 or as 3+4 (or even 2+3+2). We found it very helpful in navigating the shoals and sandbanks of that movement!

December 31, 2011 at 03:41 AM · Then there was a conductor who got lost and couldn't figure out where he was in the score (this was at Tully hall in NY).The orchestra continued playing (very well by the way), since he was so useless that no one really paid much attention to him. He was able to get the orchestra to stop though, then turned around to the audience and apologized for the incompetence of the orchestra. We,being professionals, restarted and finished the performance with no complaints. Luckily, the conductor didn't lose his place in the score again.

December 31, 2011 at 04:08 AM · There was a concert that we did in an orchestra that I sub for frequently, it usually is fine, but once we had a conductor who had us perform the following concert: Strauss' Don Juan and Tchaik's Francesca di Rimini. It was fun, but I think she was trying to kill us in the process, cause both of those have killer first violin parts.

December 31, 2011 at 04:11 AM · Throwing the entire St. Paul's Suite two days before a concert with but one 1-hour rehearsal. It was dreadful, but thankfully, the audience didn't notice anything wrong.

December 31, 2011 at 01:53 PM · True story, before my time, from a long, long time ago:

A Big 15 orchestra was doing Beethoven 6. The rehearsals went per usual. However, at the initial matinee, the conductor didn't give the 1st violins one single glance. No communication at all.

After the matinee, a bunch of the bewildered 1sts asked the CM to approach the conductor to request a little more attention for the next go around.

In The Maestro's dressing room, the CM, using the politest and most groveling manners, kindly requested The Maestro to pay the 1sts a little more mind.

So, at the evening concert, The Stick planted his toes pointing at the 1sts, plastered a huge Cheshire cat grin on his face, and stared the 1sts down whilst ignoring the rest of the orchestra. The whole of Beethoven 6, facing the 1sts, and no one else got a cue, direction, or eye contact.

I heard that story years ago, from a member of that orchestra. It still makes me shudder...

January 1, 2012 at 06:36 AM · I often marvel at conductors and people in general that take comments like that so literally. Beethoven obviously would expect a competent conductor for one of his symphonies.

January 1, 2012 at 06:40 AM · One time, at a pep-really earlier this year, the younger bands were playing and they don't learn the school song until high school band. When the usual recording wouldn't play, out band director got the high school band members to sing the notes!!

January 3, 2012 at 02:40 PM · Wow, guys, this is amazing! Thanks so much for all your responses, I laughed very hard reading them out loud under the Christmas tree. 

So my worst fears are real - there are incurable idiots with batons out there, we are all doomed...

A couple more from this part of the world: Thailand Philharmonic, chief conductor Gudni Emilsson whose "Choo-Choo-Choo" during concerts are so loud they are heard from the last row, gets so worked up, splashes sweat and spit to the first stands, jumps, loses batons and sometimes almost falls from the podium. I am sure he takes drugs before performances because it's simply not normal for a human to be in such condition.

This is basically what it looks like:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Isl629qiJRk&feature=youtube_gdata_player

More to come!

January 4, 2012 at 01:15 AM · Actually some of the best ones have little of what would be regarded as "beating time" technique. Beecham? I think it was Neville Cardus who reported seeing him getting his stick tangled in his coat tails. I played on a number of occasions for Norman del Mar, who I believe was one of his proteges. On one occasion, Don Juan - an infamous opening. He didn't say what he was going to beat, and I couldn't tell you to this day what he did - something like three twirls and a flick of the wrist. But it was perfectly clear - no missed entries or anything. On another time, doing Taras Bulba, he finished up with both arms outstretched with both wrists flapping up and down, and a loosely held stick going in the opposite direction - rather like a child doing the "rubbed pencil" impression. Again, perfectly clear. George Hurst in one piece just leaned back and brought the stick across in a large slow arc - not in time with any bar lines, but you couldn't break the musical line if you wanted to.

January 4, 2012 at 08:47 AM · Malcolm,

It's true, the great ones don't need to beat time in order to ignite and lead this massive ocean (sometimes more like a swamp :-) of people named "orchestra". Rozhdestvensky's "technique" is hardly exemplary but what a colossal mind, what a sensitive and expert musician you want to trust and follow!

Sadly, if a person in charge has no musical ideas, images, interpretations etc, beating time or even simple cuing is the only thing we expect from everybody who gets up on this podium. It's not too much to ask: just show the beginning and get out of the way, let us do our job. So many can't even do that...

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