Following a conductor like Riccardo Muti

April 2, 2013 at 02:55 PM · (First, sorry if this is in the wrong category. I couldn't find a category for orchestral questions.)

I've been watching some videos of Riccardo Muti's conducting (example:, and was wondering how people interpret his constant stick waving. I have had some "hyper-stick" conductors (although not as fast as him). Is he subdividing? If so, why is he the only one that constantly subdivides, and I'm guessing that the stick is moving too fast for one to count with his subdivisions anyway. Thoughts?

Replies (21)

April 2, 2013 at 04:18 PM · Score is marked Presto in 4/4, tempo around 150 bpm. Looks pretty clear to me. You might try following scores online while watching orchestra videos to get the hang of what you're seeing.

April 2, 2013 at 04:43 PM · Mutti isn't doing anything out of the ordinary. I think perhaps the easier thing to do is watch his right hand rather than the end of the baton. In this video, to me personally, it is easier to see the beat in him palm/fist than the end of the baton in all section louder than piano.

More interesting to me is to put this performance in perspective. The musicians in the orchestra are of such a high level that they probably do not need Mr. Mutti to conduct for such a familiar piece.

So what is Mr. Mutti doing that is necesary, what is wasted movement, and what is just to put on a show for the audience? Questions like these might help you play in an orchestra rather than "he's moving his baton really fast - how do you follow it?"


April 2, 2013 at 05:11 PM · "I've been watching some videos of Riccardo Muti's conducting (example:"

It's good to see and hear the Vienna Boys Club again.


April 2, 2013 at 06:24 PM · As a professional symphony player, imagining playing this piece with this conductor, I can assure you that:

1. I could follow him comfortably and completely.

2. The way he is conducting this piece is standard and mainstream.

3. While the orchestra could certainly play the piece without him, he is shaping the music and adding something to what the orchestra would do on its own.

April 2, 2013 at 06:32 PM · Orchestra rule number one: do not look at the conductor

An update: I was just kidding, but I heard the original statement from a professional player!

April 2, 2013 at 07:06 PM · That might be fine if the conductor is incompetent, and the orchestra needs to rely on the principals to hold things together.

However, good conductors bring a lot to the table, and I feel far to many musicians discount what they do as being "easy." It's really not about waving the stick.

April 2, 2013 at 09:11 PM · thats OK if you are up front Rocky - but us duffers in the back either follow the conductor or the concermaster's bow or the sound. The latter is not the best option because of the delay factor with distance (and the room resonance) but its what usually happens and I think gives the music a muddy sound.

Actually, I'd love to hear from the pros what they actually follow... Even if you could play it without the conductor you still need to synchronize somehow....

April 2, 2013 at 10:51 PM · Actually, Elise, we do all of those things, the same as you do. We play together by listening and responding to what we hear, also by watching the body language of the people around us, and also by watching the conductor. If we stop doing any off those things, it goes downhill pretty fast :-)

April 3, 2013 at 07:35 PM · Ensemble musicians are always responding to a variety of cues, and not just the conductor.

One is often triangulating or mediating between various inputs, and not just following the conductor. If a soloist is doing one thing, the basses are doing another, and the conductor a third, what does one do? It's not always clear.

April 3, 2013 at 11:33 PM · Elise: go to youTube and search for bandArt & Beethoven 7th symphony. No conductor = way more individual response-ability, engagement, body language, eye-contact among players and group/individual creativity. Everyone is a soloist. Symphonic orchestra like chamber music playing. Amazing.

April 4, 2013 at 03:57 AM · I would dare the players, soloist or choir to look at the conductor for this one. It would probably result in uncontrollable fits of laughter, which I hear makes playing kind of difficult. The soloist does a great job despite the herculean effort it must take to not look. Anyone seen the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark?

"Libera Me" from the Faure Requiem

My guess is that she actually got the wrong music. I do wonder what she is conducting.

April 4, 2013 at 07:06 PM · I saw nothing unusual about what Muti was doing here.

"If a soloist is doing one thing, the basses are doing another, and the conductor a third, what does one do? It's not always clear."

From a timpanist's perspective it's sometimes like Rocky when he says, "I see three of 'em out there." I follow Pualie's advice and hit the one in the middle.

Christian, I clicked the link, but didn't watch it the first time. I was distracted as it started. If you're not focused on her gestures, you might notice that this is a wonderful performance.

April 4, 2013 at 07:42 PM · "My guess is that she actually got the wrong music. I do wonder what she is conducting."

Oh come on, she's not that good but I've played for many worse (male) conductors than that.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending conductors, unless they are of the electronic type!

April 5, 2013 at 04:50 AM · Tim, I won't argue with you there. I imagine the players must set their stands high so as to block out the distraction. Hey, maybe conducting choirs takes some sort of secret technique.

Peter, your statement contains a universe of pain. I can't imagine what kind of stuff you've witnessed, in that case.

Maybe she does all her work in rehearsal. I have a theory that incomprehensible conductors get great results precisely because the orchestra is forced to listen more and takes a certain responsibility that it might not with someone who has very clear technique. I haven't really had opportunities to test this out.

I am a little surprised that no one seems to find that video as funny a I do.

April 5, 2013 at 08:06 AM · Christian, yes - conductors do often cause pain, but going from the greatest conductors I've worked with to the absolute worst is an interesting journey. Generally for every good conductor one gets, we seem to have to suffer 10 bad ones, going from passable to atrocious.

Talking of laughing, I once worked for a week or so with an Italian guy who during rehearsals in the studio had a towel around his kneck (handy for quick strangulation ...) which he needed as he got so worked up and treated the rehearsal like a performance. The orchestra laughed so much (me included) that he got angry and walked out - only to come back as if nothing had happened after we had an early and slightly longer tea break than usual.

At a concert on tour a day or two later he messed up badly enough that they could not broadcast the recording of the Beethoven piano concerto (forget which one). As it happened the pianist had failed to make the rehearsal due to fog at a German airport, but we all knew the work well enough, apart from the conductor that is. A bit later I heard he got sacked from an opera company in London where he was to do a run of an Italian opera (Verdi?) - as the singers refused to work with him ...

April 6, 2013 at 04:15 PM · Christian Lesniak said: "I have a theory that incomprehensible conductors get great results precisely because the orchestra is forced to listen more and takes a certain responsibility that it might not with someone who has very clear technique. I haven't really had opportunities to test this out."

Well, I have, and my experience supports your theory. The previous music director of my orchestra was crystal-clear and always insisted on us following his gestures exactly. (He didn't always get what he wanted, but he sure wanted it.) As a result, the group developed no sense of individual initiative or responsibility.

Our current music director, after a few years of telling us we need to listen to each other, telling us how much better his other orchestra is at staying together, and so on, has pretty much stopped giving beat patterns. Every beat is a circle, so you can't tell by looking if he's on beat 1,2,3,4, or 5. Also if you get lost, you can't depend on the "well, I'll just watch for the 3/4 bar" technique, because there won't be one. Based on the conversations during break, we seem to be enjoying our jobs less because every rehearsal and every performance is an adversarial experience (I know it's true for me, at least). It's not so much that the conductor is trying to mess us up, but he is purposely not helping. It has made us better at playing together, though: since everybody realizes they cannot depend on the conductor for information, we look to our section leaders and each other instead.

He doesn't appear to care much whether we enjoy our work, so we might as well call this a win-win situation. Sometimes, though, the conductor decides to be clear (he really has excellent stick technique, when he chooses to use it), and it doesn't help as much as he'd like it to: the information is taken with a healthy dose of skepticism, like all the rest of the information he gives us. When people have to decide on a case-by-case basis about whether to believe you, that extra moment they take to decide can make a difference during a performance. (I'm a principal wind player, and I often take a quick look around the orchestra to see how the other principals in sight are planning to react, before I commit myself.)

April 9, 2013 at 04:33 AM · Greetings,

I concur with Roy about that kind of conducting. It actually seemed economical to me. His whole body as well as the stick was expressing exactly what he wanted and he was pretty much getting it. The fact that the tip of his baton was wobbling around in response to all the well directed energy is, in my opinion, not really relevant. However, there are conductors who consciously siubdivide and try to conduct semi quavers etc. Milstein described these as a real pet hatred of his. I suffered under one at music college called Norman DelMar. Ironically, Milstein recorded a Mozart concerto with DelMar. You can probably see it on youtube.



April 10, 2013 at 12:07 AM · Stephen, I played for Norman a number of times and never found that with his beat ( for want of a better word). Fairly wild gestures that still managed to be clear - on one occasion I did Don Juan with him - an infamous opening. I couldn't tell you to this day what he did - sort of wave the stick around a bit and plunge down. But we all just played - somehow it WAS totally clear. On another occasion, we did Taras Bulba - at one point he had both arms outstretched with the stick held loosely seeming to move in opposite motion to his wrists giving a sort or "rubber pencil" effect. But again, somehow it was totally clear and it was a stunning performance. Somehow he managed to combine an incredible ear with encyclopedic knowledge but stiil make rehearsals feel as if they lasted 6 hours not 3. But the performances were usually worth it.

There's also a YouTube performance of Milstein doing the Brahms 3rd movement with Norman and the Philharmonia - maybe worth watching. It certainly is for the violin playing!

April 10, 2013 at 06:41 PM · I was lucky to work with Maestro Muti in the Chicago Symphony for his first year as music director there, before I left for Los Angeles. The force of his personality shows in all his gestures, whether he's conducting or just walking down the hallway! It's funny, there were other conductors we would talk about first if the topic were "clearest or technically best conductors", but actually everything he showed was perfectly clear. It's just that it was so fused with the message, you didn't focus on the actual movements. So that's exactly the way it should be.

Now, if the topic were "conductors you'd least like to have staring you down during a concert", he'd be first on the list!

One other thing I'll throw in there: I've never seen anyone solve the "talking" problem so quickly. The first concert he guest-conducted with the CSO, he noticed one stand of violins talking loudly to each other during the applause. The next day, he told them never to do that again, and the word got around. And that was as a guest conductor! A few months later, on our first tour with him, we had a short rehearsal before a concert. He heard one person talking while he was addressing another section. Nothing directed at him, just chatter. He cut off mid-sentence, stared at the talker, then just walked off the stage, and that was the rehearsal.

Each conductor sets his own tone, and that must flow from rehearsal through performance. The gestures are only an extension of that musical presence.

April 10, 2013 at 10:38 PM · I have had the honour of working closely with Riccardo Muti for over 20 years and find his musicality and general charisma to be extraordinary. I have no problem following his beat but more importantly he is one of the easiest conductors to "read" in a performance. You are never in any doubt as to exactly what he wants at any given time. Of course there are many conductors who have this gift but Muti would have to be one of my absolute favourites! :)

April 10, 2013 at 10:54 PM · I love the Alberti bass thing he does with his left hand at 1:24!

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