We don't see many 'conductor' posts here, so here's one (well, two really).
In my youth (some years ago!) I was principal second of my local youth orchestra. We were playing Tchaikovsky 5, and the slow movement begins with several bars rest. About half way through them the conductor started gesticulating wildly. This was not unusual so I ignored him and carried on counting, following the cues etc. After the concert someone asked me why I ignored the conductor indicating our entry! Just as well I did as I came in at the right place and he didn't. But if I'd realised what he was trying to do, was I right to ignore him?
Recently I had the mixed fortune to hear an amateur orchestra and conductor accompanying a good violinist in Mozart 4. Every 'andante' entry in the finale entry was a mess, thanks mainly to the conductor. I'm sure ensemble would have been much better if the orchestra had been unconducted, encouraging them to listen to the soloist and enter with him. In these circumstances does one follow the soloist or the conductor? (At the other end of the musical spectrum I read that the VPO always follow the singers rather than the conductor when playing for the opera...).
In the three orchestras in Bristol (UK) I'm mostly involved in - two symphony and one chamber - we have three professionally trained conductors, the youngest of whom is working to making conducting his living (I think he'll make it). Another, a lawyer by profession, is also a very good pianist and has had thorough training in conducting from some of the best-known names in the business. The third, who conducts my chamber orchestra, is a recently retired professional violinist, quartet leader and conductor who is well-known on both sides of the Atlantic.
Each of the above orchestras has a sprinkling of retired symphony pros who, I have reason to suspect, would not be inclined to treat incompetence on the part of a conductor with forbearance.
In the three conductors I have mentioned we are privileged to have three safe pairs of inspirational hands looking after us. The same sadly cannot be said of some useless conductors ("rhabdocradantes") I've worked under in the past :(
Another problem: the conductor may have to advance his beat (not the same as accelerate!!) to bring a soggy section back into line: following him/her without listening would only perpetuate the problem.
Tucked away in the viola section, with trombones in one ear, and piccolos in the other, we don't really hear the "tune" all that well, so we still need a (good!) conductor.
I think a better question would be when not to ignore the conductor!
Seriously, if you know for a fact that the conductor is giving you a mistaken cue, absolutely you should ignore the stick and come in at the correct bar.
The concertmaster of an opera company in NYC (no not the met) told me that their orchestra ignores the conductor since trying to follow this person makes playing music impossible. :)
At least the person is a great fundraiser and has outstanding pr skills
As far as I can tell, the more professional an orchestra gets, the more the conductor gets ignored. Long-time symphony professionals know the repertoire thoroughly (including the usual range of interpretations), and are sensitive to ensemble, and are by and large expected to be able to perform the warhorses on very little rehearsal time. The conductor could probably be struck by a thunderbolt and the performance would go on, and his gestures may be interpreted more as suggestions than directions (dependent upon the orneriness of the orchestra, too).
Ignoring a directive that would cause a mishap (like a misplaced cue) is a given, regardless of the level of the orchestra. The worse the conductor, the more you will probably end up ignoring them, in general -- what they are communicating is not necessarily indicative of what they intended to communicate, anyway.
great pianist and musician he may be, but Ashkenasi is an awful conducter. I was very relieved to find that when he came to Japan with the Czech philharmonic they ignored him completely and played one of e greatest concerts I have ever heard. He soon transferred to the NHK symphony I think. Presumably they are smiling politely and ignoring him as well.
The late José-Luis García told us a story of his early days as a soloist, when the conductor, the identity of whom I've forgotten, was with the fairies when he should have been following him. JLG was quite put out ("It wouldn't matter now, but I needed the critics then") - That was a conductor worth ignoring.
Some time ago I was at a breakfast table with two fairly well-known conductors, who were complaining to each other about an American orchestra that was impervious to the wishes of both of them - No, some conductors should NOT be ignored.
At a performance of Handel's Messiah at Alexandra Palace, I was shocked at the way the orchestra ignored the late Yehudi Menuhin's highly musical instructions. Again.
Then finally there's that well known story of Beecham saying to the BBC Symphony Orchestra "There are two Beards here. You are", said he, pointing at his beard, "to follow THIS one" (not Paul Beard, quite a nice guy, from what I remember).
I think there can be a kind of homeostasis with orchestras that are used to doing things a certain way. Perhaps a tendency to resist a completely different conducter who may be as equally great as the one who just had ten years tenure.
"The third, who conducts my chamber orchestra, is a recently retired professional violinist, quartet leader and conductor who is well-known on both sides of the Atlantic."
Aha. Dennis Simons. I remember that he was far less inclined to ignore and undermine conductors than other concertmasters in my area ........
Yes. great musician. I remember him when he was young....
Forgive me repeating this tale, but years ago I was leading a small string orchestra which, on days off from our day-jobs in the Hallé Orchestra, was playing concerts in local schools. These were conducted by a local Music Adviser. They would end by question and answer sessions.
One day a bright pupil piped up, asking "what use is the conductor ?" (or words to that effect).
The conductor started us off then walked off the stage. We failed to oblige by falling apart.
"Of course, they will not be able to start without me". But we could.
"But that's because we played that piece before". But another piece, sight-read from the folder, also went without hitch.
There followed a self-justifying speech of some length worthy of a politician.
Maybe we would have played along with his ruses had we more affection for the man. But as soon as he announced his intentions, one could see from the looks in the other players' eyes that this simply wasn't going to happen.
Some interesting stuff here-thanks for these contributions. I feel vindicated in ignoring my erroneous conductor.
Adrian - you and your colleagues must look very strange with a trombone in one ear and a piccolo in the other - must make playing very difficult. I feel a viola joke coming on.....:-)
The Beecham story and some of the other comments remind me of another VPO story - they were playing for an amateur(?) conductor who was talking too much and trying to tell them how to play. Eventually one of them told him to shut up and get on with it, or they would follow his beat!
Buri - your comments on Ashkenasy are interesting. My perception as a listener was quite different as I heard some very fine broadcast performances with him conducting. But he did have a very good orchestra (RIAS Berlin). Something which has always intrigued me is how different the perception of listeners and players can be. Especially listening 'blind' - when listening to radio (which I used to do a lot) or recordings. Another thread, sometime, maybe...
David - your tale reminds me of a televised master class when Zubin Mehta started the Israel PO in the final section of the Rite, and then walked off the podium. The orchestra played through to the end, flawlessly. I trust the lesson was not lost on the students.
My definition of a mediocre (or worse) conductor - one who gives the orchestra lots of 'help' where they don't need it, and none where they do.
"... they were playing for an amateur(?) conductor who was talking too much and trying to tell them how to play ..."
I have had experience of an egregious example of that species. This was a school music director, a time-wasting chatterbox who couldn't get it into his head that it wasn't a school orchestra he was now conducting but a very experienced adult "amateur" orchestra, the musicians in which were all grade 8+ (the minimum requirement), or higher, including two or three retired symphony pros. His contract was terminated sooner rather than later.
Fortunately, other school music directors I have had as conductors have been a pleasure to work with.
At the other end of the scale, some years ago I was playing cello in a run of Verdi's "Nabucco". Half an hour before the opening performance word came that the conductor had been taken ill and wasn't able to attend. By good fortune, in the audience was a retired conductor of the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra. When he heard about the problem he offered his services to save the day, even though it meant he would be sight-reading the score of an opera he had never conducted but otherwise knew. The concertmaster guided him through it, indicating entrances, tempi, pauses, and a couple of cuts. The performance was a great success, although 10 minutes longer than scheduled, our stand-in conductor having wisely decided that a conservative approach to tempi would be best under the circumstances.
The regular conductor recovered from his illness, returning the next day to conduct the rest of the run.
A story I heard decades ago about a famous conductor (I forget who), who was doing the final rehearsal for that evening's major work, which was (I think) a Shostakovich symphony.
Anyway, there was a very, very crucial bassoon solo, and during the rehearsal, the bassoonist asked the conductor if he (the conductor) would give a cue so that the bassoonist would come in in the right place. The conductor wrote it down in his score.
But that evening, the conductor did not use a score and conducted from memory. He forgot to cue in the bassoonist at the crucial moment, and as a result it wrecked the key passage in the performance.
After the performance, the conductor was looking backstage for the bassoonist, found him, and started cursing him out.
The bassoonist said, "But, Maestro, you said you'd cue me."
"Cue you? Cue you?" screamed the conductor angrily, "Couldn't you see I was busy conducting?"
I was told that the only conductor EVER to get the Hallé Orchestra to play on the beat was Danny Kaye. Yes, he really did wag the stick at some special event or other.
Proves REAL conductors don't have a sense of homour.
Watch the above clip where you have a tight rhythm section and yet you have conductor to beat time for the orchestra. A half decent musician should be able to follow and keep a beat!
Oh and the rhythm section have their backs to the conductor!
I remember a Rosenkavalier in Vienna 50 years ago : Krips missed the 3/4 bar in the 3rd act pantomime, most of the orchestra ignored him but he tried to correct things by cueing the brass in the wrong place. The trombones came in the horns didn't. Chaos ensued and thing were falling apart. His eyes were bulging out while he was calling "Vorhang" (curtain) and "Hören sie auf" (stop). The great concertmaster continued playing by memory, gazing at the uppermost balcony, and beating out the measures and cues with his scroll. All the other section leaders quickly followed suit. In a very few seconds things were on track again.
If the soloist and the conductor don't agree, I'll follow the soloist every time.
Telling comment from the leader in a Mozart piano concerto when the conductor was doing his usual bouncing up and down going "Play on the beat" - "Why should I get it second-hand - I can hear the soloist as well as he can".
Having said that - if it's a very big orchestra the players at the back can be far enough away for there to be a noticeable time lag. In that case, if you trust the conductor, he can be worth following.
There are also a few conductors who can convey something extra to the players and are worth watching, however most can be safely ignored. More than that - there are a lot that it's safer to ignore!
ah, you've been conducted by uncle Norman too.....
We should pity conductors. They are victims.
I was alerted on a Teacher-training course of a problem that besets class-room teachers.
Having embarked on their career, whilst in the classroom, they are cut off from colleagues of equal or superior status. This isolation means their daily performance will for years and years remain unobserved by anyone who might have the wisdom to put them right should they be going wrong. If the pupils do badly, it's always easy to blame THEM !!
Orchestral players are subordinate to those mighty conductors. Heaven help any of them should they venture to offer criticism; though now and again a concertmaster might get away with a sly dig !
Sadly, it's always the conductor who gets the credit if a performance goes well, and the band that takes the blame if it does not.
When I was a member of a youth orchestra, one bright spark asked a tutor what one is supposed to do if the conductor goes wrong. "Your duty is to THE PERFORMANCE" was the reply. When everyone listens and follows the tune many a disaster can be avoided.
When he was principal 'cello of the Hallé Orchestra, Harold Beck* (no relation !!) was said to have become so fed up with a conductor that he turned his seat around so as to to look directly away from him, and played the rest of the concert that way around.
Was the conductor Barbirolli ? Dunno.
When the conductor is totally deaf, e.g., Beethoven. The orchestras he conducted later in life generally followed the concertmaster and ignored his gesticulations.
I once was sitting principal 2nd for a Mozart violin concerto performance (can't remember which one) in which evidently the conductor had forgotten how the cadenza went. He started to pick up his baton much too early; I made eye contact and slightly shook my head. Baton down. About 8-12 bars later, baton up. I shook my head. Baton down. At the correct point, baton up, I nodded my head, he smiled and brought us in correctly.
Stephen - no, it wasn't Norman. The "bouncing up and down" must have misled you. I always found Norman a sympahetic accompanist? This was Alun Francis, and I wouldn't make the same claim about him!
Mary, that's what I call a good conductor, if he also knows when he should insist on his own way.
Oh, he did. He was a very good conductor. I had enormous respect for him and I think the feeling was mutual.
I do have beefs about some conductors, but in the rehearsal room rather than the concert hall.
Inconsequential chatter by the conductor when he should be working with the orchestra on the music.
Low voice projection, which can cause misunderstanding of what the conductor is saying, especially by players towards the backs of the sections.
Related to the previous, failure to clearly enunciate letter labels in the score that end in the "ee" sound - so, "did he say B or D?". The solution is to say things like "B for Bertie", or "D for David", and then there is no ambiguity. Having said that, we had a conductor who memorably announced the letter label "O" as "O(h) for a muse of fire that would ascend the highest heaven of invention" (which was also the informal motto of a firm of patent attorneys).
More seriously, poor time management on the part of the conductor, especially when rehearsal time is strictly limited, and we end up by not adequately rehearsing the really tricky bits.
It must have been a cadenza with a bunch of fake-out trills! :)
No but it did have a lot of cadences, and it wasn't one of the standard ones.
Just recently, my orchestra played Intermezzo from the La Gazza opera. The conductor told us the day before the concert to memorise the one page and watch him the whole time during the concert. He can be quite weird at times, so when we tried to play during the sound check, he would randomly go subito forte or piano, and there were times when I thought that the way he did it was too much, and didn't sound nice anymore. But, what could we do? It was such a delicate piece, so if one of us didn't watch him properly, it would definitely stick out really obviously! And we knew then that we would really have to watch him closely during the concert because we were sure he wouldn't conduct it the way we had rehearsed for the past two and a half months!
That was one of the times you absolutely HAVE to watch your conductor!
Never totally ignore the conductor. Always keep a weather eye open, otherwise, when he/she does something RIGHT, helpful even, you could easily miss it. ;-)
VIOLA JOKE ...
Principal conductor suddenly taken ill (no cheers now!) so principal viola conducts. Does very well and continues for all concerts for three weeks. Conductor recovers (no groans!) and princ. viola returns for first rehearsal as principal again.
Number three viola looks at him and says "where the hell have you been, I haven't seen you for three weeks!"
Seriously though, I think we should all follow the soloist/singer etc for the sake of the music.
I once played in a BBC Promenade concert with a foreign conductor who was the orchestra's principal conductor. (No name of orchestra or cond). In a Beethoven Symphony his 3/4 beat was incredibly uneven in the rehearsal but we all followed him. He then said we were playing out of time, even though we assured him we were following his eratic beat.
In the concert we just had to ignore him and play it like chamber music. I then understood why the horn section had stand up screaming matches with him. He was simply crazy. I was only a deputy so I did not have to shed tears over it. He got the bullet soon after. (English slang for getting the sack!)
I remember being in a rehearsal for a major concert (no names, no locations, no dates) in which we had a conductor brought in at the very last moment to replace the regular conductor who was unavoidably absent. The rehearsal (the last before the dress rehearsal on the day) was a near disaster: the conductor wasted valuable time from the start with irrelevant chatter, obviously couldn't find his way through the scores, drove the woodwind mad by conducting their solo section in 8 beats to the bar, insisted on repeating sections of the music without telling us why, and failed to get round to even looking at the concerto (the soloist in which was an international name).
The upshot was that the conductor, who, we discovered later, was not at all a well man and could have physically collapsed during the concert, was replaced by the concert master who did a first class job in the dress rehearsal and the concert, which was a resounding success.
My conducting teacher had something he would have us repeat to ourselves before we got up on the podium.
"If something goes wrong in the orchestra while I am conducting, it is MY fault."
While that might not always be the case, especially with student orchestras, keeping this sort of "world view" while waving the baton around tends to produce better results than the typical blame game. :P
During the summer conducting institutes, it's fascinating to see the student conductors work because they aren't allowed to talk to the orchestra. Really! Everything has to be communicated through the gestures...
just been looking at Francescatti Vtali Chaconne 1973. That is an example of the kind of conducter I am not too fond off. That type of huge , slightly stiff gesturing is , in my opinion, producing an over large and unsympathetic accompaniment in the orchestra. It is only one violin against many even if it is Francescatti. This would be an instance to my mind where getting rid of the conducters and just playing it as chamber music would promote a markedly more sensitive interplay between orchestra and soloist.
I agree 100% about the conducting in the Vitali Chaconne, which would indeed work well as chamber music. Do you know what orchestra this is? The older woman in the 2nds has an...er...interesting bow arm.
I also note that while Francescatti is playing restless, the outline of some sort of pad is clearly visible under his sweater.
They must have scraped the bottom of the barrel to come up with that conductor!! It's always a sign of inadequacy when the conductor has to resort to sub-dividing the beat so much to get it to (almost) hang together.
It must have been a French band judging by the language used. (Excuse my French ...)
Actually there were a few "interesting" bow arms ...
According to a comment on the Youtube video of the Francescatti Vitali Chaconne
the orchestra was,
Ensemble Instrumental de Provence, dir. Clément Zaffini.
As much fun as it is to complain about conductors, it's kind of a bitter message to say that it's best to ignore them on the whole. I would say, as far as your personal responsibilities are concerned within an orchestra,: Don't ignore the conductor, but also don't rely on the conductor. Count every bar, every time, every rest, everything (as you did!). Always know exactly when and where to come in, and do it with conviction. And in that context, listen to the conductor. They mess up, but they do occasionally say wonderful things.
If you want a real treat, go to the Haus der Musik museum in Vienna. There you can choose one of four pieces to conduct in front of a virtual version of the Vienna Philharmonic. They will follow you perfectly, although if they do not think you are conducting the piece properly, they will stop and several of them will curse you out in German. This is the antithesis of ignoring the conductor.
I certainly did not ignore the "conductor" this evening. I was at a concert and he wrote a very good piece to precede the A major violin and piano sonata of Beethoven. Good composer, but crap conductor.
There are creators of music, and interpretors of music. They are often not the same. Although sometimes they are.
Hope that confuses you as much as it does me. Brain transplant coming up ...
Tom, what on earth do you mean? I didn't see that when I was in Vienna in 1989!
"If you want a real treat, go to the Haus der Musik museum in Vienna. There you can choose one of four pieces to conduct in front of a virtual version of the Vienna Philharmonic. They will follow you perfectly, although if they do not think you are conducting the piece properly, they will stop and several of them will curse you out in German."
This is the best thing ever.
Just to return to the conductor thing.
This link will not only give you a wonderful performance of Mozart by a very nice prizewinning female player but also an example of how to conduct and accompany a concerto.
Both the soloist and the conductor are of the female gender, and both are quite wonderful in my opinion.
UP THE GIRLS!!!!
Here's the link
I'm an amateur string player (violin, cello,and a bit of viola) who has had the good fortune to have played in community orchestras for all but 5 of the past 66 years.
I have been most fortunate the past 40 months to be a member of a UN-conducted 30-member chamber orchestra. We are largely life-long players of advanced age, many private music teachers, some retired professional players. We stay together as most chamber groups do - by counting and other common chamber-music practices and by watching the concert master, who needs to be aware of that responsibility. We rehearse 3 mornings a month, which limits the kinds of working people who can join our ranks. It is a great experience.
My gold-standard conductor was Herbert Blomsteadt, whom I had the great privilege of playing under a little bit as part of his 2-week conducting master class at Loma Linda University in 1973. The nonverbal communication level of his "physical language" ("body language" - if you must) was amazing. Every movement had a precise purpose; there was not a single extraneous movement, and following what he wanted musical seemed instinctive. I also played under Michael Zearott, back in 1964-65, while he was still a PhD candidate at UCLA, and was also a phenomenal talent.
But as I got older (in the past few years), and my vision changed, I became less and less tolerant of the extraneous large motions of which so many orchestra leaders ("conductors" if you must) are guilty that I finally gave up playing in conducted groups 3-1/2 years ago. It is a great relief to not have to worry which hand I'll be looking at will be doing what things that don't mean anything musically - and trying to guess at what level the beat will actually be (and hope it does not go below the top of the conductor's stand or mine (again).
The great thing about being an amateur is that you can express your opinion with your legs and just leave (find another orchestra, if you are lucky) or a chamber group (takes luck again).
IMHO the heading to this thread should really read "When NOT to ignore the conductor".
Some fascinating insights here. I love the video of the Korean lady playing Mozart.
Plenty of examples of how not to conduct - but does anyone have any favourite clips of what they would regard as exemplary conducting? I've just done a quick sample of a few suspects - Adrian Boult, Colin Davis, Herbert Blomstedt, Kurt Sanderling.... The winner for me by a short head was Sanderling - unspectacular (no thought of entertaining the audience) but clear and to the point - not dissimilar to Blomstedt.
My definition of a mediocre conductor - one who gives the orchestra lots of help when they don't need it and none when they do. Prompted by watching one of the species conducting Strauss waltzes - vigorously and enthusiastically in the long melodic and rhythmically straightforward passages,and not at all in the transitions and tempo changes. Fortunately the excellent (Czech) orchestra were well capable of managing without any 'help' and he was at least able to follow them.
A perfect example of knowing when to help and also not to get in the way was an Albert Hall London Prom concert on TV when a certain Simon Rattle was conucting for the cameras in Beethoven 6th Symphony and the quite well known orchestra (Vienna Phil) needed a clear and concentrated beat to follow, as one half of the band was out with other half. Quite easy to do in the appalling accoustic of the Albert 'all when the farthest reaches of the orchestra can't hear the other extreme farthest reaches.
Rattle was un-rattled and totally oblivious to what was happening. Luckily the orchestra got back together again but it was a close shave.
It's funny how the most overpaid performer is often the worst performer.
But I love 'em really (fingers crossed behind back ...)
The English politician (ex-prime Minister, no less) Sir Edward Heath, KG, MBE, fancied himself as a conductor and, being "influential", managed to get himself some gigs.
I found his book, "MUSIC, a Joy for Life" in a charity shop.
Contributors to this thread might find this tome as amusing as I did. Well worth looking up.
On pages 154 & 155 our perma-tanned hero is depicted demonstrating "Conducting movements" which include Gentle playing from the strings; Full orchestral chords; The brass - but not too much; and Precision from the woodwind.
Heath had a poor reputation for holding things together. Simply adhering to those poses will solve little !
Page 157 has a picture of Heath with Andre Previn; the look on Previn's face is priceless.
John - it did not open until 2000:
The wisest of conductors are the ones who understand that when everything gets incredibly complicated, the best thing to do is to cut back on the acrobatics and over-excitement and just give a very clear beat.
Tom, thanks, but I was trying to be funny by being deliberately (for a change) stupid. Even if the Haus Der Musik had existed in 1989, THAT kind of technology was way into the future.
Getting back to the question of what to do if the conductor is not with the soloist. It is tempting for a string player, particularly one sitting near the front, to go with the soloist instead of the conductor. The problem with that is that usually the winds, brass and percussion cannot hear the soloist--certainly not in the immediate way that the concertmaster does--and are dependent on the conductor. I think you can see the problem if the front half of the strings starts following the soloist while the rest of the orchestra stays with the conductor.
If the concertmaster or another principal string can catch the conductor's eye to signal the problem, that's good, but the only way the orchestra will stay together is if everyone follows the conductor. One must hope that the conductor will solve the problem, or that the soloist will.
As violin leader of a student orchestra, one day, I had the misfortune to look up and see 2 1, 2 1. His 2 on my 1. In concert, playing Prokofiev or some other modern, odd-sounding, measure-changing piece. Oh s***.
Ok. So... Cellos I think are with me... Hopefully all the strings are with me. What do I do? Don't know if I need to add a beat, or skip one. Err... If I guess wrong, that'll make things worse. In the end, I decided to stick with it and hope for the best. Things came back together eventually.
I got the thanks for the conductor afterwards for keeping it together. But really, I didn't follow him at that point because I didn't know which way it was to get back on the beat.
Turning this on it's head, here's another version of the same old thing.
I've heard that a certain conductor (G.S. - and long since departed his mortal coil) who was sort of, ahem, loved by the Cleveland Orchestra, would ignore the players, by crossing the road if he saw one of them in the main street.
So, he would have started a thread possibly with the title 'when to ignore the players ..."
Yes, a conductor can szell you down the river. Then be embarrassed to face you in the street afterwards.
Thing is, to keep an eye open just in case they happen to do anything right.
I'm an ex-professional symphony-orchestra player. For most of the time we have a pretty good idea of the standard repertoire, and can soon work out what's needed in new modern stuff.
The "BAND" so often has to rescue the conductor.This wouldn't matter too much except for the HUGE disparity in the fees between the players and the GREAT MAESTRO.
Often the conductor will have a fee greater than the cost of the whole band and the hall hire and publicity.
All this just because he/she can read a score and wave their hands about, and occasionally give a correct entry!
But life is seldom fair.
He/she might be an improvement on most ...
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March 1, 2015 at 08:23 PM · If the conductor is making an obvious mistake, as in the case of the Tsch. you were right to ignore him. The concerto case is more difficult--if half of the orchestra decides to follow the soloist, and the other half the conductor, it would still be a mess. Our conductor always insists that we follow him, not the soloist, but he is a good conductor and especially sensitive with soloists. The situation you describe is sad. I recall a similar situation with an insensitive conductor (I was in audience, thankfully not in orchestra) and felt so bad for soloist.