What happens when a conductor disagrees with a performer musically?

January 6, 2019, 8:00 PM · Hi, in my imaginary world, say I'm a conductor. I have strong preferences in many pieces, let them be violin concertos, piano concertos, sonatas, french horn concertos, etc...

What happens if we the orchestra invite a soloist and I highly disagree with its playing?
For example, one part the pianist is playing not with much enthusiasm I want it to be huge and dramatic. Some passages I want the violinist to play with much more dynamic and colors instead of all regular and the same.

What happens if you tell the soloist to play it like that and the soloist says "that's not how you play it", but you're the conductor and you know how you want it to sound?
You know exactly how you want it to be, and the soloist is doing so many things differently, some of them "standards" that you want to do your way and others personal sound. How that resolves in real situations?

I imagine a pianist, if I try to correct and indicate him I want this piece this way, thinking: "this conductor has not have a major in piano, I do, this conductor has not even played a piano at all, and is trying to correct and change a piece I've performed 1000's of times with the greatest orchestras and conductors of the world"

What happens if you think, as a conductor, that Beethoven's 4th symphony beginning is performed barely well by all major orchestras (like there's a "standard" over the world) and you want to break it and try to perform it your way, the way you think is way more interesting than the "standard" way?

Basically, how much power over the sound of a piece has a conductor? Can they normally correct almost all nuances, dynamics, colors, intensity and "meaning" of a piece?

Replies (46)

Edited: January 6, 2019, 8:21 PM · Regarding soloists, my guess is that it's a matter of relative stature. If you're Karajan and they're fresh out of Juilliard, you could probably say something. If you're fresh out of Juilliard and they're Zuckerman, probably not.

Regarding regular orchestra works, yeah, you've got a lot of control as a conductor. But as Cotton says (below), how far-out you want to get depends on how secure you think your job is.

January 6, 2019, 8:13 PM · They get fired.
Edited: January 6, 2019, 8:22 PM · just stay in your imaginary world, please.
music is about cooperating, not about forcing your will through.
January 6, 2019, 8:23 PM · Herman, I think the OP is asking a legitimate question. Disagreements do happen in every professional arena. The question is how they get resolved and whether there are industry-accepted standards of authority.
January 6, 2019, 8:24 PM · This happens.
https://youtu.be/peFMHJa57H8
Edited: January 6, 2019, 8:29 PM · Soloist > conductor. The conductor's job is to collaborate with the soloist so that the soloist's conception is brought to life. The only exception is if it is a youth orchestra concerto competition winner or some such, in which case it's an educational opportunity for the young soloist.

If you want to drastically reinterpret a standard work such as a Beethoven symphony, you had better be able to justify your choices on solid musical grounds, and you'll still annoy everyone. If you can't justify your choices (and I don't mean just by saying that's how you think it should go), annoyance will be much too mild a word to describe the orchestra's reaction.

In your imaginary world, you are going to very quickly get a reputation as a conductor that no soloist will want to work with and no orchestra will want to hire.

Edited: January 6, 2019, 8:32 PM · What Mary Ellen said.

In general, between the soloist and the conductor, the soloist is likely going to play it their way. If the soloist's way is creating issues for the orchestra, the conductor and soloist discuss it, and it's worked out in rehearsal. In general, though, a good orchestra and soloist will try to respond to each other somewhat like chamber musicians do. (If you listen to the TwoSet "Inside the Mind of Hilary Hahn" video, there's a great section of that interview in which Hahn talks about practicing passages different ways, so she can react depending on her collaborators and the circumstances.)

When it's just a conductor with an orchestra, the orchestra usually does what the conductor wants, to the degree possible given the amount of rehearsal time available. If the conductor is incompetent and/or indecipherable, they will revert to their "usual" way of playing it, following the concertmaster. Particularly "personal" interpretations will often annoy orchestras.

January 6, 2019, 9:15 PM · It doesn't always work.

When I did the Vivaldi "Winter" concerto from the "Four Seasons," I had a very definite way I wanted the low strings to begin the first movement - with a very earthy sound (no vibrato or accents). It worked in rehearsal but -- not in the concert. But what the heck - that was pretty much all over by my solo entrance - even though the "mood" I wanted had not been established.

January 6, 2019, 10:52 PM · Wow, Tim, that was really interesting, just what I wanted to watch or hear.
First you all, I'm asking this with all due respect, I'm not even a student for conducting, so this question merely is curiosity. As a student of course I do have opinions and preferences, I notice "standard patterns" I don't like or understand that much, and I'm always thinking about what would I do if I were the conductor, how I would want it to be.

That audio was really enlightening, Bernstein asked one question: what am I doing here if I don't agree with the performance, I'm not in control of this, this is not what I want this piece to be. Then he explained it was basically because he respected Glenn Gould and thought it was an interesting interpretation.

By the way, by "personal tastes" I don't mean I would completely change the piece, not at all, but simply enhance parts. Most of the time it would be little details, mostly dynamics, may be number of instruments...

This question goes the other way around: what if you've honed over the years your perfect Mendelssohn and some conductors tell you to play passages certain ways you don't agree.

I also thought about the fame. If you invite a worldwide first class violinist I guess any kind of correction won't be well received. May be a new young star could be more manageable.

Edited: January 6, 2019, 10:57 PM · Conductors tell orchestral musicians to play passages in ways the musicians don't necessarily agree with ALL THE TIME. There is a word for musicians who can't or won't adapt to a conductor's requests....unemployed. Obviously some players (solo winds) have more latitude than other players (members of the string sections), but there's a definite hierarchy in an orchestra and the conductor is at the top. Soloists are outside of this hierarchy.

I mean, that's part of playing in an orchestra, subsuming one's own musical thoughts into a larger whole.

January 6, 2019, 11:03 PM · Soloists end up adapting to what orchestras as well, sometimes because the conductor isn't prepared. It happened this past summer at a concert I attended, featuring a pretty big-name soloist and a top-tier symphony, where the guest conductor of the evening apparently didn't seem to know the score for the warhorse concerto. The soloist ended up having to wait a few beats for the orchestra to catch up!

In the summer program that I direct, the conductor and orchestra principals rehearse with the student soloists every day for an entire week so that they can learn how the collaborative forces can function together towards a united goal. It's like playing chamber music with a gigantic group that requires really effective communication and "air traffic control."

So many times, we have student soloists who have no semblance of how to communicate what they want to the conductor and the orchestra, yet expect somehow that the "accompaniment" is going to magically follow them despite their lack of musical direction.

Edited: January 7, 2019, 10:20 AM · This reminds me of a quote of a rehearsal I heard about many, many years ago (I don't remember who the conductor or soloist were).
Conductor (to soloist): "Fine. You play it your way, and we'll play it Beethoven's way."
January 7, 2019, 10:45 AM · I recently watched a documentary on Ida Haendal and there is an interesting interaction between herself and the conductor (fast forward to 12:08):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sr9fOXyT70M

January 7, 2019, 1:25 PM · Thank you all. Wow Phil, that's really wonderful. As I had guessed, Ida said "I've been playing like this all my life". I knew it, it's the obvious reply if you disagree with someone that's been a professional for many years, the answer they will claim to be correct for every situation is "I've been doing this exactly like this for 20 years". Here it's the soloist, but this "excuse" or "defense" can be said by conductors, orchestras, etc...

Nevertheless, this was Ida playing and Ashkenazy conducting, and the disagreement was a very gentle one: she was not in time, according to the conductor.
That's not my focus though, my problem is with more serious disagreements, those where two different ways of understanding a piece face each other.
I know this can be a really heated topic, not between us I really hope, not at all my goal. Besides, I'm not disagreeing with anybody, I'm curious about how professionals manage these situations.

I know that when you're a professional in a field, specially in music where everything is so personal, emotional, subjective and intense, different opinions from 2 experts can quickly end up in a "violent" situation, musically of course.

Edited: January 7, 2019, 1:58 PM · I think one aspect that you're overlooking is that when you're a professional musician, you might perform any given piece hundreds of times over your lifetime. A professional soloist might perform a concerto 30+ times in one year! When you're a student or an amateur and you might only perform a couple times per year and you might never get another opportunity to perform this piece again in your lifetime, doing every little musical detail exactly the way you imagine it might seem very important to you. When you're doing it again next Thursday, sure, you can try a different approach this week.
January 7, 2019, 2:30 PM · An additional interesting aspect to what Irene has said is that conductors vary in how often they're going to conduct this work, too, and the degree to which it matters to them how it's performed in this particular city on this particular occasion.

Gene, I think violinists tend to be trained as if their piano accompanists are always going to follow them no matter what. Collaboration with a pianist is rarely taught until a student learns the sonata repertoire, and maybe not even then. And consequently it becomes easy for a violinist to assume that a conductor and orchestra can follow them in the same way that a pianist can. Which of course they can't.

Many violin teachers also don't play with as a soloist with orchestra enough (indeed, many teachers have never done so) to effectively teach a student what they have to do in order to communicate clearly. Clear communication is useful with a chamber-music group too, but a quartet can far more easily deal with a lack of clarity than an orchestra can.

January 7, 2019, 2:35 PM · All is forgiven when a conductor who knows his job saves the ship when the soloist has a noticeable memory lapse (i.e. an imminent or actual stoppage). I've been in the orchestra on a few occasions when that has happened.

Talking about a conductor saving the ship, several years ago I (as lead cellist) was in the orchestra pit for a run of Verdi's opera Nabucco when our conductor failed to show on the opening night - he genuinely had been taken quite ill. Our CM luckily spotted a retired conductor of the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra in the audience and asked him if he would take over. He agreed. As it happened, this gentleman had never conducted Nabucco, although he was familiar with it, so first discussed tempi, dynamics, timimg etc with the CM. The performance went very well, even though it ran 10 minutes over (the stand-in conductor understandably didn't want to take risks). The following evening our regular conductor turned up, looking noticeably pale and wan, but took us through the opera with no problems. The rest of the run was back to normal.

Edited: January 7, 2019, 5:38 PM · My thinking is simple. The audience buys tickets to see the soloist (Hahn, Vengerov etc) and not the conductor, so soloist > conductor. The audience don't expect the soloist to change style they've built for decades, and would be frustrated if the soloist did so. So the conductor is not supposed to challenge or interfere much into the soloist's interpretation. There are a few exceptions to this rule as discussed.

Also, most of the audience are not clear about the conductor's role and importance, which doesn't add to the conductor's balance of power.

If the performance lacks a soloist (like a symphony, not a concerto) then I think the conductor is top of the hierarchy, though don't know how far, generally, the conductor can change the music.

From what I read, the soloist is almost certainly a contractor.

I wonder what is a typical situation for the conductor?

Edited: January 7, 2019, 6:42 PM · Perhaps what is often forgotten that a concerto is written for violin AND orchestra, not for violin ACCOMPANIED by a horde of musicians controlled by an alpha male leader.
I concur with Herman "music is about cooperating, not about forcing your will through"
January 7, 2019, 7:07 PM · I agree with Herman and Rocky.

Yes, the soloist does have a lot of power, but they wouldn't have been hired in the first place if they were known as someone who bullies the orchestra & conductor.

January 7, 2019, 10:45 PM · Gould was an outlier too. Very special and unusual player.
January 8, 2019, 1:10 AM · Soloists who make the conductors life hell won't be invited back.

Soloists who are abused by conductors won't come back.

It's in everyone's best interest to play nicely. The soloists draws audience members, the conductor enables the soloist. It's symbiotic on a fundamental level.

If you want to defy convention and tradition with your interpretations then you risk the audience not liking it and being panned by critics. When people buy tickets to hear B4 they most likely have an expectation of what they're going to hear. If you stray too far from that expectation then they will not enjoy it and will not come back - or less likely they love it and tell all their friends. It's a difficult problem in regards to pieces that are so 'big'. If a conductor wants to experiment they pick less known works that won't sink their career if it doesn't go well.

January 8, 2019, 1:52 AM · Everyone knows cooperation produces the best outcome. But things get difficult when what you think is best is drastically different from what others think is best. Adding to that problem is that everyone is equally passionate about achieving *the best* :-))
January 8, 2019, 5:33 AM · How do violinists react when pianists tell them how to accompany them correctly, when working on e.g. a Beethoven sonata for piano with violin accompaniment? ;)
January 8, 2019, 5:33 AM · How do violinists react when pianists tell them how to accompany them correctly, when working on e.g. a Beethoven sonata for piano with violin accompaniment? ;)
Edited: January 8, 2019, 6:37 AM · I agree with all of you, but you're not getting to the point. I have never ever said that the soloist disagrees with the conductor and he points a gun to conductor's head. Or a conductor behaves like a little Hitler towards the orchestra. No, these situations are not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about mature, reasonable and peaceful musicians that highly disagree on many passages and parts of the piece with the soloist, conductor or "orchestra". Also, some of you tend to think that when I say "I want this piece my way" I'm gonna transform Beethoven's 4th into a jazzy tune. Not at all. I'm talking about "oh, this part should be faster, with more intense, there should be way more dynamic change from here to here, this passage is normally "standard" played fast, and I think it should be played quiet and peacefully". What happens when those inner feelings of "this is going to be better" face a soloist or an orchestra.

You know, you can argue for hours about every little detail in music. I've watched a quartet interview where the first violinist said he would discuss bowings for hours with the second violin, up or down, speed, volume, vibrato... I hope you get my point now.

January 8, 2019, 7:01 AM · I think the answer even (especially?) among mature and sensible musicians is that the soloist > conductor > principal > tutti player hierarchy is pretty firm. It might be a bit flexible around differences of fame, maturity and talent, and there might be points where people have to point out where something is actually impossible, but basically it's followed. If you're lower in the hierarchy you take your lead from people higher up. If you don't like the lead you can either suck it up, or you can find someone else to play with.

If you're conducting an orchestra with a soloist then you have maybe 2 hours of rehearsal time (very possibly less) and there simply isn't time for the conductor to ask the soloist to re-conceptualize what they are doing. You might possibly have a quiet word to nudge someone in a particular direction, but you're more likely to use the quiet words for any issues of balance or timing that come up.

Chamber music is, of course, totally different.

Edited: January 8, 2019, 7:16 AM · Paul I think your question was answered pretty well by Bernstein in the linked YouTube. The kinds of alterations that Gould apparently wanted were along the lines of what you describe. Bernstein is not talking down to his audience -- there were surely many erudite listeners present. But just as surely the audience was probably at least one-third casual concert-goers, the sort of people who go to the symphony because that's what you do when you're upper middle class. Those people couldn't tell Gould from Schnabel or Richter if he didn't bring his little kitchen chair. It's clear from the video, though, that Bernstein wouldn't have given a lesser artist the same interpretive berth. So again coming back to my main point above, I think it really boils down to artistic stature and standing. I also think the top pro conductors and artists know one another's predilections. So maybe a HIP violinist doesn't actively seek out a conductor who thinks HIP is rubbish and vice versa. Otherwise my guess is that if they are meeting for the first time they work out their differences (this would seem to be a matter of the most basic level of professionalism). But just as ties go to the runner, the soloist ultimately holds sway. At the freeway-phil level my guess is that conductors give their soloists a lot of latitude because the audience is not going to be very picky and possibly even some of the solists choices may be driven by technical limitations.

Freeway-phil conductor: Paganini 16 is usually faster.
Third-tier soloist: But then my intonation will suffer.
Freeway-phil conductor: Okay. Slower is fine.
January 8, 2019, 7:37 AM · In this video that was cited earlier with Ida Haendel, Ashkenazy shows himself to be a total asshole, pardon my French!
January 8, 2019, 2:27 PM · I thought Ida Haendal handled the situation extremely well and professionally.
January 8, 2019, 3:20 PM · Why exactly, Jean?

I think he was noticing that Ida was not in time. I don't know what piece they were playing, so I can't have an opinion of whether that's true or not. What piece was that, by the way?

Yeah, Paul, of course this question applies to top tier musicians, when they not only can play a piece beautifully or have very strong ideas and have confidence conducting, but also are so good that can change and play pieces as they are told. These questions don't apply to medium-professional musicians or lower level because they are simply fighting (conductor as well) to play it correctly. Don't even ask that you'd like this here or there, thank God the piece is sounding good.

In a 2h rehearsal you can't work at all in a piece deeply, you rehearse until it's good enough because you have more concerts and pieces.

January 8, 2019, 3:20 PM · Why exactly, Jean?

I think he was noticing that Ida was not in time. I don't know what piece they were playing, so I can't have an opinion of whether that's true or not. What piece was that, by the way?

Yeah, Paul, of course this question applies to top tier musicians, when they not only can play a piece beautifully or have very strong ideas and have confidence conducting, but also are so good that can change and play pieces as they are told. These questions don't apply to medium-professional musicians or lower level because they are simply fighting (conductor as well) to play it correctly. Don't even ask that you'd like this here or there, thank God the piece is sounding good.

In a 2h rehearsal you can't work at all in a piece deeply, you rehearse until it's good enough because you have more concerts and pieces.

January 8, 2019, 3:20 PM · Why exactly, Jean?

I think he was noticing that Ida was not in time. I don't know what piece they were playing, so I can't have an opinion of whether that's true or not. What piece was that, by the way?

Yeah, Paul, of course this question applies to top tier musicians, when they not only can play a piece beautifully or have very strong ideas and have confidence conducting, but also are so good that can change and play pieces as they are told. These questions don't apply to medium-professional musicians or lower level because they are simply fighting (conductor as well) to play it correctly. Don't even ask that you'd like this here or there, thank God the piece is sounding good.

In a 2h rehearsal you can't work at all in a piece deeply, you rehearse until it's good enough because you have more concerts and pieces.

January 8, 2019, 4:39 PM · The answer to the original question is that professionals, regardless of the discipline, have a skill and interest in avoiding overt conflict. If you've ever been to a real courtroom, for instance, you rarely see the kind of aggressive behavior portrayed on TV--defense, prosecutors, judges: they all have to work together every day. So they know how to get what they want, usually in a relatively discreet way.

Same with musicians at a professional level. They negotiate in a professional manner. No one wants to make a scene in front of an orchestra. People who are like that seldom make it anywhere. In any professional situation.

"What happens if you tell the soloist to play it like that and the soloist says "that's not how you play it"

That doesn't happen in professional situations. Even young soloists quickly learn the culture quickly. Most of them have been surrounded by it their whole life anyway so they know how to act.

It's called simply acting like a grownup.

January 8, 2019, 5:15 PM · Acting professional is more of a goal than a reality...

January 8, 2019, 7:33 PM · Chris, "telling someone to accompany them correctly" won't go down well no matter who it is. In sonatas you work together and make suggestions/requests.
January 8, 2019, 7:51 PM · They say Heifetz sometimes sat at the piano and *showed* his accompanist how he wanted something. Probably very respectfully though, after all that's easier (for him) and clearer than saying it words.
January 8, 2019, 8:08 PM · Paul N, your statement is not true: "of course this question applies to top tier musicians, when they not only can play a piece beautifully or have very strong ideas and have confidence conducting, but also are so good that can change and play pieces as they are told. These questions don't apply to medium-professional musicians or lower level because they are simply fighting (conductor as well) to play it correctly. Don't even ask that you'd like this here or there, thank God the piece is sounding good."

With the exception of students, amateurs, and the occasional professional musician who normally never plays solo with orchestra (music teachers doing a guest gig with a community orchestra once every few years or even once in a lifetime) -- i.e. people who are not usually being paid to appear as a soloist with orchestra -- no professional soloist is fighting to play the work correctly. It doesn't matter whether they're a household name or not. People who get engaged to play as a soloist are generally going to give pretty technically immaculate performances and have some degree of flexibility in how they play.

Similarly, professional orchestras can pretty much do what a conductor tells them to, but whether or not it's doable within the constraints of available rehearsal time is a separate question.

And even a less-skilled orchestra that has hired a soloist -- for instance, youth symphonies and community orchestras -- will generally accommodate whatever it is that the soloist wants to do. Thoughtful soloists will try not to push tempi to the point beyond the technical abilities of whatever orchestra they are playing with, but on a practical basis, these orchestras also tend to choose concertos that are readily within the orchestra's technical abilities anyway.

As Scott noted, people behave like grown-ups.

January 8, 2019, 8:09 PM · Chris, a sonata is a collaboration between violin and pianist, just like a quartet is a collaboration between four people. Consequently, disagreements are negotiated thoughtfully. Consideration for one's musical partners is an important part of ensuring that one continues to have such partners in the future.
Edited: January 9, 2019, 1:40 AM · In all the time I've played in orchestras, I've seen conductors ask soloists to change anything during a rehearsal on exactly two occasions.

One of those times, the soloist was a 7-year-old pianist who had won an age-group concerto competition, and had never played with an orchestra before. There, it was appropriate because it was educational.

The other time, the soloist was a top-tier pro who made several solo appearances per year (principal player in a major orchestra), but it was justified by unusual circumstances, namely venue acoustics. He was asked to retard more before launching into a faster passage, in order to allow the conductor to indicate the new tempo with an up-beat. This was because the principal flute and oboe players happened to be sitting in an acoustic dead spot where they could barely hear the soloist at all, and rearranging the stage was not an option.

Other than that, the conductor generally tries to follow the soloist's interpretation -- even when the soloist is an amateur and normally a member of the orchestra. If rehearsal time is limited, presumably the conductor and soloist discuss in advance.

January 9, 2019, 4:37 AM · Paul N. it is the slow movement of the Sibelius violin concerto. if you continue watching the movie, how he treats her backstage, what an asshole. and about the passage in question, in such cases the conductor always follows the soloist, but he keeps on beating triples like a clown. he also seemed not to have studied this concerto enough. of course like you say Haendel remained top professional. I actually wonder how she is doing these days. she is over 90 now and no longer touring I guess (she kept touring until well in to her 80s).
January 9, 2019, 5:59 AM · Indeed, yes, I know... was just trying to point out that the Classical sonata started off with the piano in the lead role and the violin (or other instrument) pretty much secondary!
Edited: January 9, 2019, 11:15 AM · One of my two favorite video performances of Beethoven's Kreutzer, a sonata in which the violin and piano are treated on equal terms, giving some inkling of what it would have been like if Beethoven had composed it as a double concerto:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OF9fneQ50Us

January 9, 2019, 1:54 PM · I presume there must be a lot of drama between Bernstein and Gould behind the scene.
January 9, 2019, 2:55 PM · There's at least one case where disagreement betwixt soloist and conductor made the career of the soloist.

Pianist Vladimir Horowitz on his 1928 NY Philharmonic debut with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting:

'Also,' said Horowitz, 'he conducted the Tchaikovsky without a score - and he did not know the score so well. His tempos were so slow I thought I would die. But who was I, an unknown, scared Jewish boy from Kiev, to argue with the great Sir Thomas Beecham?'

Came the concert. Sir Thomas conducted the overture, Horowitz recalled, and, because of some of his usual energetic gestures, Sir Thomas managed to snap his suspenders. He had to conduct holding up his trousers with one hand. That did not help his mood for the concerto, which followed.

'You think the rehearsal was slow?' Mr. Horowitz would say. 'The performance was even slower. While I was playing I looked at the audience. Everybody was going to sleep. I figured that this was the end of my American career.'

So Horowitz, deciding he had nothing to lose, started the piano's entrance in the last movement at his tempo. He took off like the thoroughbred he was, and the startled Sir Thomas had no choice but to try to follow him. Horowitz remembered that they ended 'nearly' together. At least one critic, Olin Downes, knew exactly what had been going on, and The Times the next day carried his rave review about this new 'Cossack from the Steppes.'

Horowitz was saved, but he carried a grudge against Sir Thomas, whom he called 'a bad colleague.' Several years later he was in London to play the Tchaikovsky. He entered the hall for the first rehearsal and who was on the podium? Yes. Horowitz said that he stopped dead. Should he walk out? Sir Thomas grinned and loudly said, 'Librarian! The score!' Horowitz broke into laughter and they went on with their business. This time the accompaniment was excellent.

from NY Times article by HAROLD C. SCHONBERG, NOV. 12, 1989

January 10, 2019, 7:08 PM · The orchestra can normally tell.
In the performance, the orchestra will normally follow the soloist.
The exception is an incompetent soloist. I once did a Mendelssohn 1 Piano Concerto with one of them - she was dropping notes all over the place.
We stayed with the conductor (Jack Thompson) who did a marvelous job.
On one occasion, we had a really duff conductor.
Comment (loudly) from one orchestra member
"If this silly ****** doesn't shut up, I'll PLAY on his ****** beat"


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