Power of decision: soloists vs conductors

Edited: June 21, 2019, 9:34 AM · Hi, I am curious about what happens when a soloist wants a tempo for a violin concerto, and the conductor really thinks that's just too fast or too slow. Will normally the conductor adapt to the soloist or viceversa?

Of course, if both soloist and conductor are very, mmmm, "kind", generous?, ready or minded to give up their own interpretation and thoughts on a piece and adapt to "whatever" the other says, then there would be no problem, but one could say this means they lack personality, specially for the conductor, which is supposed to have the last word and conduct the same thing in one direction.

In the other hand, if you, as a conductor, know, feel and reason a very specific tempo for a violin concerto, say 105-115 bpm, and a soloist says it should be 90 bpm, or 130 bpm, how they work that out?

Specially in Vivaldi, where there are many "allegro" pieces that are played by some like a slow moderato, and by others like a real fast allegro. This question just came up to my mind because I was right now listening to Hahn play Mendelssohn in a recent live concert and it was way too fast, and I though: God, this is so fast, Hahn nails this concerto, what happened that day?

What about orchestra members? Don't they have a voice?
But why should the wood wind section had to say anything about a violin concerto?
Well, may be they could riot and don't play since "it's not their concert". Life is so complex, hahahaha.

Replies (21)

Edited: June 21, 2019, 9:40 AM · It's happened before.
Like this
June 21, 2019, 9:49 AM · Also, as someone with a degree in Composition, we were actually taught by the composition faculty that if you had an issue with how your piece was being played in rehearsal, you told the conductor (preferably in private) - not the orchestra.

As an orchestral player, you have no say at all in the interpretation of a performance*(at least if you want to keep your gig).

*N.B. There are ways of changing things - if the entire section agrees. As a former trombonist, we learned the trick of always playing quietly in rehearsals, with the conductor always asking for more. That way we could play as loud as we wanted in the actual concert, with the conductor smiling the whole time.

Edited: June 21, 2019, 9:53 AM · Wow, impressive words by Bernstein, now I'm speechless.

"*N.B. There are ways of changing things - if the entire section agrees. As a former trombonist, we learned the trick of always playing quietly in rehearsals, with the conductor always asking for more. That way we could play as loud as we wanted in the actual concert, with the conductor smiling the whole time."

Hahahahaha, you made me spill the water all over the table! Glorious!

June 21, 2019, 10:59 AM · The soloist should always call the tune. At a rehearsal for Brahms's first piano concerto our ancient conductor beat the opening tutti at a snail's pace (quizzical looks were exchanged in the orchestra) until the soloist, John Lill, got up from his chair to have a quiet word with him. The rehearsal subsequently went at a fine tempo, but then at the performance...
Edited: June 21, 2019, 12:37 PM · Thanks Steve. Wow, did that really make John to get up and talk to him?
Did John played a lot at that time with your orchestra or was he simply passing by?
Sounds reckless to me, in front of all the orchestra, hahahaha. I mean, unless the conductor is clearly out of his/her mind, they are human and can make mistakes.

Hahahaha, what happened at the performance?
I imagine the same slow tempo, and suddenly see the pianist get up and interrupt the whole thing, talk to the conductor, and suddenly notice the tempo way faster. That would be so epic to see!
Just as epic as John's face if the conductor accepts to rehearse at John's suggestion and then perform as the initial slow tempo, hahahahaha, priceless.

Edited: June 21, 2019, 1:31 PM · Tempo is dictated by the soloist.

Orchestra members have absolutely no input whatsoever into tempo of any piece. If a conductor is wildly off from the usual and expected tempo, the concertmaster may have a quiet word, or the soloist will speak up in case of a concerto.

How fast is too fast? I find it hard to believe Hilary Hahn would choose an inappropriate tempo. I am listening to one of her Mendelssohn performances on Youtube right now and she is squarely in the ballpark of standard tempo.

I once turned on the radio mid-performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. It was breathtakingly fast, faster than I'd ever heard it, and absolutely pristine. I said to myself, that has to be Heifetz. And indeed it was.

Edited: June 21, 2019, 2:07 PM · Thank you Mary Ellen, your answer was clear and to the point. About Hilary Hahn, I was, like you, hahaha, listening to the radio and the Mendelssohn was being played by Hahn, and I read in the title (yeah, I could see what was being played) that it was live, I suppose from a recent concert somewhere because they normally broadcast recent concerts, like from 5 months ago maximum. I didn't listen to the whole thing, may be 2 minutes, because I was interrupted, but it was the first movement, mostly the orchestra was playing, it's that part where the soloist does not play. And I noticed a real fast tempo. Could have been an hallucination? Could, but I don't think so, hahahaha.

Or, or, now that I think about it, the past week I went to a concert and I listened to the Mendelssohn. May be they played it slowly and I got that tempo stuck in my head?

June 21, 2019, 1:59 PM · wondering why this question is so important to you, or what answer you're looking for that you didn't get the first time? https://www.violinist.com/discussion/thread.cfm?page=2459
Edited: June 21, 2019, 2:13 PM · Yes, Irene, but notice how now I'm mostly talking about the tempo, not other things. A tempo is a way more specific thing than what we were talking about there, like "playing with passion" or "romantically". I vaguely remember I even created that thread although I knew I asked some time ago something like that. I'm interested in both topics, tempo and interpretations, and you surely understand that we can talk forever about things like these.

But yeah, the answer to your question is tempo, here I'm only talking about tempo, the other time I did not mention even once the word tempo.

June 21, 2019, 2:56 PM · The soloist has the final decision on tempo, though the conductor may try to have a word if the soloist's tempo is extreme.

Sometimes soloists may be more accommodating. One of the funniest rehearsal moments of my most recent orchestra season was when we had a pianist/composer performing his own piano concerto. At an abrupt tempo change, the pianist asked our conductor how fast he was going to take it. Our conductor answered: "Go talk to the composer!"

June 21, 2019, 4:42 PM · Yeah, I can imagine it was really funny, and clever, hahahaha.
June 21, 2019, 6:14 PM · I could write a book about this very subject!

Chapter 1: Beethoven concerto, first movement. The conductor began it at such a funereal tempo that my manager ran into the lobby of the concert hall to breathe into a paper bag.

Chapter 2: Sibelius concerto (all) - the conductor missed every transition and tempo change, so I swayed like a metronomic needle while 80 pairs of eyes remained on me.

Chapter 3: Brahms concerto 1st movement, coming out of the cadenza - not entirely sure if the conductor knew that Brahms wrote this movement in 3...

That being said, this is not representative of all conductors!

June 21, 2019, 7:54 PM · I'm getting som deja vu here...
June 21, 2019, 8:02 PM · Yes, sorry Paul, as I explained, here I only talk about tempo, while in the other I didn't mentioned even once the word tempo. It's funny how some of you remember very well that post, and I, that created and read all the answers for sure, wasn't really sure.

So, here: tempo. It's a way more technical thing, and can be challenging in some passages if you suddenly go from 110 bpm to 121 bpm. A measurable thing.
The other: interpretation, meaning dynamics, intensity, style... you can't really measure baroque style vs classical, or with passion vs sweet but loud.

June 22, 2019, 1:00 AM · You can't just separate tempo on its own like that, only a technical element. I'd say it is always the first stylistic decision you make about the music and that drives the rest of the interpretation.

You say you heard the Mendelssohn played fast, that it was too much or whatever. I say it's usually played too slow, overplaying every phrase so that you are absolutely exhausted/bored listening at the end. Same with Brahms concerto, the opening sounds comical if you play it slow, it's just too heavy and loses momentum.

Luckily we have many performers so everyone gets to hear their tempo

June 22, 2019, 2:28 AM · In performance a soloist can't just bluntly "correct" the conductor if he starts off too fast or slow. There are subtle and musical ways of moulding the tempo to something more like what was originally intended without making it sound like crashing the gears, and that's what John Lill was rather good at.

He was (probably still is) president of my orchestra and put up with a lot over the years. When he's on the platform the usual pecking order (with conductor top dog, to mix my metaphor) goes by the board and JL has no compunction about telling us (with visible irritation) if we're not up to scratch. That wouldn't be possible if it weren't a "family" relationship.

The present conductor is a lot more alert to following JL's and other soloist's lead, but I noticed one time when I was in the audience for Rach 3 that the orchestra were still consistently behind the piano. A really good conductor (sorry Brian) will anticipate rather than follow the soloist, and a good orchestra won't just follow the beat. But of course those at the back playing loud instruments must rely solely on the beat when they can't properly hear what's going on.

June 22, 2019, 4:52 PM · Sometimes it is good to mix metaphors: I would not want to have to call it barking order. Nor biting order.

As to the original question: The rules are clear. But in practice they won't always be followed exactly. Example: Karajan and very young Anne Sophie Mutter. He took her under his wing and I would be surprised if he didn't try to give her more guidance than the rules would allow.

June 22, 2019, 5:05 PM · The answer is that everyone behaves like professionals, and keeps their ears open. People match each other the way they would in chamber music, ideally. And soloists figure out how to clearly indicate they want a faster or slower tempo. (If you are learning major concertos, this is something your teacher should be showing you how to do for spots with tricky tempo transitions.) Communication is also important for ritards, any place where the soloist intends to take a little time, etc.
Edited: June 23, 2019, 1:57 PM · When I was in college, I did the first movement with the school orchestra and a conductor who was neither a good accompanist nor a string player: never consulted me until tempi had been baked in during rehearsals, and had a few weird ideas about what was “traditional”.

Anyway, he wanted to start in what seemed to me a very slow tempo, certainly not one I could do rubato around without risking collapse. Finally, as we were going onstage for the concert, I cornered the timpanist, with whom I was friendly, and made him promise to start at my tempo. The rest of the band followed him just fine.

June 26, 2019, 11:16 AM · Surely tempo basics are agreed between the soloist and conductor beforehand? Yes, normally the soloist dictates. The Mendelssohn is mentioned - the last movement in particular is a so-and-so for the flutes, so the conductor may request the soloist's speed accommodates them.Lydia's got it spot on - the orchestra listens to the soloist. In extremis, the orchestra will follow the concertmaster(leader).
Not involving a soloist, I was once on the front desk (doing a trial) in Meistersingers when the conductor wanted to pull it around - a lot! And the leader was determined he wasn't going to. Fun!
Edited: June 26, 2019, 12:08 PM · Thanks Malcolm - you just reminded me of a performance of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for strings in which the leader (who of course has a lot of solo material to play in conjunction with a solo quartet) was generally regarded as having a more distinguished musical pedigree than the conductor and wasn't reluctant to pull rank. He stuck doggedly to his slower tempo, the conductor gave way and the result was a stodgy and lifeless performance. There's only room for one boss.

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