Shall We Dance?
I recently read that when the conductor stands on the podium they should imagine the composer standing next to them. The conductor is the mouthpiece for the departed creators and has to be their passionate advocate. This means that the conductor must have taken the time to look past the notes on the page and imbibe the spirit of the work. Learning and dissecting the score is simply the means to achieve this; after all, as Gustav Mahler said, everything of real importance cannot be notated.
Most orchestral musicians don’t have time to do the kind of analysis we have been discussing. They are too busy dealing with the physicality of playing the notes and trying to be musical with their own part to dissect the piece and be aware of an odd five-bar phrase or that a particular chord is a structural fulcrum and requires certain emphasis. The conductor is unburdened in this regard. The gestures I might use to communicate with the orchestra are a natural response, in the moment. They are not pre-planned or practiced (though sometimes, with a complex score, I may imagine cueing the necessary instruments, or I may go over tricky time-changes by beating them.) The gestures stem from my idea of the piece, which has been built through the methods of score study described, and then spontaneously happen as the musicians play.
Division of Labor
So, why does the orchestra need the conductor anyway? They’re all professional musicians. Can’t they count and just play by themselves?
Well, firstly, no they can’t. One of the reasons conductors became necessary was that as the orchestra grew with the advent of new instruments, the sheer number of players meant it was physically impossible for everyone to see and hear all the other players. So, the conductor began life just by keeping the group together. There was no ‘canon’ of music with hallowed pieces to be reverentially interpreted; they just lumbered through the latest piece that Beethoven, or whoever else, finished yesterday. Then it was on to the next thing!
Nowadays, the conductor’s purview is to know enough about the style, history, and expressive intent, to reach an informed opinion about how the orchestra should approach a certain piece. But even this is a flexible and fluid concept. A good conductor arrives with their preconceived vision for a piece but then responds spontaneously to how the orchestra plays. The ideal is that the orchestra, with its own collective personality, feels fully able to express itself, while the conductor facilitates this and advocates for what they believe the composer wanted. There should be a golden mean point between the two, where each move towards the other. It should be a dance; a process of collaboration, not an autocracy.
Having said that, part of the conductor’s responsibility is to make executive decisions because doing things by consensus simply isn’t practical. In a chamber group like a string quartet, everyone is able to contribute their opinion and ideas about how to interpret the music. But in that case there are only four people. Imagine trying to do that with a hundred people, and then getting them to agree on the hundred or more decisions required to perform any one piece…impossible!
I am often asked if I play every instrument. I do not. Conductors are required to possess knowledge about how the instruments work and to acquire the language to speak to the different instruments in a way that makes sense to them. For instance, I may ask a timpani player (the big kettle-drums) to blur the sound, or I may ask for less resonance and more contact (when the mallet hits the drum head.) Another example is that I might ask the strings, when they are plucking the instruments (called pizzicato), to use the fleshy part of their finger instead of the bony tip, to create a warmer, less penetrating color. I might ask the brass for a mellower tone so that the woodwinds can be easily heard, or I might ask them to brighten it up and then dissipate rapidly, so that their color really pops, like a flare. (None of these finer details can be notated by the way. The conductor is either sensitive to them or not…)
So, as you can see, the conductor must know enough about the instruments to reasonably ask for modifications of a player’s sound. This is simply to better express the overarching artistic conception of the work.
Behind the Notes
One of the things I often say to musicians is that dynamics (the volume) are qualitative not quantitative. What I mean is that the dynamic conveys a certain expressive quality, not just an overall volume level. Soft doesn’t always mean gentle, and loud doesn’t always mean intense. In fact, the inverse can be true.
So, let’s imagine there is an indication in the score to play softly. Here are some questions I ask myself when interpreting:
Is that soft volume calming, like a mother singing her baby to sleep? Or is it intimate, like new lovers canoodling in bed? Or is it intense, like a terrified whisper? Or is it ethereal, like a pale beam of celestial light? Or is it ghostly and disembodied, as if from far away? Is the sound thick, like an enveloping darkness, or is it thin, like a wisp of fog?
Asking these kinds of questions is part of the conductor’s job. The player may or may not have any ideas about the overall expressive intent beyond playing their notes beautifully. The conductor can help in this regard by unifying everyone’s concept; and in this way, the orchestra’s collective energy is focused on communicating the same thing. This can be immensely powerful.