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We all know that conductors are necessary, even desirable; individuals who can bring together a vast symphony orchestra, uniting them in a sweeping interpretation of a great work.
We also know that they would look silly conducting chamber music.
What we may not know is the size of musical group that can survive, and even flourish, without a conductor.
And we don't know what orchestral players think of the conductor as he (or, increasingly, she) cavorts in front of them.
In an attempt to redress that balance, below are some thoughts from Ambache players on performing with a conductor, and without.Where necessary, names of individual conductors have been edited out to save us money in the courts...
Contents of this page:
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1. PERFORMING WITH A CONDUCTOR
"I remember a conductor, now thankfully retired, who rehearsed an orchestra I was in with a kind of glazed look in his eye. I eventually realised that he was listening to the 'ideal' version of the music in his head. All would be fine as long as what we were playing roughly corresponded to his inner version, but if there was a significant disparity a pained look would come over his face and he would stop. Then he would tell us to do something different, and off we would go again, the morale of the orchestra dropping a little each time." Jeremy Polmear, oboe
"The job of a conductor is to convey a burning conviction to an orchestra and to liberate the players to a point where they can express that conviction with passion and commitment. Nikolaus Harnoncourt did that for me one day when he had a difficult request for the horn section. He looked at us and said 'I'd like you to take enormous risks - in fact I'd like there to be a fifty-fifty chance of it going wrong in the concert. Furthermore, if it does go wrong in the concert I shall give thanks to God because I'll know you are trying'. He then explained to the orchestra his philosophy that 'Beauty lies on the borderline between security and catastrophe'. The most succinct job description for an artist I have ever heard. Too many conductors settle for beating time, or beating musicians." Stephen Stirling, horn
"Shostakovitch, in his memoirs 'about other people', relates that
'...in general, conductors aren't the bravest men on earth. I've had
many opportunities to confirm this opinion. They're brave when it comes
to yelling at an orchestra, but when someone yells at them, their knees
"The orchestral world would be much better if a conductor had as much
technique as any of the players that s/he is directing. After all, we
wouldn't expect to work AT ALL if we couldn't play our instruments
(or even at anything less than around a 98% accuracy level), but this
doesn't prevent many conductors wielding authority without some of the
basic skills of stick (baton) technique. I recall the comments addressed
to highly paid conductors - ' 'ere Maestro, call that a bleedin'
dahnbeat?' and 'if you're going to CONDUCT with your eyes closed,
I'm going to PLAY with my eyes closed!'. And then there's the famous
orchestral epithet, 'never look up!' (i.e... at the conductor, implying
that -- It's too confusing, you're doing fine on your own).
"Wouldn't it be good if more conductors were enablers rather than petty dictators?" Marcia Crayford, violin
"A third rate conductor tries to control what's happening; a second rate conductor follows what's happening without getting in the way too much; and a great conductor conducts what is about to happen. A fantastic conductor gives you the freedom to listen, makes big demands on you, but doesn't stifle you. And a really clear beat helps enormously! One of the most upsetting things is to do a concert with a poor conductor - getting through it by the skin of your teeth, eyes locked on your section leader - and then read a review by a respected critic comparing the conductor to Karajan!" Judith Herbert, cello
"One of the worst experiences is where a conductor listens to what you're doing - and then asks you to do it that way! It's as if they can't allow you your own musicianship, but have to take it for themselves." Ruth Ehrlich, violin
"In physics, a conductor is a transmitter of energy. In music, unfortunately, too many of them are more like black holes, sucking in the energy of an orchestra and not letting anything out..." Catherine Musker, viola
"I remember a performance of Mendlessohn's Reformation Symphony. It was going rather well - good musical things were beginning to happen in the orchestra - when the conductor suddenly put his baton down and glared at us for a few seconds. I realised that what was annoying him was that we had been doing it, and not him. I lost respect for that man that day, because he thought himself more important than the composer." Tony Catterick, horn
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2. PERFORMING WITHOUT A CONDUCTOR
"I tend to be very narrow minded when playing in an orchestra. I listen to myself, to the people right next to me, to the person behind me, and that's about it unless there's a very obvious cue elsewhere in the orchestra. When there is no conductor, this technique doesn't work - I am forced to listen to everybody in order to participate properly. The effect is that I take a much more holistic view of the music we are playing and the people I am playing with - and it's much more fun!" Jeremy Polmear, oboe
"With smaller groups, the player feels a more valued and a creative contributor if there is no conductor. If the player is given the responsibility to make most of the many judgements per second needed to achieve a unified and 'musical' concert their self-esteem as musicians, as opposed to being mere technicians, is greatly enhanced. As Dr Rached Daoud put it, 'the stifling of creativity in an orchestral player can be seriously injurious to health'." Brian Sewell, bassoon
"You feel naked! Without a conductor, things are definitely more dangerous, more capable of coming unstuck. But at the same time, it's more exciting too. Perhaps it's because you have to make things work directly, with your instrument - there's no intermediary. So your experience of the music is much more direct, more immediate. I hope that comes across to the audience." Martin Outram, viola
"When there's no conductor there's an extra satisfaction - it's not just about being a willing contributor to someone else's creative process, but actually knowing that you are part of the engine." Stephen Stirling, horn"More is demanded of you - you are more responsible. But in a way there is less stress, because your responsibility is to respond to what you hear, to go with your musical instincts, and not spend the time trying to fit with a beat that doesn't seem to correspond to what's actually going on." Judith Herbert, cello
"When you rehearse together, you are among friends. There's no one out to get you. Then when you perform, you try and draw the audience into that circle of friendship, too." Tony Catterick, horn
"For me, it's the quality of the listening. When we're all in a receptive and responsive mode, the musical conversation is mutual and the music-making is alive, spontaneous and truthful." Diana Ambache, piano
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3. A CONDUCTOR RESPONDS
From Juan Ballesteros, Spain
I have read your ideas about how a rehearsal and an orchestra performance without conductor should be and I have thought a lot about the pros and cons. Maybe I am not too objective in my value judgement because I am a conductor myself. At the first time, I felt a little bit irritating but now this doubt becomes a deep analysis of your ideas. I totally agree with you, at least from the point of view that you explained.
In all this years I have noticed that a lot of conductors are not very professional. It seems to me that they feel that with the power of their baton they are the only ones that are able to understand music and to give the "right" interpretation of a work. Being a conductor myself this could sound weird but I try to get away from this "dark part" of my job. Music is always above all this matter so we must stay together in these opinions in order to be close to the perfect interpretation, if it exists.
In Spanish conductor is translated as conductor what also means driver and I personally think that this is its real function: just to help and not to do a gesture show, useless in most of the cases. Usually the handicap to conduct is hidden with bad attitudes towards the orchestra, the other possibility is that conductors could have a bad attitude because they have a great talent and a deep knowledge of the technique what it makes them to behave as an overbearing person, what is worse.
To conclude, that is the reason why I am writing to you, because from the point of view of a conductor I think you are right, although not every conductor is like that. What it is very sad is that just a few conductors are good ones, so your words are necessary in this world.
Juan F. Ballesteros (Orchestral Conductor)
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4. WHAT OUR AUDIENCES THINK
"It occurred to me that if anyone should ever question your strategy of playing without a conductor, the performance of Bartok's Divertimento provided the final, and definitive, rationale. Everyone played their hearts out, and the principals were extraordinary. It was so powerful having the music speaking directly from player to listener. It is as if the conductor acts as noise in an electrical circuit. Without the noise, the listeners receive the music as it left the composer's head and the performer's instruments, undistorted." Brian Shearing
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5. EXAMPLES OF EFFECTIVE MUSICAL LEADERSHIP
"If you could see him... watching over everything and bringing back to the rhythm and the beat out of thirty or even forty musicians, the one with a nod, another by tapping with his foot, the third with a warning finger, giving the right note to one from the top of his voice, to another from the bottom, and to a third from the middle of it - all alone, in the midst of the greatest din made by all the participants, and, although he is executing the most difficult parts himself, noticing at once whenever and wherever a mistake occurs, holding everyone together, taking precautions everywhere, and repairing any unsteadiness, full of rhythm in every part of his body - this one man taking in all these harmonies with his keen ear and emitting with his voice alone the tone of all the voices." Johann Matthias Gesner, rector of the St Thomas School 1730-34, on J S Bach in rehearsal
"You have to pay attention at every moment. Maestro Temirkanov is so soft-spoken and so focused, you can literally hear a pin drop during rehearsals. If you're watching from the auditorium, it doesn't look as though he's doing anything very much, but if you sat in the orchestra with us, you'd see the conversation we have and the way he brings his tradition and experience to every player. What's really amazing - for someone who says almost nothing - is the autonomy he gives us as musicians. We have a lot of freedom. He allows us to play the way we hear the music, and to bring our own backgrounds to it. Just by the way his eyes change, he gives us an extraordinary amount of encouragement. We all feel that."
John Locke, percussionist in the Baltimore Symphony, as quoted in the Independent, November 2001.
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