What does a conductor do?

This is one of the most common questions that I have been asked over many years. If anyone else has had difficulty in giving an adequate/eloquent response may I humbly suggest the answer is here - see the link.

If anyone asks in the future you could save this link to pass on - it saves a heck of a lot of explanation.

https://youtu.be/2L85eTSWrmg

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  • I will just point out that the 99% rehearsal skill part of conducting genius isn't a part of the live performance, so asking someone from the audience what they enjoyed about the concert and expecting them to refer to this backend work is rather nonsensical.

  • Couldn't agree more Greg, it would be nonsensical. I would however expect a reasonably coherent appreciation of the music rather than 'How lovely it was to watch the conductor's eyebrows twitch' - it's not what we 'highbrows' would do, is it (intentional pun, by the way).

    Stephen

    Greg Brus said:

    I will just point out that the 99% rehearsal skill part of conducting genius isn't a part of the live performance, so asking someone from the audience what they enjoyed about the concert and expecting them to refer to this backend work is rather nonsensical.

    What does a conductor do?
    This is one of the most common questions that I have been asked over many years. If anyone else has had difficulty in giving an adequate/eloquent res…
  • A highly informative documentary following one outstanding conductor. However, for me, it misses one of the crucial elements of the preparation. Before taking the podium there can be hours, days and months spent just reading the score. Not just the notes, but the dynamic, learning where bar numbers are, what elements comprise the tune or harmony, the musical punctuation, the very essence of the piece itself. Of course, a documentary about someone sitting reading a book isn't visually exciting so we push it aside.

    The visual cues given by various conductors can, of course, provide great entertainment in themselves. A raised eyebrow, a twitch of the elbow, a glance or glare all provide a bizarre portrait to the audience. When you're on the receiving end, it's a whole different ball game. As a performer, I relish these cues. They allow me to take the written notes and become the part. It facilitates a feeling of intimacy, understanding and belonging that can rarely be experienced (legally) in a public place!

    I never cease to be impressed when a conductor comes in for the first rehearsal, sometimes the first time I've seen my part, and they already know every dot, every barline, every expression intimately throughout. They already have the entire piece framed. But not just that internalisation. They know how to share that vision and mould the orchestra and/or choir to produce their interpretation from the very outset of a rehearsal.

    A conductor is the heart of an ensemble. The conductor is the source of a performance, the 'essence' of the music. The orchestra/choir is a single symbiotic instrument (with many moving parts) that is played by the conductor to create a whole.

  • Indeed. The preparatory work undertaken by Solti is evident from the first frames of the video - he knows every single element of the score without having to refer to it.

    In the 1970s the BBC Concert Orchestra used to perform the live broadcast programme 'Friday Night Is Music Night' with numerous guest conductors throughout the season (occasionally I had the pleasure of joining them as a 'guest' horn player). The method used by the orchestra to let the conductor know how highly or not he was thought of by the players was quite subtle but horrendous and frightening for the 'poor' conductor. If he was OK we'd play the National Anthem commencing on his downbeat - if below average we'd wait until he'd reached the second beat before commencing - if very poor we'd not play until he'd reached the third beat - in the context of a live broadcast that's a very long time indeed for the conductor to wait - many of whom had 'kittens' and looked ashen grey with the fear of a total breakdown. Cruel, I know, but very effective.

    Graeme Helliwell said:

    A highly informative documentary following one outstanding conductor. However, for me, it misses one of the crucial elements of the preparation. Before taking the podium there can be hours, days and months spent just reading the score. Not just the notes, but the dynamic, learning where bar numbers are, what elements comprise the tune or harmony, the musical punctuation, the very essence of the piece itself. Of course, a documentary about someone sitting reading a book isn't visually exciting so we push it aside.

    The visual cues given by various conductors can, of course, provide great entertainment in themselves. A raised eyebrow, a twitch of the elbow, a glance or glare all provide a bizarre portrait to the audience. When you're on the receiving end, it's a whole different ball game. As a performer, I relish these cues. They allow me to take the written notes and become the part. It facilitates a feeling of intimacy, understanding and belonging that can rarely be experienced (legally) in a public place!

    I never cease to be impressed when a conductor comes in for the first rehearsal, sometimes the first time I've seen my part, and they already know every dot, every barline, every expression intimately throughout. They already have the entire piece framed. But not just that internalisation. They know how to share that vision and mould the orchestra and/or choir to produce their interpretation from the very outset of a rehearsal.

    A conductor is the heart of an ensemble. The conductor is the source of a performance, the 'essence' of the music. The orchestra/choir is a single symbiotic instrument (with many moving parts) that is played by the conductor to create a whole.

    What does a conductor do?
    This is one of the most common questions that I have been asked over many years. If anyone else has had difficulty in giving an adequate/eloquent res…
  • Music was never meant to be this intense!?!?

    Music is all about being intense, over the top, powerful, beautiful, inspiring, soft, lovely, and much more. If it isn't, then why bother. Solti and the musicians ARE having fun. As a piano player you probably don't play in a large group very often, if at all. When you play piano by yourself, you are doing the same thing Solti is. That means trying to put the most into what you are playing. If you are just playing notes on a page, you are not making music. You have to do something with the notes. The notes on the page mean nothing until you bring them to life. Not by what you play, but how you play it. Do you really believe that the little techniques of how you caress the keys while you play are unnecessary and over the top subtleties? All of those things are how you let the music be music.
  • OK, Saul. I missed the "cold cut aristocratic academia" comment. That explains everything. classical music was never intended for the average listener. It was written for and paid for by upper class, and royalty. "Aristocrats" if you will. The fact that anyone can listen to it today is due in large part to science. Although there is nothing like a live performance. Better yet, being in the group playing.

  • An interesting opinion it is too. Musical notation is an imperfect medium for expressing musical thoughts - it therefore needs to be interpreted by a performer (be they player or conductor). If, in an orchestra of, say 100 performers, they all interpret the notes differently then chaos would ensue...which is why we need a conductor. He/she interprets the music and passes that interpretation on to the performers - then everything boils down to communication - how well does the conductor convey his/her thoughts to the performers, either through words or gestures or an admixture of both? My post is all about how well Solti communicates with the players and I, for what it's worth, think he does so brilliantly.

    Stephen

  • I see that my reply on Tuesday was somewhat truncated due to a problem I'm having with being unable to edit my posts.

    This is what I meant to have included:

    Indeed. The preparatory work undertaken by Solti is evident from the first frames of the video - he knows every single element of the score without having to refer to it.
    In the 1970s the BBC Concert Orchestra used to perform the live broadcast programme 'Friday Night Is Music Night' with numerous guest conductors throughout the season (occasionally I had the pleasure of joining them as a 'guest' horn player). The players used a very subtle method of letting the conductor know what they thought of him, his interpretation of the music, and his rehearsal technique. If he was OK they would start the National Anthem (the programmes always finished with this) on the first beat of the bar. If below average on the second beat - and if he/she was awful they wouldn't commence playing until the conductor has reached the third beat of the bar....a long time in a live broadcast and I've seen conductors go ashen with panic when faced with this response.

    The first people to know how good/bad a conductor is are the performers.

  • Saul: "I think that he is a perfectionist, and I generally am not very fond of perfectionists."

    This explains an awful lot.

  • Bob,

    I agree that Solti was one of the greats.  I lived in Chicago during part of his tenure.  But when you get to this level of performance, a major symphony orchestra, you expect greatness from any conductor.  So why are not all symphony performances of equal quality?  Why do some conductors of great renown take some passages too fast, too slow, too artsy?  The short answer, because they are jerks.  It comes down to personality. 

    No matter how great a conductor thinks he is, he must, for the sake of the art, swallow his ego and be subservient to the composer.  I'm not interested in a conductor's interpretation of a piece so much as an honest interpretation of what the composer intended.  If a metronome marking is 80, I expect to hear that tempo, not 100.  But part of the problem of interpretation is that much of classical music has been played so often that a conductor gets bored and tries to breathe new life into a piece.  The answer there is perform more new music, so you won't be bored.  If a conductor is bored of a piece probably his audience will be as well. 

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