On the podium

Composer and conductor Gustav Mahler.
Composer and conductor Gustav Mahler.

A few days ago someone asked on Quora, the question-and-answer website why an orchestra “needs a conductor, when most of time the conductor seems to be doing nothing.”  It’s a good question, because the role of the orchestral conductor is not widely understood outside the classical music world. Even less so in the rice fields of Isaan, for someone from the region once asked me why “there’s always a man dancing in front of the orchestra”.

The tasks of the conductor depend largely on the type of orchestra. A youth orchestra conductor for example, has much more work than a guest conductor of a professional orchestra. Youth orchestra conductors usually have to select the music, hire the scores and parts, audition the players, book the rehearsal venue and deal with dozens of minor matters. They might even have to set up all the chairs and music stands in the rehearsal hall. And you might detect the voice of experience here. The conductor also has to find time to study the music. Conductor and orchestra might rehearse for many weeks or even months before a concert performance. In contrast, conductors of professional orchestras sometimes have only a few hours rehearsal time available, occasionally even on the day of the concert.

Conductors have many more musical tasks than merely beating time, partly due to the limitations of musical notation. Instructions in the score are usually in Italian and often vague to say the least. Expressions such as “a bit slower” or “gradually getting faster” are quite common. Printed music doesn’t tell you exactly how loudly or how quietly a piece should be played, how short a staccato note should be, or how a musical phrase should be “shaped”. As a result, one of the most challenging tasks in performing music is not necessarily playing the right notes in the right place, but deciding how to play them.

Musical decisions define a performance and it’s the conductor’s job to make them. It takes certain personal qualities to convince the members of a sixty-piece orchestra to “play it my way”. Some conductors manage this with ease, tact and consummate charm. Others are less successful in the personal skills department. There are several well-known conductors who are heartily detested by members of the orchestras they conduct. But as my father used to say, “No names; no pack-drill.”

Competent conductors study the orchestral score for weeks or months before rehearsals begin. The score shows what every instrument in the orchestra is playing (or is supposed to be playing) whereas the players see only their own part. The conductor is expected to know every detail of the score intimately and some conductors, notably Gustavo Dudamel commit the entire score to memory. If, at a concert it looks as though the conductor isn’t doing much, it’s because most of the work has already been done. Even so, at performance the conductor still needs to give cues, control tempo and dynamics and ensure that the orchestral balance is appropriate. Some conductors have the gift of pulling that little bit extra out of an orchestra at the concert.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): Symphony No. 1 (Rehearsal). National Youth Orchestra of the USA cond. James Ross (Duration: 1:10:46; Video: 1080p HD)

This is a splendid example of a typical youth orchestra rehearsal. They tend to have a high element of training, so it’s start-stop-start-stop all the way. Notice how the conductor brings a sense of phrase, shape and balance to the music. He addresses the “how to” aspect of the music and takes the young musicians beyond the printed notes. And notice how James Ross does this with such apparent ease, keeping the musicians on their toes and yet continuously giving encouragement. Incidentally, when Mahler started this work in 1887 he was deputy conductor of the Leipzig Opera Orchestra.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981): Adagio for String Orchestra (Rehearsal). American Symphony Orchestra cond. Leopold Stokowski (Duration: 08.46; Video: 480p)

This rehearsal couldn’t be more different. It was filmed in 1968, as Stokowski and his orchestra were preparing for a concert in New York City. At the time, Stokowski was 85 years old and no time is wasted with superfluous words. Instructions are typically given as the musicians are playing. Stokowski wanted the maximum tone from the string players and continuously pleads “piu, piu” (“more, more”).

You might be surprised to know that despite his peculiar accent, Stokowski was of English birth. His father was half Polish and his mother was Irish. He was to become one of the great conductors of the twentieth century. But how do conductors achieve “greatness”? Let’s leave that until next week.