Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Orchestral Conductors - Mud From A Scraper - No.7 In An Occasional Series



I saw that Prufrock at Prufrock’s Dilemma has published a serious and learned guest post on the Art of Conducting. Those of you of an equally serious musical bent might like to pop over and read this well researched and well written essay. Anyone of a lighter disposition could continue reading here, although !WARNING! this may well turn into an overlong post. (I don’t expect comments)

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“What! up and down, carv’d like an apple-tart?”
Taming of the Shrew - Shakespeare


With the exception of a few who are truly great, conductors are either popular with audiences or the orchestra; to have a large public following and to command the respect of the players at the same time, is not given to many.

Whilst most lay audiences will admit to their incompetence in judging matters of sound, they claim the right to pass judgement on what they can see. Orchestral players assess the merits of a conductor solely by the quality of his music making, and find any unnecessary display on the podium merely distracting. A beat that looks impressive from behind is usually difficult to follow, whilst a stick technique, from which all extravagant gestures have been amputated, affects an audience no more than would a metronome.

There are as many types of beat as there are conductors - or ‘carvers’ as they are known in the profession. Some of them beat in circles, some diagonally, some give no down beats, some nothing else; some sweep the stick decisively from one extremity of their reach to the other, and some oscillate their elbows and expect to produce cohesion.

All carvers however, though differing in every other imaginable way, expect an orchestra to play the final chord of any slow pianissimo cadence on the fourth waggle of the stick, and not before.

A conductor should understand all instruments and be able to play several. He must be capable of judging balance and tone and appreciating the finer points of orchestration; he must be a student of human nature and applied psychology, and he must be able to understand the composer’s intentions - which is often overlooked. A great conductor can do all these things. He also has an attitude of humility to his art, and a great respect for his players. He achieves his results by taking an orchestra into spiritual partnership and treating them as equals. He never loses his temper or bullies players - nor does he need to do so.

There is a regrettable attitude among conductors that, by virtue of their craft, they are the social superiors of mere instrumentalists.  An orchestra is quick to judge the character of a carver. Musicians will co-operate with a conductor who is sincere and who has a musician’s approach, even though he has no pretensions to greatness. They will not approve of incompetence, over-theatricality, or simply lack of musicianship.

Given a good orchestra, any musician can stand on the rostrum and conduct it - provided that he makes it clear when the players are intended to start and to stop. The result will always be passable with a well-known work, because the performers can, and often do, play it from memory.

Conductors’ musical reputations are made and lost at rehearsals. No orchestra will co-operate with a carver who keeps going over a passage without saying what is wrong with it, or one who stops and points out an accidental error from ten minutes ago. To a certain extent, an orchestra knows its own failings, and if a conductor points them out he is considered sound. Musicians will, however, find means of retaliation if a conductor complains about a section that musicians know to be in order.

Musicians will rarely approve of a visiting carver’s new interpretation of an old familiar work. An interpretation that has been accepted for twenty years is not to be upset by the whim of any jack-in-office who couldn’t conduct a tram. A conductor who has earned the orchestra’s respect may, however, break convention in moderation without losing face.

The least pleasant conductor to play under is the composer. His technique is rarely any worse than that of a professional carver, but he will know every note of the score, and require to hear them all; he will also enjoy himself and expect to see the orchestra fascinated by his brain-child.

There are many symptoms by which a conductor can tell whether or not an orchestra likes him, should it make any difference to him. Sabotage is rare, being difficult to reconcile with an artistic conscience and wrong notes played at concerts are generally accidental. Passive resistance, however, is frequently indulged in, and, among other time-wasting efforts, consists of a general lack of concentration at rehearsals.

Finally, should any orchestral musician, through misguided ambition or avarice, aspire to become a conductor, he must be prepared to renounce all his old friends and allegiances; also in so doing he will encounter all the mistrust and suspicion otherwise only experienced by a man who meets his ex-wife’s relations.


33 comments:

  1. During my youth we were taught how to conduct. I only remember the basics...maybe not even that.

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  2. Friko, as you know, your "inside the kitchen" posts on things musical are favorites of mine, yet even within that category, this one is beyond price. Needless to say, I'm putting a link to this post over on Prufrock's!

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  3. When I was young I used to wonder what a conductor did. I didn't know just how important the role was! Just wonder how I could have missed it....

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  4. Friko, as I was unsure of my ability to understand the Prufrock post, I am so glad to have decided to read your own post about conducting. The Carver term was new to me, Thank you for the gift of this new word! As I read on about the various mixtures of abilities, wishes, tensions, and so forth that exist within an enclosure of musicians and a carver, I learned even more.

    I also felt that I could apply much of the dynamics you describe to many non-musical groupings of people I have encountered in my own life. It can be rather sad when the chemistry is off, and quite joyoust to see what we can accomplish together when all does come together. Luck, skill, serendipity? When it happens, I applaud...sometimes silently in my mind.

    xo

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    1. Frances and Friko: I hope you won't mind if Prufrock's pops in to say, no obligation of course, but please don't feel daunted by the Prufrock's post. If you have inclination to pop by, I think you'll find it quite straightforward, and it was written by a former conductor. He makes many points in common with what Friko has described here. Here's just one thing that I suspect our very witty scraper here would endorse: "And nothing annoys orchestral musicians more than conductors who run overtime during rehearsals. Talking too much by conductors is another bugbear among players. Music begins where words end and players expect conductors to communicate their interpretative ideas with their hands and eyes rather than with long monologues that eat up rehearsal time."

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    2. Susan, I promise to have a look at the Profrock post. Thank you for the encouragement!

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    3. Frances: Ah, that's nice! I do recognize that the blog often presents things that are fairly well "out there"--and certainly well over my own head. Brian, though, is as down to earth as he is knowledgeable. I wish he and the scraper weren't halfway around the world from one another. I think they'd enjoy one another quite a lot, and I'd certainly love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation!

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  5. Becoming a conductor sounds like a factory worker from the floor being promoted to the lowest level of management, no longer trustworthy.

    Could any conductor beat Leonard Bernstein for theatricality? I remember myself and my brother as children rolling on the floor in hysterics at his antics when we turned the black and white tv sound off and just watched him conduct in silence.

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  6. Lovely, Friko! Such a delicate dissection! I'm off to bed with a smile on my face after that.

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  7. Interesting. I will look at our own conductor with a little more knowledge. Our guy is very expressive. I also like the way he gives information on the pieces they play.

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  8. it is an interesting relationship between the carver and the instrumentalists...
    i guess as much as any leader, they earn the respect...and the attitude they
    display to the instrumentalist will go a long way toward that relationship...
    a spiritual partnership --- i like the way you say that..

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  9. I must share this with my resident musician, Rick, who knows ever so much more about the technicalities of music than I do. That said, I've seen more than a few conductors in my time -- some showy and flashy, others more discreet, yet bringing about a most remarkable sound. I've never really thought about how the musicians feel about their carver assuming it is love or hate (or possibly indifference) based as much on personality as anything else. It is just a job, after all, and he is just a boss. Some motivate their employees to be the best, to surpass their expectations or hopes. Others in a company may walk through it, unmotivated by the so-called leader. He has the power to hire and fire, to inspire or tamp down. I must read this again -- I think I have a lot to learn before my next visit to the symphony!

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  10. That was interesting. So many aspects I had never considered before. And, as usual, so clearly expressed.

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  11. I thoroughly enjoyed this. When I was a child I wanted to be a conductor. I played piano at home and flute in the school orchestra and I so admired the conductors of any concerts I attended. I still have a secret hankering to stand in front of a group of musicians who know what they are doing (because I wouldn't), give them the tempo and beat and merrily wave my wand while the music washes round.

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  12. An interesting glimpse into a world I don't know much about. Thank you!

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  13. Very enjoyable and informative article. Maybe one form of the "passive resistance" you refer to expresses itself in jokes told by musicians at conductors' expense. I found these online. I have no dog in this fight but enjoy humor of all kinds.

    A guy walks into a pet store wanting a parrot. The store clerk shows him two beautiful ones out on the floor. "This one's $5,000 and the other is $10,000." the clerk said. "Wow! What does the $5,000 one do?" "This parrot can sing every aria Mozart ever wrote." "And the other?" said the customer. "This one can sing Wagner's entire Ring cycle. There's another one in the back room for $30,000." "Holy moly! What does that one do?" "Nothing that I can tell, but the other two parrots call him 'Maestro'."

    What's the difference between a bull and an orchestra? The bull has the horns in the front and the a**hole in the back.

    A conductor and a violist are standing in the middle of the road. Which one do you run over first, and why? The conductor. Business before pleasure.

    Why are conductor's hearts so coveted for transplants? They've had so little use.

    What's the difference between a conductor and a sack of fertilizer? The sack.

    What do you have when a group of conductors are up to their necks in wet concrete? Not enough concrete.

    What's the difference between a pig and a symphony orchestra conductor? There are some things a pig just isn't willing to do.

    What's the ideal weight for a conductor? About 2 1/2 lbs. including the urn.

    What's the difference between God and a conductor? God knows He's not a conductor. (similar to a longer joke re: vonKarajan)

    What's the difference between alto clef and Greek? Some conductors actually read Greek.

    What to do with a horn player that can't play? Give him two sticks, put him in the back, and call him a percussionist. What do you do if he can't do that? Take away one of the sticks, put him up front, and call him Maestro.

    Then there's one that seems to favor conductors:

    What's the difference between a conductor and a stagecoach driver? The stagecoach driver only has to look at four horses' asses.

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  14. Watching a conductor is a thing of wonder...I've always found it fascinating.

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  15. I think my favourite has to be Jukka-Pekka Saraste who conducted all 9 Beethoven symphonies in Toronto one year about 20 years ago. He had long blonde hair at the time and he moved like a ballet dancer. I saw all 9. I will never forget it.
    XO
    WWW

    XO
    WWW

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  16. Many years ago I had listened to famous conductor Karoyan who conducted Saint Petersburg Philharmonic orchestra. Now Gergiev is the famous conductor of Opera and Ballet theater orchestra. You're right Friko, a conductor has to understand what the composer wanted to express.

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  17. I haven't been to the symphony since I was a kid. as an adult, as a working artist with a studio and two kids to manage, the price of tickets was well beyond me. however, I always signed up for the field trips to the symphony when I was still in private school (something that ended after 7th grade because I begged my parents to send me to public school).

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  18. I very seldom listen to music, and if I do its the kind of music you might detest. I have no ear for music, although, I still have my Mom's tuner. My daughter and her oldest daughter have the music talent. It passed me by.

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  19. Something I have never thought about. Conductors have always seemed mysterious to me. This was enlightening and entertaining, too. Thanks, Friko! :)

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  20. Two statements here, one in your post and one in the comments, remind me of one of my most magical musical experiences.

    The first statement is, "A great conductor...has an attitude of humility to his art, and a great respect for his players. He achieves his results by taking an orchestra into spiritual partnership and treating them as equals." The second is, "Music begins where words end, and players expect conductors to communicate their interpretative ideas with their hands and eyes rather than with long monologues that eat up rehearsal time."

    About five years ago, I happened across a video on YouTube while looking for something else. It was a studio session with Leonard Bernstein, during the recording of "West Side Story." It was utterly compelling. I'd never seen anything like it. I watched it once, twice -- maybe a dozen times. I still watch it from time to time, for a variety of reasons, but primarily because its intense intimacy provides a rare look into the creative process called performance.

    I just watched it again, and still find it a marvelous illustration of the truths you and Susan have written about. You can see it here.

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  21. To add to the list of conductor jokes: someone once told me that when a certain martinet of a maestro (you might guess who, but my informant might be wrong) became director of a prestigious musical festival or opera house in Germany, a typed notice appeared on one of the only two backstage loos: "For the personal use of General-Dirigent Herr Dr. Dr. X". Within the hour there appeared on the next door a scrawled note (in the unmistakable handwriting of an eminent senior guest conductor): "Für andere Arschlöcher".

    I shan't forget sitting behind the orchestra and choir watching a particularly balletic conductor lead a fine performance of Beethoven's Choral Symphony - forgive my linking, but I blogged about it at the time:
    http://autolycus-london.blogspot.co.uk/2008/09/i-do-seem-to-have-been-in-spendy-mood.html

    But then, it's impressive when the conductor stands back and lets the orchestra get on with it: like Barenboim's Prom this year with the East-West Divan orchestra, where he even went and sat in the stalls while the orchestra played the encores.

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    1. Autolycus: I'm so glad you posted a link to your thoroughly delightful post about attending the Proms. Your description of Noseda conducting at the Proms is terrific--I've quoted that bit and posted a link to your post over at Prufrock's, too.

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  22. What an interesting look into a profession so few people know about.

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  23. One movie title: Prova d'Orchestra. Please, watch it. It's hilarious but it's not meant to be. I mean, someone even dies in it. The title translates as Rehearsal. Excellent post. I used to wonder what role conductors really had in an orchestra until I met one in real life in Cuba. Top guy and a very pianist in his own right. He let me in on the secret.

    Greetings from London.

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  24. Wow, Friko, you really got into this piece with all the details you provided. I didn't know the conductior has to be able play several instruments. But it makes sense.

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  25. Isn't it what people often say when they go to a concert? They don't go to listen to, say, Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" but they're going to see Abbado (whose interpretation of the Four Season is a really good one, I must admit). It's how the conductor wants to interpret a piece of music, and it's not always a good one.
    I remember a time when music played on "authentic" or old instruments became popular and with them the conductors (Hogwood, Pinnock etc.). Admittedly I belonged to their followers since I liked the "lesser" sound of these pieces of music. I still do.
    While I was singing in a choir in Germany for several years, I had my own ordeal with our conductor, especially when we sang with the orchestra. Those rehearsals were always dreaded by me since the conductor usually completely flipped out sooner or later. It took the joy out of the singing for sure.

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  26. That is a fascinating glimpse of a world I know nothing about. Thank you, Friko!

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  27. I've got an impressive photograph of my grandfather with his baton ... but my favourite photo of him remains the one when he's rolled his trousers up and is paddling with my youngest aunt at Hastings .

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  28. As a music teacher, instrumental and vocal learning to play various instruments, even drumming was fun but very challenging as was the art of conducting. And we were graded to be sure. We had to give public performances before we got our cerification to teach. Having this education gives one some rare insights of what a conductor is up to while at a performance.
    With today's instant media sharing that conductimg world is evolving.
    I loved you take on how players and conductors have their odds at times. Fun to read.
    Imagine yourself doing just that, conducting.

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  29. um, hey, hi. you maybe don;t know this about me, but i'm a conductor by training and trade. i've never heard the term "carver" used, and much of this depiction sounds very foreign to me.

    very, very foreign.

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