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)
“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.