Virtual Discussion Panel
:: The Short End of the Stick
:: 11/26/07 - 11/30/07

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About this Virtual Discussion (Click to Hide)

Ann Drinan  

Ann Drinan

Senior Editor
Discussion Moderator

Once again, Robert Levine and I are moderating a discussion panel about conductors, but this time we want to let the conductors share with musicians their perspectives on conducting and making music.

Musicians are famous for complaining about conductors – we don't like your tempo, we don't understand your beat, you talk too much, you don't talk enough, you jump around too much, you're too stiff, etc., etc., etc. Well, now it's time for the conductors to have a turn.

We want to know what bugs you about symphony musicians – we’re pretty sure you don’t like it when we cross our legs, chew gum, talk during rehearsal, don't pay attention, look sullen, tell jokes that we don't share with you, etc. But in a serious context, what do you feel musicians aren't sharing with you in terms of making music: where could we help you / respond to you / communicate with you in different ways that would further the goal of achieving your interpretation of a composition? But then again, should we??? What's your job and what's our job in this complicated process of making music?

There are so many issues to discuss: what is it like to conduct a stage full of 100+ people? What does it feel like to really connect with a section during a passage? Pierre Monteux used the analogy that conducting an orchestra is like riding a race horse – when do you give the horse his head, and when do you guide him? When do you let the oboist / flutist / whomever play the solo unaided, and when do you shape the solo for/with the player?


Robert Levine's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Robert Levine  

Robert Levine

Senior Editor

Ann and I have wrestled harder with questions for this VPD than for most others. This discussion was intended to offer conductors a chance to offer their perspective on conductor-orchestra relations. But neither Ann nor I have ever conducted an orchestra, which makes framing questions about being a conductor surprisingly difficult, given how many conductors we've seen between us in our careers.

However, we do know that most conductors have strong opinions about conducting and rehearsing orchestras. So the first question we would like to ask our panel is: what do you try to do differently from other conductors you've seen (or played under)? What have you learned not to do in front of an orchestra?

We also invite your thoughts on what it's like to be a conductor - to stand up in front of an orchestra and present your interpretation of a symphonic work, especially if your interpretation differs from what the musicians are used to performing.

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William Eddins's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

William Eddins  

William Eddins

Music Director, Edmonton Symphony

Goodness....... Every time I get up in front of an orchestra I am reminded of the fact that I played in orchestras for years. My experience as an orchestral keyboardist is absolutely central to everything I try to accomplish from the podium. Being a keyboardist is a really unique position for an orchestra. One is usually alone, rather than being in a section. You also have a tendency to end up in all different places onstage depending on the space requirements, the style of piece (Baroque = harpsichord = center vs. Stravinsky = modern = where ever I can fit, etc.). There are other considerations too numerous to go into, but they have all directly influenced my conducting approach.

If a musician comes up to me and says, "You're easy to follow," I have done my job. I cannot emphasize this enough, and I try to tell every young conductor starting out that this is the most important thing that you can bring to the podium. I know from personal experience that there is nothing more frustrating than having a conductor that you can't follow and then being blamed when things don't work. 95% of the time when things go wrong it's the conductor's fault. Clarity in ideas, in concept, and in technique will make everyone's life so much easier. An example - I remember seeing one of the world's great conductors perform the scherzo in Beethoven 6 in such a way that the oboist had no idea where the downbeat was. Since the entire solo is on the offbeat it was a near disaster. The conductor was trying to convey a certain character, and rightly so, but had forgotten that you're dealing with 90 or so people spread all over Gods Green Creation, and they rely on you to keep it together. I had the opportunity to conduct that same piece with that same orchestra afterwards, and that same oboist came up to me and said, "Thanks for giving me a clear beat in the scherzo. So-&-so was all over the place and I couldn't follow him/her." (Was that sufficiently vague?)

When it comes to dealing with bringing your interpretation to an orchestra, especially one that is "non-conventional," I can only recommend patience. It's astonishing how much orchestras are tied to what they have done or heard in the past rather than what is written on the page. These "traditions" are some of the worst things about classical music as they hamper true individualism. But if you can convey your ideas in a rational and precise manner, and if they make musical sense, the orchestra will respond. Just, please, make sure you do this before the dress rehearsal so that you have given folks time to adjust.

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Comments for William Eddins

"It's astonishing how much orchestras are tied to what they have done or heard in the past rather than what is written on the page. These "traditions" are some of the worst things about classical music as they hamper true individualism."

It's so great to hear a conductor say this. Too many musicians have no idea what's in a score or what a composer actually wrote, and simply judge by what they think they like.
GregA. on November 26, 2019 at 9:23 PM
Clarity is a two-edged sword. There are times when it's absolutely essential to be clear, but too much can dull everyone's senses.

When I lived in Chicago I often worked with players from the Lyric Opera Orchestra. I'd hear about a guest conductor that they all loved -- the best they've had in years. Then I'd go to a performance. They orchestra sounded ragged, out of tune, lackluster.

Then I'd hear about the next conductor who was a real jerk. Can't follow him, never gives a clear beat, etc. etc. I'd go to the performance and the orchestra played like Gods.

So when the same players would compliment me on being easy to follow, I would get a sort of queasy feeling in my stomach.

My teacher, Kyrill Kondrashin, often said that you should never make an orchestra feel too comfortable when you conduct (Geoffrey Moull: you might remember this, too!) -- always keep them a bit on the edge of their seats. It's hard to find that balance, but a little vagueness goes a long way towards urging the orchestra to listen more closely to their sections and the overall ensemble.

One further anecdote, if I may. I once saw Karajan conduct, and he did his usual kneading-the-invisible bread with his eyes closed. Suddenly there was an ensemble problem. His eyes shot open and he conducted a perfectly clear 4/4 pattern until everybody got back on track, at which point he shut his eyes and continued.

Steve Larsen

sblarsen on January 14, 2019 at 12:42 PM

JoAnn Falletta's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

JoAnn Falletta  

JoAnn Falletta

Music Director, Buffalo Philharmonic and Virginia Symphony

Thank you for inviting me to participate, and for the interesting questions.

For me the most important thing about conducting is being keenly aware that the orchestra itself is actually making the music, not the baton! I firmly believe that each performance comes from the collective hearts, brains and spirit of the musicians who are involved, and that because of that, each orchestra's performance will be unique. I can't speak for other conductors, but I know that for me it is critical to come to the music with a strong interpretation and understanding of the piece, but that is only the beginning - I draw much inspiration from the orchestra itself. It is very important to leave a great deal of room for the "orchestra's interpretation" - individually and as a group. Within the framework of my understanding of the structure, harmonic fabric and propulsion of the work, I like to be flexible in allowing the orchestra to play a major role in informing the performance, revealing their own strengths and personality. Does the orchestra's hall enable them to play refined and varied dynamics? The conductor should allow that to happen! Do the woodwind players revel in their individuality of approaches? So should the conductor! Does the orchestra enjoy rhythmic flexibility and rubato? Does the string section have a unified approach to articulation and bow stroke? Does the brass section exemplify brilliance or warmth in their artistic approach? Each orchestra has its own sound that can either shine with the help of the conductor, or be subjugated to an imagined sound that exists only in the head of the maestro. To me it is a delight that each orchestra I conduct can sound quite unique in exactly the same repertoire - and what a shame it would be to try to make each orchestra sound exactly alike!

I strongly encourage musicians in an orchestra NOT to abdicate artistic responsibility - rather, to listen to each other intently, to respond to what they are hearing, to play chamber music on a grand scale, to take risks. For my part, I must listen to all of them at every moment - to understand their musical personality, to support their artistic spirit, to highlight their talents, to provide a framework in which they can excel, to make music in a completely personal way with each performance and each group of musicians.

This "active" listening is key - for both the musicians and myself. I find that orchestras are very open to experimentation and new ideas, if their personality and musical ideas are respected as well. The result is a rich and interesting mixture of interpretive elements - a blend of what the orchestra has done before (together and individually) and the different experiences and background of the conductor. Music is fluid - always changing, evolving, holding discoveries for all of us, in each performance. The orchestral experience can be one of amazement, joy and unexpected realizations.

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Comments for JoAnn Falletta

This is a refreshing take.

My dream gig has always been New York's Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, precisely because it (theoretically) fosters just this sort of inclusiveness and respect. Aside from their most famous practice (conductor-less-ness), Orpheus' most important innovation is that of rotating the leadership roles within the orchestra. I don't know why this sensible practice hasn't become the industry standard.

My take on conductors is that, while they often have pretty good musical understanding and contribute to good interpretation, their role is primarily serves the interests of efficiency, secondarily that of branding and marketing, and only incidentally that of interpretation. (In this regard; how refreshing to hear her give credence to an orchestra's established traditions rather than demand, as appears elsewhere in this discussion, that each first rehearsal of a work be some kind of tabula rasa.)

As a young student, many years ago, I listened to lots of records of the two pre-eminent string quartets of the day; the Juilliard and the Guarneri. I loved both. Too simplistically of course, but nevertheless useful for my purpose at the time, I always thought them as epitomizing the contrapuntal, and the homophonic or blended, approaches, respectively. Style.

On my efficiency assertion; of course, it just costs too much money to allow time for 50 or 100 interpreters to reach consensus. So we create an arbiter. Re marketing etc.: our culture values notions of hero and celebrity, so we offer the public one such person as our identity. On interpretation, we usually play it the way we like it anyway. Hopefully, this is in accord with the way the conductor wants to hear it; often, our job is to convince them it is, after which they congratulate themselves on their terrific ideas. Just kidding...

As much as I like JoAnn's perspective, I have rarely seen it truly realized as antiquated notions of hierarchy, aristocracy, and general inequality of persons, are so ingrained in our culture, our traditions and our thinking, as to allow it. Too often, instead of the respect discussed above, one sees contempt, particularly for the section string musician. And not just from conductors. Or maybe not even primarily from conductors. Orchestral musicians (principals, usually) are far harder on their lessers than most conductors these days.

I applaud JoAnn for thinking counter to these well established trends but am skeptical that she has much hope of seeing her ideas realized in any meaningful way. Given the constraints of the system within which we all operate, her notions might best manifest in a "philosopher king" (queen, obviously) or "enlightened despot" situation. Better than brutal dictator of course, but still pretty limited.

Hope I'm wrong.
tonyc on November 28, 2019 at 11:50 AM

Delta David Gier's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Delta David Gier  

Delta David Gier

Music Director, South Dakota Symphony

A conductor's work with an orchestra begins and ends with the music. The music is the center and focus of what we do. This is obvious, but that focus is lost rather easily when issues of personality come into play, so to speak. One of the most challenging aspects of conducting an orchestra is to rehearse or perform as transparently as possible, bringing the composer to the center of the stage, while at the same time endeavoring to infuse the music-making with energy, passion, elegance, wit, etc. All of us want to be inspired - both listeners and producers of music - but what is it that inspires us? The music, of course, much more so than any individual who overlays the music with their interpretation.

If a conductor's interpretation of a piece is somewhat different than the norm, the source of that interpretation must be found within the music. Orchestral musicians are generally willing to go a long way down a particular interpretive path if they are convinced it is warranted by the music itself. Conversely, if it is evident that the interpretation being communicated is self-indulgent, the integrity of the conductor/orchestra relationship is compromised and the musicians' willingness drops precipitously.

The music itself has always been the source of each musician's inspiration; it's why we all chose to go into music in the first place. If the focus of any rehearsal or performance becomes anything other than the music, the foundation of our endeavor is shaken. But whenever a conductor is able to facilitate the connection to that original source of inspiration, a great service has been rendered.

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Neal Gittleman's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Neal Gittleman  

Neal Gittleman

Music Director, Dayton Philharmonic

Good news: My late entry to the discussion has allowed me to read everyone else's posts before composing my own.

Bad news: My late entry has allowed me to have already mastered Andrew's #1 tip for achieving grandeur!

What's it like to conduct? There are two things that I find endlessly fascinating in our mutual endeavor: the music we play and the oh-so-subtle dynamic between players and conductor. Everyone's already spoken eloquently about the former, so I'll chime in a bit on the latter.

What strikes me the most is not the effect of technical matters (e.g., clear/unclear beat), temperament (e.g., calm/tantrum-prone), or rehearsal style (show-it/jabber-about-it), but the emotional effect: How the orchestra's collective mood as they make music seems to perfectly mirror the conductor's mood. I try to be calm and easygoing on the podium, but if I've had a bad day and lack the inner fortitude, self-awareness, or thespian skill to successfully act "normal," the orchestra will sound as if they had a day that was just as bad -- if not worse!

This works both ways. A couple of years ago I was rehearsing a guest gig in Mexico. Everything was going fine. The orchestra was sounding good, working hard, seeming to enjoy the music-making. But they were in a long, ongoing, messy struggle with management and (even more so) with the government entity that funded them. So at the end of each break a musician rep would get up to tell folks the latest news. My Spanish is feeble at best, but you didn't need the language to comprehend the gist of things. And when the discussion finally ended and we could get back to music it was SO hard to change their mood back even though they were mad at neither me nor Schumann. I had to work very hard not to let their pissed-off vibe affect me. Fortunately, I found that just a few minutes of don't-talk-just-play rehearsing would be like the system re-boot that magically restores your computer to proper operation.

As musicians, we pursue a mysterious art, one which plays on our emotions in ways we both understand and can't begin to fathom. How can it be that even if we think the orchestra isn't following what we do with our stick or what we ask for with our voice, they're actually following us so intimately that they mirror our feelings in the way they play and they way they sound?

The only answer I've come up with is that while we as conductors might imagine that our most important relationship is between us and the composer, the relationship that's REALLY the most important is between us and the players. And while the metaphor is over-used, it's so like a marriage (or any other deep, intimate, personal relationship) that it's uncanny.

It's easy, in our workplace, to fall into stereotyped roles, where conductors forget that the orchestra is people and the orchestra forgets that conductors are, too.

And now I feel like Charlton Heston at the end of "Soylent Green"!

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Andrew Massey's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Andrew Massey  

Andrew Massey

Music Director, Racine Symphony (WI)

Interesting question - and one I would never have though of for myself. I don't think that I ever try to do anything in particular because it is different from what another conductor would do.

There are, of course, technical errors I try to avoid, as well as most of the standard things that players complain about, but none of these are judged according to what other conductors might or might not do. I certainly would never imitate a 'move' or parody a conductor's style. I guess I am not really that interested in conductors. My concern is with the music and how to get that to emerge from rehearsals and concerts. And that process is very much psychological and not easily defined in terms of 'do this' or 'don't do that'. I think that is the source of some of the misunderstanding between players and conductors. It seems to be fairly obvious to many players what a conductor should be (and often isn't) doing. But I don't think it is so obvious, and a lot of what a conductor is trying to achieve is oblique and unannounced. (We are not supposed to speak, remember!) So frequently a conductor's preoccupation may be quite different from the pre-occupations of a given musician.

I discussed this with a colleague recently, a man experienced at the highest level both as a player and as a conductor, and he said he felt the conductor's job was to give the players exactly what they wanted and expected. I demurred. My feeling is that the art of conducting is largely deceptive. Not in the sense of trying to mislead or be untruthful, but in the sense that it is an art of persuasion, and if you can get the players, almost unconsciously, to do what the music needs for its success, it is not necessary that the players know quite how you do that, or even what it is you are trying to do. The obvious approach does not always work. For instance, in getting a brass entry to fit with the strings, a steady beat does not cut it. In getting a difficult bit of accompaniment to arise with perfect ensemble, a simple beat won't be reliable. There is a lot of psychology which is more effective if you do not burden the players' conscious thoughts with what you are doing. For me, the ideal is to have the players play the way you want them to, because you have created a situation in which that is the easiest and most natural thing for them to do.

But the second part of the question is fun - what have you learned not to do?

To this end, I can only offer two humorous pieces that I have written, and used on my blogs. The first is a description of an actual sequence of rehearsals and concerts that I observed. (I have obliterated places and names to protect the guilty) and the other is a sort of primer in how to be a terrible conductor. I cannot claim to have committed all these crimes, but I am sure I have committed most of them from time to time.

Mahler Somewhere.
I saw that a fairly small orchestra, not in a big city, was going to perform the Mahler Second Symphony - The Resurrection. So I asked to go to rehearsals and offered to hang around as a cover. Hey, if this guy couldn't cut it, I'd be ready!

So I went down to the rehearsal, and the conductor was really strange. He knew the score well enough, and was conducting from memory. But, as usual, this meant he was not so much rehearsing the orchestra, as practicing conducting it. He'd do huge stretches, never correcting near collapses, then eventually stop and ask the second harp to play a little louder 132 measures ago, and tell anecdotes to the chorus about where Mahler liked to have them stand.

The only thing he talked to the orchestra about was ensemble; playing together. He got quite angry about poor ensemble and, in every case, it was HIS FAULT.

He had the most bizarre technique - a variant of the upside-down choral style. For the ictus at a big climax, instead of arms in the air, he would drop his arms to his waist, pull his elbows behind his back, and then with clenched fists, violently punch the stomach of a large, imaginary stuffed Panda right in front of him. Since this gesture was so low down, it was totally invisible to 80% of the orchestra.

He didn't give upbeats in tempo either. How the cellos knew how to come in at the beginning I have no idea. Critical mass, I suppose.
For delicate entries in the strings, he would raise a hand beatifically above them, smile, and freeze until they started playing on their own. No baton. All poetic shaping.

I went to a bit of the dress rehearsal, but had to leave early, certain that there was no way they would get to the end.

I returned to the concert and sat in the front row, with a mixture of anxiety and glee. An interminable speech about sponsors and donors, ending with the mantra "This is YOUR orchestra. Please support it." served instead of an overture to generate enough time before the big enchilada for latecomers to get to their seats. It was sold out.

Maestro came out in a sort of Thai satin shirt. No stick. Never looked at the score.

By God, it was a triumph! Rough, but a triumph. Total effortless recall, effortlessly relaxed; he conducted the whole thing with joy and sweep, which was highly infectious.

His technical problems ensured that the orchestra got out of sync at all the usual places (like the coda of the first movement, and of course, the off-stage band bits) and there were plenty of split brass notes, but he had that supreme virtue: he made it look easy and fun. I really admire the orchestra for coping so well. The concert was on a Saturday. The first rehearsal had been the previous Thursday evening.

I still don't quite understand it. Standing Os of course. Real enthusiasm. I'd be scared all over again, though, if I see he plans to do Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements!

CONDUCTOR'S GRANDEUR (How not to be a conductor.)
To be a true maestro, you have to have hostile musicians. If you can, you might as well make them really furious. This will demonstrate your power to crush whatever music is left in them, and ensure a bad performance which you can then blame on the ineptitude of the players. Doing so will prove how high your standards are.

Here are some tips on how to do this.
• Always be late to rehearsals.
• Wear dark glasses so no one ever knows if you are looking at them.
• Rehearse a piece the orchestra was not expecting.
• When this means a crucial player is not there, look personally outraged, as in "But any moron must see how artistically imperative it is to rehearse Bolero at this precise moment."
• After playing goes well for 15 minutes, complain that the library has the wrong edition.
• Make sure that if the orchestra has bar numbers, you only have rehearsal marks. Or vice versa. (Ideally, set it up ahead of time that the winds and strings have incompatible systems. For instance, bring your own parts, but only for the woodwinds.)
• Organize your rehearsal so that, for instance, the tuba player is essential for the first 3 minutes and the last 20 seconds. If possible, let the time run out just before you get to those last 20 seconds.

• Assume a foreign accent and waste time struggling to find exactly the right word. Look as though you are in terrible pain as you think.
• Make sure the word, finally found, is trivial, such as "quicker." (kvEEku?)
• Stop the orchestra often to implore them to play more musically. Give no specifics.
• Obviously you must talk as much as possible, but never be clear who you are talking to.
• Talk before the sound dies away, talk a lot, talk as you give the upbeat, talk as the orchestra is playing. Never allow the music to flow unimpeded. Remember: you are in control. So if no control is needed, sabotage.
• Explain things in detail before you catch the attention of the trombones who have not been playing for the last 18 minutes, and who had no clue that you are now leaping to their bit.
• Mumble.
• Never use a simple hand gesture when the same thing can be achieved by stopping the entire orchestra and giving them a lecture on how it is done in Berlin.
• Give the downbeat before anyone has a chance to find the spot.
• To this end, give directions to a bar backwards, as in "Please, my friends, my dear colleaks, ve go from .... 27 bars after.... NO! 28 bars after.... letter Q .... in the Third movement." BAM! Downbeat.
• Whenever possible, maintain confusion about which movement you are talking about. A true master can sustain confusion about which composition you are referring to. Single composer concerts (e.g., all-Mozart) are terrific for this.
• If possible, count bars from key changes so that horns and percussion will have no idea where you are.
• If the orchestra actually knows where you plan to start, (e.g., the beginning) look around to make sure everyone is focused, pause, give a clear upbeat, then, as they breathe in, abort the downbeat and say "Oh, by the way...."
• Always look disappointed at the end of each passage. If you can get away with it, stare at the score in confusion and mutter "I can't figure out quite what is wrong."
• Use the Royal we. "I think we make a ritard here. We need to be so lyrical" (Do not say where.)
• Understand that it is very important to conduct from memory, since it might impress a donor who knows nothing about music. It will be better for PR photos too, taken by a photographer crouching in a spot that prevents the violas from playing anything.
• Consequently, the purpose of the dress rehearsal is not to help the orchestra, but to practice remembering what comes next.
• Therefore, do not listen, just keep going to make sure you can cover up memory lapses.
• Be sure to stop the orchestra just before musicians who have been carefully counting 198 measures of rest get a chance to actually play anything.
• Abort all climaxes.
• NEVER refer to, or look at, either the violas or the second violins, unless there's a cutie there that you want to flirt with.
• Use radically different tempi at each rehearsal.
• In matters of intonation, always pick on the oboe.
• At the end, look disappointed and ask where the harpist is.

Then there's the general question about what it is like to stand up and conduct. I shall have to write more later, but, in truth, it is terrifying. The danger of generating rage is always there, and you feel terribly exposed and inadequate. As regards presenting an interpretation that is different from what the players expect, this doesn't really arise, except in details. After all, you, as conductor, do not know what the orchestra expects, and they don't get a chance to know what your 'interpretation' is until the concert is over. And the distaste among players for wide-ranging explanations of intent means that the divergence between expectation and requests emerges only piece-meal, one detail at a time, or one movement sweep at a time.

A very real source of the tension arises from the fact that players are necessarily going to be much occupied with the details of their part, and the conductor has to be much more pre-occupied with an overall view of the dramatic structure of the performance. That dramatic vision doesn't help a viola player with dubious accidentals much, but then again, getting every staccato the right way isn't going to help much in getting the spiritual oomph to project. So players and conductors are correctly at odds to some degree. But it gets worse because the authority of the conductor is an institutional authority - not a personal one. The conductor is in charge because someone has to be. It is terrible when either the conductor comes to believe that he has some special wisdom which makes his opinions about bowings and the lighting level and the dress code particularly valuable. Narcissism is a real hazard. It is also bad when players come to think that the conductor is exercising authority because his is personally power mad. There are all sorts of reasons why people become conductors, and in general, a desire for power is not it.

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Geoffrey Moull's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Geoffrey Moull  

Geoffrey Moull

Music Director, Thunder Bay Symphony

Having been brought up in a conducting sort of way to think positively, and as a Canadian in general to be polite (i.e., never say "you're playing too loud", say "play softer...please!"), perhaps the question that Ann and Robert posed to us should be inverted: what HAVE you learned from other conductors.

Certainly all, or most, of the textbook items brought up in the previous VDP and then some: conduct with clear gestures; try to show modifications with your hands before resorting to verbal instructions, never forget that musicians are human beings and treat them with the same respect you expect in return, breathe musically, be firm but fair. When rehearsing, do so efficiently and in a timely manner, keep talking to a minimum and when you do, speak clearly. If you make a mistake admit it, and apologize - just don't make too many of them.

And yet, I do catch myself talking too much, saying things that I could have communicated with hands, or mumbling when I do talk. Or in hindsight, saying things in the heat of the moment that couldn't possibly have made much sense at the time. Big rule: remain the most self-critical musician on stage. And like all others I have some annoying habits: I'm sure at least one of my musicians has been tempted to tell me not to lick my left index finger before turning a page. Sorry, but short of rough-sandpapering my fingertips before every performance, I haven't found another solution. In short: conductors are also only human (despite media attempts to transform some of us into deities).

When it comes to performing familiar repertoire, there are two generalized comments from musicians I prefer not to hear: "but we've ALWAYS played it this way" and "we've NEVER done that before." Even if performing something as familiar as a Beethoven symphony for the umpteenth time, keep an open mind: in a work conceived by a genius, particularly a genius who stands far above ALL of us, there's always something new to discover, be it a hidden voice, an undiscovered character trait, a new colour brought on by a slightly different tempo, rubato or balance - witness the fresh breath of air in recent Beethoven recordings of Tafelmusik and the Minnesota Orchestra. Before being critical to new concepts brought to you by your conductor, study the full orchestral score, read the background material involved, including the latest musicological findings, get a sense of the full picture and try to approach new intentions with an open, inquisitive mind.

Ann and Robert brought up another fine point when wrestling to formulate the first question for this VDP as neither has conducted an orchestra before (and let it heretofore be known that I as a matter of principle refrain from telling viola jokes). Musicians appreciate conductors who have played as orchestral musicians - I gathered my own experience as orchestral musician as a repetiteur in Germany playing every imaginable keyboard instrument. There's another side to that medallion: before you become overly-critical of your maestro, imagine what it's like trying to unite 90 musical egos into one inspired whole... and if you can't imagine it, consider standing front and centre and leading an orchestra yourselves?

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Thanks for sending an email to me inviting me to join this discussion. I have to say, that I have had the distinct pleasure to be a guest soloist with several of the contributors above. In each case, be it standard repertoire or new works for piano and orchestra, they were right on the money as conductors. I have heard many stories about how difficult it is for conductors and soloists to match interpretations. Especially with working with a new friend, it can seem unnerving at first. However, I was lucky to have studied with a stickler for rhythm, Adele Marcus, who herself played with Stravinsky. She said that he was a stickler down to a sixteenth note rest! She was a master with concerti, since most of her students perform(ed) with many orchestras around the world. I am compassionate toward my conductor colleagues, in that they have to hold the orchestra together, and I have to be sure that they can follow what I do as easily as possible. (I love Andrew's essay above!) My credo has always been, just let the music play itself, and make the concerto like chamber music, no matter the piece. I also make sure to know the orchestra part inside out before I get to the city I am performing in. I used to record the orchestra part (second piano) and play along with it to understand the collaboration. It always makes sense when we put it all together. There have been times when a conductor needs to do certain things, depending on the orchestra, their abilities, and the conductors way with the baton or hands. I make sure to adapt to these deviations, and most times, I am happier with the result than if I stuck to my guns on tempi etc. That's what music is all about.
BiegelJ on November 26, 2019 at 5:22 PM
A very interesting topic indeed!

I am a very young and very inexperienced conductor, but have had the good fortune of leading some very revered ensembles. My experience on the podium with these groups has taught me many things... one of which is that it is impossible to please everyone. Every musician comes to work with a unique idea of what their own job is, and what a conductor's job should be.

For Mr. Eddins, and the musician he mentions, clarity is of utmost importance. For other musicians that I have spoken with, they would rather someone who will bring something special to the table. Some conductors make up a great deal for their lack of technique with a strong musical personality, that can still get the musicians playing exactly the way they want. There are also many conductors who are as "clear" as day, but who lack any sense of what music really is. And then there are the unfortunate ones that have neither. (maybe not so unfortunate if they are working!)

Working as a staff conductor of major orchestras, I have had an incredible opportunity to watch countless guest conductors, with varying degrees of technique, personality, and musicianship. What always amazes me is the incredibly vast difference of opinions among the musicians toward any one conductor.

Working with a professional orchestra for the first time as a young conductor is quite a unique experience, as I'm sure all the panelists with concur with. My own initiation was, I think, a typical one; I was very nervous, and the orchestra was a mixed bag of restless, jaded and annoyed... although many were supportive. As I have had more opportunities to lead professional groups, I have become more comfortable with myself (specifically with my own outlook on what the relationship between a conductor and orchestra should be, and how to go about getting the music out of a group without spoiling the relationship) as well as my understanding of conducting technique.

In the end, a conductor can only be themselves.

Most of this relationship spoiling that I've seen stems from a lack of humility, confidence, and a desire to learn; a conductor acting too much like "The Maestro," and conversely, a conductor being too nice or a push-over... both of which put an enormous barrier between the conductor and the orchestra. Since my little experience in front of orchestras has mostly been in a learning situation, with a teacher telling you everything you're doing wrong in front of the group you're supposed to be in charge of, my approach has always been to learn from the ensemble in front of me (not necessarily to cater my words or ideas, but just to have a better sense of what I need to improve on, either for that rehearsal or for life in general) and to be myself! This is difficult since one has to have a context for it, but I was lucky enough to have an amazing teacher who "showed me the way." And having that context should also give a conductor a sense of where they can be firm and assertive in their ideas. Without that, a conductor will seem condescending to the orchestra, and that never works.

Confidence, humility, and the desire to learn. Only then, I think, will a conductor's full potential for musicianship, scholarship, and technique be realized, and a healthy relationship with an orchestra be formed.
Tito Muρoz
Assistant Conductor, The Cleveland Orchestra
tiredarms on November 27, 2019 at 2:26 PM

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