The Conductor's Art

By James David Jacobs

April 2

From an article by Allan Kozinn published in the New York Times on October 27, 1999: ''Rehearsals used to be free-for-alls,'' said Nardo Poy, a violist. ''We'd argue for an hour about one measure and then take a vote on how to play it.''

The title of that article is "Democracy and Anarchy in Concert," and the subject of the article is how the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra manages to make decisions collectively, without a conductor. Later in the article Kozinn mentions that "final rehearsals can be tempestuous to the point that chairs have been thrown."

They have since streamlined their decision-making process, so that, while everyone in the group has the right to speak during rehearsal, final interpretive decisions are made by a rotating core sub-group of players. Even that level of democracy involves the kind of time and lengthy discussions that would be considered unthinkable luxuries for a major symphony orchestra such as the BSO.

There was never a "good old days" when orchestras had all the time in the world to rehearse. The logistics and budgetary issues involved in getting a large group of musicians together have always been problematic. (Mozart and Beethoven both presided over concerts in which the musicians were sight-reading at the performance, sometimes with disastrous results.)

So one very practical reason for the development of conducting was to streamline the rehearsal process by having one person assume an authoritarian role. But this also severely limited the opportunities for individual expression within the ensemble, whose personalities were subsumed to the whole.

The militaristic aspect of this arrangement can't be denied. As the composer Frederic Rzewski states, “I’ve always had ambivalent feelings toward the symphony orchestra, with its rows of string-infantry, woodwind cavalry, and brass artillery. I don’t like the orchestra’s social organization, the oppressive work conditions, and the subservience of many individual gifted artists to a commanding, often non-musical authority. At the same time the thing is there, it exists, and for the purpose of creating beautiful music, which is something it certainly can do."

Rzewski's reference to the "non-musical authority" represents the animosity many people feel toward conductors, not unlike the feelings many sports fans have about coaches. The paradox of symphonic music is that it's a deeply personal statement that requires lots of people to execute.

It's one person's idiosyncratic vision; a symphony cannot be written by a committee, and it could be argued that, therefore, it cannot be interpreted by a committee. The conductor acts as the advocate for the composer.

While this is undeniably a profoundly un-democratic arrangement, a skilled conductor, like a skilled coach, is psychologically astute. She or he knows how to bring the best out of each player, with the result that an orchestra can be more than the sum of its considerable parts.

And a conductor has one more, very important function: to be an advocate for the audience. A conductor can feel the energy in the room, and can know when some aspect of the sound isn't projecting or is projecting too much, or when it's time to move things along or to dwell extra-long on something. A conductor can take risks a group cannot.

It's the job of the musicians to commit to those risks they're asked to take and make the best possible case for them, and the job of the conductor to take responsibility for those risks - which is why he or she gets the credit for a daring but successful performance, and the blame when an unorthodox interpretation doesn't work. It's the musicians' job to go where the conductor takes them, and the conductor's job to inspire them to do so.

Yes, it's tricky; yes, it's politically incorrect; yes, it has certainly been shown that you can have a great orchestra without a conductor; yes, there are times when it's better to have no conductor than an uninspiring one. But when it works, when the combination of great music, great musicians and a great conductor all work in sync, you get something sublimely magical, unmatched by any other human activity.

Here are four versions of the beginning of the second movement of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, illustrating just how a conductor can affect a performance. The first two clips feature the same orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Both were live recordings in the same hall recorded four years apart. However, the two conductors (Leonard Bernstein and Nikolaus Harnoncourt) almost make it sound like two different orchestras playing two different pieces:

Schubert's Symphony No. 5, with conductor Leonard Bernstein and the Concertgebouw Orchestra

Schubert's Symphony No. 5, with conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concertgebouw Orchestra

Here are two more versions of the same excerpt, both performed by orchestras using period instruments and historically informed performance practice. But the two conductors, Sir Charles Mackerras and Sir Roger Norrington, demonstrate that even conductors striving for authenticity can have radically different conceptions of the music:

Schubert's Symphony No. 5, with conductor Sir Charles Mackerras and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Schubert's Symphony No. 5, with conductor Sir Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players

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