Many assess a conductor with their eyes. In other words, the total judgment of a conductor’s value to the art of music is derived by what one sees a conductor do at concerts or rehearsals. In truth, the visible part, although important, is a very small part of the conductor’s art.
I’m not making this up. The following discourse happens to me a lot:
“So, what do you do?” I’m asked.I cheerily reply, “I’m a conductor.”
“Oh,” is the puzzled reaction, followed by, “But what do you do… for a living?”
As straight-faced as I can, I say, “Well, actually, I’m also a part-time brain surgeon. It helps support my hobby.”Satisfied with my explanation, they move on.
Here’s a brief definition I found in a dictionary of the non-railroad and non-electrical variety of conductor:
“Somebody in charge of an orchestra or choir who marks time and signals musicians or singers when and how to play or sing.”Sounds more like directing traffic than making music.
There are books on the subject of conducting and experts who lecture on this topic. Allow me to go in a different direction.
Many assess a conductor with their eyes. In other words, the total judgment of a conductor’s value to the art of music is derived by what one sees a conductor do at concerts or rehearsals.
In truth, the visible part, although important, is a very small part of the conductor’s art.
In the many experiences I have had, I have accumulated three “truths” about conductors and conducting. These truths are what drive me in this profession. They share qualities, to be sure. They also have their own emphasis. All are important in my view.Truth one: The conductor is the composer’s advocate.
One of my most cherished books is by a former Boston Symphony conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, titled, "The Composer’s Advocate." The thrust of this book details the conductor’s mission, and that is to perform the composer’s music as honestly and as accurately as one can.
That comes from all sorts of advance study. Studying the music is a given. But a conductor must also study the social and historical context of the music and the composer. All of this detail helps the conductor interpret the music in a more informed way, getting as close to the composer’s musical intention as possible.
Truth two: The conductor’s chief responsibility is to create an environment in which a musician can play the music.
This comes from one of my most influential conducting teachers, George Hurst, and is a multi-faceted truth. Beating time, as most people understand to be a conductor’s chief chore, may give musicians an idea of the tempo. Choosing the correct tempo for the music allows the music and the musicians to sound their best. But, sometimes, the best thing we can do is to know when not to beat time, leaving a musician alone to render the music in a more appropriate way.
Beating time is not making music. If you march in a band, you don’t need a conductor to keep beating one-two, one-two. If you have a solo oboe needing to be heard over a large orchestra, it’s best to quiet the whole orchestra with minimal gesture so the oboe solo can soar over the orchestra unencumbered. Such moments can be magical ones!
Truth three combines truth one with a third truth; a two-part truth:
Part one: Learn the music as best as you can, getting as close to the composer’s intention and ideal as possible. (A paraphrase of Truth #1.)
Part two: Given your resources, how close to the composer’s ideal can you get?
Boy, is this second part extremely important! It’s this modification to truth one that allows us to share the most music with the most people. How so?
Let’s take Dvorak’s "New World Symphony," for example. We all agree it is wonderful music and the more who experience it, the better.
You can experience this music by listening to it on a recording by a professional orchestra. You can experience it attending a concert performed by a professional or competent community orchestra. You may even be fortunate enough to play a symphonic instrument well enough to experience this music from the inside as a performer. Fantastic! But why stop there?
Like most activities, one can foster a true love and appreciation of music by participating in the process. So what happens if you don’t play a symphonic instrument? Does that mean you can’t experience quality music from the inside?
A local high school band is now rehearsing Dvorak’s "New World Symphony." I know this to be true because I’ve been called in to lead a rehearsal of it. Dvorak didn’t write this symphony for a high school band. Bands, as you know, have no strings attached. Does this mean high school band members should never play this music? Not if you believe in the second part of truth 3. Let’s revisit it.
Given your resources, how close to the composer’s ideal can you get?
In our example it means, “Even with a high school band, how close to Dvorak’s ideal of the "New World Symphony" can we get?” I love the implied opportunities this statement provides.
Many of you attended, were involved with, or heard about the recent performance of the Plymouth (Mass.) Philharmonic and a 250-voice chorus of wonderful high school students performing Mozart’s "Requiem."
I guarantee that music wasn’t composed with the intent to have more than 300 performers present it, let alone the fact that many in the chorus had little experience reading Latin and some couldn’t even read music.
But, using this resource “filter of opportunity,” how close to the composer’s ideal did we get? I say, pretty darn close.
And, getting back to the subject at hand, this is conducting at its best!
Steven Karidoyanes is the conductor of the Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra, Masterworks Chorale, and the New England Conservatory Youth Symphony. Submit your questions regarding music or ideas for this column to MusicMatters.PlymouthPhil@gmail.com.