I recently had a chance (but was not able) to go see Edo de Waart conduct John Adams’s “The Chairman Dances,” which is one of my desert island pieces. De Waart conducted the original recording that Adams himself uploaded to YouTube. However, I did get to see a live performance of the piece last weekend, as luck would have it, along with my beloved Sibelius No. 2 in D which I played in All-State Orchestra. It got me thinking about a childhood spent playing in orchestras, something I absolutely adored and was thrilled to get out of school for. What makes for a good conductor? What were some of the memorable experiences I remember? As an adult, I have sung in a few choruses and ensembles. I have also studied and done a bit of conducting, so this contributes to my understanding of the field.
A conductor is not supposed to be “nice.” Granted, s/he must not be abusive or inappropriate, and thank goodness for the changes that are being made to create safer musical environments. We do not need Levine’s behavior again or a fictitious Lydia Tár. But some musicians complain about conductors who are tough and not friendly while conducting, to which my answer is, they are not there to be your friend. A conductor should be demanding. His/her number one priority is to get the best sound possible out of the orchestra or chorus. Did the second violins not get that passage right? Well then, let’s do it again with that section until we get it right. Are the altos coming in too early? Then let’s try the entrance with all four voices. The conductor’s priority is the sound, and the various instruments/voices are the components that comprise that sound.
The popular opinion is that a conductor is simply beating time, but there is so much more to the art. How well does a conductor cue the instruments’ entrances? Indicate dynamics? How does the conductor beat time–with a baton or with hands, slightly ahead of- or right on the beat? Not even top-tier orchestra conductors do this well– there is one who comes to mind whom I dare not mention, but his conducting style was with his hands cupped and rather odd. Does the conductor emote in an over-the-top way, like a Bernstein, or is s/he more subdued, indicating only the minimum, trusting that the musicians are reading the score and having an internal sense of how to express the composer’s intentions? And on that last point, the style of conducting will vary based on the composer. A concerto grosso or Handel opera will require different demands than a Mahler symphony or a 20th century work by William Grant Still.
A good conductor knows what to highlight in the music. If conducting Dvořák, the strings are especially lyrical. Sibelius often features majestic, powerful brass, but it must not overpower the lighter instruments. The aforementioned “The Chairman Dances” requires razor-sharp, precision timing with absolutely no room for error. The conductor knows how to get the best tone color from each instrument, and what the musicians in each section are able to do. The woodwinds might be very strong in an orchestra, but the basses weak, for example, or there might be the proverbial problem of not enough tenors in a chorus, so the repertoire chosen must be suited to that issue.
Certain exercises can be very helpful even if the ensemble members find them unorthodox. When I was a senior in high school, during All-State Orchestra the conductor had each pair of stand partners sit in a different place in an orchestra, i.e., a pair of tubas might sit next to a pair of violins, etc. This was a wonderful and challenging exercise because it forced each instrument to be very aware of their part, their entrances, and to be able to maintain their own musical line while sitting next to a completely different instrument that was doing something else. When in junior high, I had a great privilege of attending a string orchestra camp where the gifted Robert Spano was conducting us (even at my young age, I knew he would be going places.) He made us play a line of Corelli over and over, looking to see that we were within 2 inches of the other violinists’ bows to maintain a consistency of sound. While some might call this exigent, fussy, or demanding, to me, it was a sign of a brilliant conductor who respected the music. The exercise has stuck with me all these years, and I suppose subconsciously I still observe how closely the violinists’ bow strokes are to each other in an orchestra.
Opera is a whole different beast which merits its own blog post, but an opera conductor must lead the orchestra as well as the singers on stage (who are at a whole different eye level). What makes this especially challenging is that the conductor must lead the orchestra according to the singers. Granted, singers must not take excessive liberties with the music, but the orchestra is there to serve the singer, not the other way around. If the singer is taking rubato, for example, the conductor must be aware of this and make sure that the orchestra is observing exactly what the singer is doing, even if they think the piece needs to resume a tempo. This sounds like an obvious thing to do, and yet I have observed countless professional performances where this does not happen.
Finally, there is the point of women conductors. Women make for excellent conductors, as we are often multitaskers. Often, we have to juggle many things at once–career, children, spouse–and these skills are a big asset to conducting. One could argue that women by nature are expressive and have a biology that allows us to be very much in touch with our emotions. We have strongly developed right and left brains. I was fortunate to be conducted by a Bowling Green State University named Emily Freeman Brown professor as a child, and a couple others along the way. However, it is quite disheartening to see the dearth of women conductors in the top tiers, though that is slowly changing, thanks to Marin Alsop and those who have come before and after her. And it is disheartening to think that there are fewer minority professional women conductors–I can’t think of one. This is something that must change, and women have to be encouraged and give us the opportunities to rise in the field of major professional conducting. There is no good reason why a woman isn’t as good of a conductor as a man, and precedent is no excuse.