Composer and conductor Gustav Mahler.
A few days ago someone
asked on Quora, the question-and-answer website why an orchestra
“needs a conductor, when most of time the conductor seems to be doing
nothing.” It’s a good question, because the role of the orchestral
conductor is not widely understood outside the classical music world. Even
less so in the rice fields of Isaan, for someone from the region once asked
me why “there’s always a man dancing in front of the orchestra”.
The tasks of the
conductor depend largely on the type of orchestra. A youth orchestra
conductor for example, has much more work than a guest conductor of a
professional orchestra. Youth orchestra conductors usually have to select
the music, hire the scores and parts, audition the players, book the
rehearsal venue and deal with dozens of minor matters. They might even have
to set up all the chairs and music stands in the rehearsal hall. And you
might detect the voice of experience here. The conductor also has to find
time to study the music. Conductor and orchestra might rehearse for many
weeks or even months before a concert performance. In contrast, conductors
of professional orchestras sometimes have only a few hours rehearsal time
available, occasionally even on the day of the concert.
Conductors have many
more musical tasks than merely beating time, partly due to the limitations
of musical notation. Instructions in the score are usually in Italian and
often vague to say the least. Expressions such as “a bit slower” or
“gradually getting faster” are quite common. Printed music doesn’t tell you
exactly how loudly or how quietly a piece should be played, how short
a staccato note should be, or how a musical phrase should be “shaped”. As a
result, one of the most challenging tasks in performing music is not
necessarily playing the right notes in the right place, but deciding how
to play them.
define a performance and it’s the conductor’s job to make them. It takes
certain personal qualities to convince the members of a sixty-piece
orchestra to “play it my way”. Some conductors manage this with ease, tact
and consummate charm. Others are less successful in the personal skills
department. There are several well-known conductors who are heartily
detested by members of the orchestras they conduct. But as my father used to
say, “No names; no pack-drill.”
study the orchestral score for weeks or months before rehearsals begin. The
score shows what every instrument in the orchestra is playing (or is
supposed to be playing) whereas the players see only their own part. The
conductor is expected to know every detail of the score intimately and some
conductors, notably Gustavo Dudamel commit the entire score to memory. If,
at a concert it looks as though the conductor isn’t doing much, it’s because
most of the work has already been done. Even so, at performance the
conductor still needs to give cues, control tempo and dynamics and ensure
that the orchestral balance is appropriate. Some conductors have the gift of
pulling that little bit extra out of an orchestra at the concert.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): Symphony No. 1 (Rehearsal).
National Youth Orchestra of the USA cond. James Ross (Duration: 1:10:46;
Video: 1080p HD)
This is a splendid
example of a typical youth orchestra rehearsal. They tend to have a high
element of training, so it’s start-stop-start-stop all the way. Notice how
the conductor brings a sense of phrase, shape and balance to the music. He
addresses the “how to” aspect of the music and takes the young musicians
beyond the printed notes. And notice how James Ross does this with such
apparent ease, keeping the musicians on their toes and yet continuously
giving encouragement. Incidentally, when Mahler started this work in 1887 he
was deputy conductor of the Leipzig Opera Orchestra.
Samuel Barber (1910-1981): Adagio for String Orchestra (Rehearsal).
American Symphony Orchestra cond. Leopold Stokowski (Duration: 08.46; Video:
This rehearsal couldn’t
be more different. It was filmed in 1968, as Stokowski and his orchestra
were preparing for a concert in New York City. At the time, Stokowski was 85
years old and no time is wasted with superfluous words. Instructions are
typically given as the musicians are playing. Stokowski wanted the maximum
tone from the string players and continuously pleads “piu, piu” (“more,
You might be surprised
to know that despite his peculiar accent, Stokowski was of English birth.
His father was half Polish and his mother was Irish. He was to become one of
the great conductors of the twentieth century. But how do conductors achieve
“greatness”? Let’s leave that until next week.