I’ve been wondering recently about the importance of the physical part of what a conductor does. There are certainly many very renowned musicians with no formal training who are making careers out of conducting (or at least substantially supplementing their usual work with guest conducting.) In many cases these are chamber orchestras or baroque/classical music (often music composed at a time when the conductor as we know him today had yet to become a permanent fixture at the front of the orchestra.) Now I am ruling out poor musicians altogether. I want to know if a conductor can be successful relying on his or her musical mind, without any substantial training in the physical aspects of the task. Does there come a point when a great musician’s lack of training can actually be a detriment on the podium that cannot be overcome by a great musical mind, or even by just a deep passion for the music.
Valery Gergiev says in this documentary :
“For [a] conductor this is a question of how to use his personality and his education… the strength of his character… so that the musicians will be very quickly involved of the atmosphere of the piece. It doesn’t really matter how well you move with your hands. It should be in your face, it should be in your expression. “
Certainly this is true. I find in general that most of what a conductor does is in what he says and how he acts in rehearsal. Gergiev is very intense on the podium (90% of what is available to see him conduct on video is Shostakovich, Prokofiev and other heavy stuff) and it doesn’t matter if he conducts with a toothpick. And not every conductor is Gergiev either. I personally have worked with conductors who says amazing, insightful and inspiring things in a rehearsal, only to have their lack of physical conducting ability undo a lot of that work once they get onto the podium in a performance.
A counterpoint to Gergiev would be Pierre Boulez**. I can honestly say I have no idea if Boulez had any serious formal training as a conductor, but he certainly has had a career that can hardly be touched. As can be seen below Boulez doesn’t let himself appear to be physically affected by the music. Save for an occasional leaning forward for emphasis, he just stands there and provides a simple, clear beat while the music swirls around him as if he’s surrounded by a force field.
Watching more of Boulez conduct lately I have come to appreciate what a clear ictus, unaffected by other body movement can mean for the quality of a performance. One thing that I see many conductors of various experience do which drives me crazy is when conducting in one, the downbeat gradually morphs into an upward motion (or worse yet, a spastic circle, as if wrangling cattle with a lasso) with no clear beginning or end. Any reader who has worked with Boulez – please share some insight into his rehearsal style in the comments, that will help me greatly with a follow up post about conductors and rehearsal style.
Finally, I’d like to talk about one phenomenon that I find strange: orchestras that play way behind the conductors beat, (or perhaps rather, conductors who insist the orchestra plays way behind their beat.) The Philadelphia Orchestra is well known for this. Except for one individual, on two isolated occasions, I have never really worked in this manner. I assume that once you’re used to it it’s not really any more difficult that what I am accustomed to, however, at this point watching it actually happen is still slightly mind boggling. How do you start anything?
And then there’s Carlos Kleiber…
I don’t really understand how some of that is meant to be interpreted, and yet he was one of the 20th Century’s preeminent conductors, so he was clearly doing something right.