A stale and slow-moving mind is of no use in a first-class orchestra, and an unfit body cannot cope with the physical strain involved. Those players really worth their salt are frequently expert at other accomplishments.

(Bernard Shore, The Orchestra Speaks)

Every single one of the musicians in any professional orchestra has won an audition over sometimes dozens and dozens of competitors, made it through one or two years of his/her trial period, and is required to play difficult pieces, well, day in and day out. If they can’t play the right notes, they can’t work. If a conductor can’t hear wrong notes, he has no business being a conductor. That is just as much a basic requirement of his job as the musicians being able to play the right notes (at least) on their instruments. There are many, many hollow posers and impostors on the podium. It is much easier to fake being a conductor than being a musician.

I saw Claudio Abbado given a very hard time by the brass players of the London Symphony Orchestra. The off-stage guys went to the pub part way through a rehearsal, there was quite a fuss about that one. Abbado was very angry at how some of the musicians behaved, and he walked off to cool down. The performance however was as exciting and electric as could be imagined. This was the same orchestra that decided to get back at Carreras when he said his fluffs were caused by dropped pencils. Abbado and the singer were then subjected to a barrage of pencil-dropping whenever he opened his mouth. In a way Carreras asked for it, but the players did not have to give it.

What is musically good and bad or emotionally communicative is really a different thing. A technically outstanding conductor who hears everything and knows how to rehearse and direct the orchestra is not a different kind of poser. If he knows his stuff, has good ears, knows the score and has a conception of it that he can bring across in rehearsal, then he is not a poser at all. You or I may not like the interpretation that results from that, but one has to separate that from technical qualities.

But if someone does not have these technical qualities and knowledge, then he also cannot develop a valuable interpretation of a complex orchestral piece and direct 80-100 musicians performing it. Whipping up a little excitement and relying on the orchestra to carry the conductor through the piece so that he looks good is not good conducting – although some good performances sometimes happen despite a bad conductor. But only when the orchestra comes through in spite of him. Which can be really dificult.

Although real messing with the conductor incidents do occur and they make for better stories, that rarely happens in good professional orchestras in the way of “let’s test this guy and give him a hard time”. It does happen sometimes, but not often, I would say. And that’s not even necessary. It is hard to describe, but when a conductor does not know his stuff, it becomes apparent very quickly, and after only a short while longer, it is pretty much clear if he knows what he is doing or not. If yes, it can make a huge difference in the ensemble playing experience. If not, then it can be a very big pain in the arse and immensely frustrating. Musicians most of the time don’t even need to test conductors – it often becomes apparent very quickly if they are any good or not.

One should always try to co-operate with the conductor, but sometimes, it’s just not possible and the problems aren’t a matter of different views about the music or anything like that – that doesn’t really matter anyway, because an important part of the craft of the orchestral musician is to be able to grasp and realize many different concepts, after all, if everybody did what they wanted, there would be no ensemble – it is simply that the man with the stick does not belong in front of an orchestra.

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