The Podium Mystery
How do some conductors achieve awe-inspiring results, while others seem to be mere traffic cops? Here’s an interesting NY Times article about how conductors do what they do, with attempts to analyze their techniques.
All kinds of gestures by conductors were reviewed, with comments on the pros and cons of each style. The importance of a conductor’s charisma was also mentioned, but body language was the big subject.
What I found missing was the importance of the conductor’s role as a teacher and coach in rehearsals. Not everything can be shown in a gesture and some things need to be said. A case in point was the recording of my “Arctic Dreams” on Centaur Records, played by the New England Conservatory wind ensemble with Frank Battisti. It is interpreted impeccably.
I just listened to it again and remembered Battisti’s conducting. I still can’t for the life of me understand how he got everything so right. I do recall him talking to the 50-plus ensemble in rehearsal, and though I couldn’t always hear what he said his instructions were obviously spot on, because the players did exactly what I wanted. So a good conductor has much more than the right gestures. He or she must also be a master teacher and coach to bring out the essence of the music.
Different conductors strike a different balance between verbal and physical communications. Add the mysterious subconscious communication that I can’t even begin to analyze. Some conductors convey a feeling by their very presence and their style of moving their arms – from “knitting a sweater” to raging with the elements. Both extremes can create an instant rapport with the musicians.
I found a striking example of conductors shaping the performances of my “Crossworlds” for flute, piano and orchestra, which featured Marina Piccinini on flute and Andreas Haefleger on piano. The work had four performances with four different conductors and orchestras: the Boston Symphony, The Washington National, the Montreal Symphony and finally the Winnipeg Symphony orchestra. Of these, Winnipeg was notably different. Why? I coached the rehearsals for all performances and the soloists were the same. The only difference, beside the orchestras, was the conductor. I won’t mention the conductors of the first three orchestras lest you think I’m criticizing their performance. They were all veteran conductors and excellent in their own way. But the fourth conductor in Winnipeg, Matthias Bamert, made the piece sound quite different. Every episode seemed to flow so logically into the next that the overall effect of the 32-minute work had the naturalness of a river — very clear to follow and understand.
So how was Bamert different? I think the best clue is that he is an opera conductor and therefore used to conveying complex musical ideas to musicians. Opera conductors are known for this ability to conduct complex pieces. So the feeling of the Winnipeg performance was warmer and better shaped than the other three orchestras’ performances. But aside from those characteristics, it’s a complete mystery to me how Bamert accomplished so much with the same rehearsal time all the other conductors had.
It’s fascinating to explore the three creative elements that determine the outcome of a performance: the composer, the performer and the conductor. The conductor carries the more ‘heroic’ role and gets lots of praise for a job well done. I have played under many great conductors and worked with them at performances of my own work. They are definitely at the controls. Lots of mystery is buried in their rarified profession, and much of it I don’t understand to this day.
Here’s another interesting article about a scientific study of conducting.