A Composer's Adventures

The Podium Mystery

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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.

Michael Colgrass


  1. I have always felt that the good conductor has completed his work when the rehearsals are over. Conducting is not gestures on the podium but communication of emotion to the performers. What is done at the concert is primarily to draw the attention of the audience to the music they are listening to and for the enjoyment of the conductor.

  2. Surely this subject will never be put to rest. People respond differently to carrots and sticks. There are so many musical and personal variables here… The conducting problems I face in jazz are slightly different than those that an orchestral conductor faces and jazz music being more free-wheeling seems to benefit from allowing many degrees of freedom. I think many jazz players have an aversion to authority and enjoy personal expression and so a lighter hand on the tiller seems to work better. I like to rehearse tightly woven bits very carefully and then abandon ‘most’ control in performance. That way, the players have a picture of the level of integration that is expected and (hopefully) this spills over into their attitude toward the music as a whole while playing. My rule for jazz is simple – get the best possible players and make the gig as much fun as possible by respecting their way and allowing all.

    Knowing the music and digesting the composer’s intent is critical and if that is missing then I doubt that there can be a superb performance. Players deduce pretty quickly if the conductor has it ‘together’ or not and get inspired or rebel to different types of character. The despot may get better results from those that can ‘take direction’ but it can backfire when players can’t stomach him/her.

    On the subject of conductors; a friend described a new music concert by the New York Philharmonic sometime in the 60s. The piece he described was ‘Concerto for Conductor and Orchestra’. The conductor had to conduct a non-existent score solely by means of gestures. ‘Lenny’ did a great job apparently. That story probably got me started with giving gestures to my band to indicate certain directions in the music.

    A final word from my favorite social and musical commentator, Frank Zappa; “There is another reason for the popularity of ‘dead person music’. Conductors prefer it. Why? Because they need, more than anything else, to LOOK GOOD. By performing pieces that the orchestra members have hacked their way through since conservatory, the rehearsal requirements are minimized, the players go into ‘juke-box mode’ and spool it off with ease, and the conductor, unencumbered by a score with ‘problems’ in it, gets to thrash around in mock-ecstasy for the benefit of the committee ladies who wish he didn’t have any pants on.”

    • Andrew—I too believe the key work is done in rehearsal as I said in my blog re Frank Battisti and his accomplishments as a coach and guide for the musicians. Something is embellished however in performance that can’t take place in rehearsal alone, as demonstrated I believe by the likes of Matthias Bamert. And that element—maybe it’s simply emotion—seems beyond analysis.
      Thanks for your comment,

    • Bruce—I agree that jazz “conducting” requires completely different criteria, and is certainly freer than that of concert orchestral music. There is no doubt that the better the conductor knows the music—has fully ingested it—the better s/he can convey it, and that goes for all types of music. I played many third stream gigs with Gunther Schuller, where the music was both composed and improvised by great jazz musicians. He kept a rather tight reign on the composed parts but really let the musicians go when the jazz stuff came up. He was the best I’ve ever seen at dealing with these crossover styles—a true combination of classical and jazz temperament so rare in most conductors. On the other hand I recall playing a piece with the New York Phil with Leonard Bernstein on the podium, written for the Dave Brubeck quartet by Brubeck’s brother, and watching in pain as Bernstein fought Brubecks’ drummer, Joe Morello, for setting tempos, all the more frustrating to witness since Morello was blind and couldn’t see Bernstein’s stick—another example of old-fashioned tyranny on the podium. Bernstein knew neither what to do nor what to say to make that situation work. I never saw nor heard the ‘Concerto for conductor and Orchestra’ you mentioned, but I do think that ‘Lenny’ thought of most pieces as being just that. (This is the younger Bernstein I’m talking about since he seemed to settle down as he got older.) I think Frank Zappa’s remark while clever is a little pat, since the classics don’t just play by themselves because the musicians know them so well. I am reminded though of Thomas Beecham’s famous remark about how to be a good conductor: “Hire the best musicians and stay out of their way.” I think that’s good advice in all styles of music, and is essentially what you said about what you like to do with your

  3. I too have played under the great Leonard Bernstien, who left me with the concept of expressing the utmost musically, both through direction or contour of each phrase, as well as treatment of every single note that they are comprised of. He had a way of teaching all of this through his conducting jestures; something, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to describe, but has had a most positive affect on my entire musical career. As far as Thomas Beecham’s remark; with regards to my Music Staff Swing Orchestra, I too, firmly believe and very much agree with “Hire the b est musicians and stay out of the way.” You are invited to access my Web. site at: http://www.boneplayer.com, classical music, swing and dixieland jazz. Thank you very much for your interest, time and consideration. Musically your, Frank Pedulla Telephone number: 1(718)706-7085 e-mail: fpboneplayer@yahoo.com

  4. Frank—You’re right that Bernstein expressed the utmost musicality, but that applied mainly to the music he happened to like. I’ve played under him on pieces he didn’t fancy that much and that he had not studied the score for, and watched him learn it off of us while he beat time in the first rehearsal. But when he did know the score he communicated it very capably indeed, using his eyes as well as his stick to clarify much detail. In the long run I admired him for his sheer natural musicality.

  5. I got an email from conductor Leonard Slatkin who disagreed that the reason I got the best performance of my “Crossworlds” from Matthias Bamert was that he was an opera conductor.
    He pointed out a number of conductors who had little experience in the pit but who are notable on the podium. Namely:
    Tilson Thomas

    And to that list you could also add Slatkin, who I’m sure would have done a fine job on my piece.

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