The activity of conducting an orchestra for a concert or in opera, and the role of the conductor, have been discussed predominantly in poetic terms. Just as in any other form of art, or probably even in any field of life, there is the average performance of the activity of conducting, in which the conductor displays a certain achievement in the techniques associated with the activity, certain acquired, learnt and practices skills that can be taught in person or through manuals, such as the kinds of movements that are needed,
|The conductor's gestures|
reading the score, and transmitting the score to the orchestra. Conductors need to have musicality, and need to be able to communicate mainly through gesture, without words (at least in the performance, very often also the rehearsal). Conductors need to know how to handle people (after all, their orchestra consists of up to 100 or more instrumentalists), and need authority (but, some say, without alienating the orchestra players. Eye contact is important for this, as Bernard Haitink demonstrated in a master class (Masterclass Media Foundation, 2015).
Extraneous movement is not needed, also demonstrated vividly by Haitink in masterclasses—suggesting to one trainee conductor to engage less in head movements (Masterclass Media Foundation, 2015), and holding the left arm of another young conductor down when she was doing too much with it, unnecessarily (rising conducting star Karina Canellakis, nmz Media, 2015, 5:00). Conductors need to listen in the head and then compare, to check whether the sound the orchestra produces matches what they hear inwardly. Perfection that a conductor may aspire to exists only in the conductor’s head: as Yakov Kreizberg put it: “You can determine what your goal is and you can strive to achieve that goal (…) but you’re not likely to completely fulfil it” (Duffie, 2002, 37-38).
In addition to interviews with conductors, or articles about conducting in newspapers or magazines, there are some scientific, empirical studies of this art. Biasutti, for example, concludes on the basis of a qualitative study involving 10 conductors and 10 performers:
The conductor needs a good memory, listening skills, clear gestures, a suitable choice of repertoire; he or she must be able to project his or her musical interpretation, respect compositional ideas and understand the musical character and style of the piece. The conductor has a holistic approach which combines technical, expressive and interpretation issues with consideration of the music as a whole. High-level instrumental technique, listening and feedback are important aspects for orchestral players, but also social skills since players have to work collaboratively, following the conductor’s instructions and sharing the assignments with other members of the orchestra. (2012, 68).
Khodyakov studied the relationship between guest conductors and the orchestras they work with, in terms of the concepts of power, authority and legitimacy. He concludes that “because of the temporary nature of guest conductor–musicians relationships, the success of this negotiation depends on the extent to which guest conductors can signal their readiness to build trustworthy and respectful relationships with musicians and invest in impression management” (2014, 64).
Koivunen and Wennes explored the role of the conductor in terms of leadership qualities, such as authority, physical and mental fitness, ambitions, intelligence, communication skills, and charisma (2011, 52). They refer to Ladkin’s 2008 study of beautiful leadership, a “bodily embodied practice” which consists of “mastery, congruence and purpose” (2011, 56). They further point to research suggesting that many conductors are in fact not loved, but hated by the musicians in their orchestra (2011, 58). They do not suggest correlations between love or hatred and beauty of the experience of the music created by orchestras where either one or the other dominates the conductor-orchestra relationship. I would expect that hatred does is not conducive to great art.
There is a marked difference between average performance and great achievement, and it is here that technique remains as the necessary basis, but is being surpassed in peak performance (evoking Maslow’s concept of peak experience, 1968), or flow (Csikzentmihalyi, 1993). The phrases then used to describe the experience of being in the presence of a great conductor, of music conducted by a great conductor, become poetic: magical or alchemical (Burton-Hill, 2014), implying a “cosmic level of music-making” (conductor Mariss Jansons quoted in Burton-Hill, 2014).
Charisma comes into the discussion here as well: it is the only concept in this context that has been subjected to hesitant and mainly inconclusive empirical study, where the result does not go much beyond the insight that charisma is an important part of a conductor’s ability, and some conductors have more charisma and other less (see for example, Running, 2011). An exception is the study of collective virtuosity, collective peak performance in an orchestra, by Marotto, Roos and Victor (2007).
Conductor Tara Simoncic explains that “there is an electricity and energy that exists between the conductor and musicians. If you bring the right energy, they will know exactly what you want from the music through your physical movement, facial expressions and energy (2013). The great conductor passes a current from one sphere to another, and what happens then between a great conductor and her or his orchestra is possibly a form of telepathy. Antonio Pappano commented:
“You can feel it, strangely enough, when people say that there’s a great atmosphere in the house. That has a lot to do not only with your performance and the performances coming from the stage, but how the audience is reacting to it at the moment (…) You feel the silence (…) That’s why people come to the theatre, for that (…) frisson. (Duffie, 2008, 34).
Werner Thärichen, timpani in the Berlin Philharmonic, reports that, trained also as a conductor and composer, he would have the score on his instrument during rehearsals. On one occasion, he noticed a beautiful, now sound developing. It did not come from the conductor running the rehearsal, but then he noticed Furtwängler standing in the entrance. He was carrying the sound within him so strongly that his mere presence drew it from the musicians (nuevamusicologia 2012, 55:19)
In conversation with Hans Binder, whose philosophy I have explored in detail in my book Observing Theatre: Spirituality and Subjectivity inthe Performing Arts. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013, the following further aspects of the “mystery” of conducting emerge: when the conductor and the orchestra come together, they form, and unite within, an energy field. This energy field is composed of the energy fields of all players and the conductor, and all aspects of conductor’s profile that I discussed above come into this. The energy field of orchestra and conductor together can be characterised by less or more harmony. The extent to which the players’ and the conductor’s consciousness has been developed feeds in to this energy field, as does their dedication to their art, and the extent to which they have developed their heart energies, and allow those to enter the energy field of the orchestra-conductor encounter in rehearsals and performances. A warm heart and a high level of sincerity are essential qualities for a conductor—Dimitrij Kitajenko recalls that one of his foremost teachers, Yevgeny Svetlanov, “told the orchestra musicians everything with his magic hands and his heart” (2015).
According to Binder, all humans are on earth for a very individually specific purpose. If that purpose is to be a conductor, then different conductors will have different tasks in relation to their art and craft, in relation to the purposes and needs of the players and the spectators / listeners. Some will be more sensitive and cater for those players and audiences who need or appreciate that aspect of music, while others may well have the task to communicate more raw aspects of the music, which will be highly appreciated by others. This explains the differences in our perception of music, but does so without the need to take recourse to value judgements. We can agree to disagree when we find that someone else does not like the conductor we admire, and vice versa, without attributing weakness or other negative characteristics to either the conductor or the fellow-listener.
Biasutti, Michele. 2012. Orchestra rehearsal strategies: Conductor and performer views; Musicae Scientiae 17(1): 57-71.
Burton-Hill,Clemncy. 2014. What does a conductor actually do?” BBC Culture, 31 October.
Csikzentmihalyi, Mihaly (1993) The evolving self: A psychology for the third millennium. New York: Harper Collins.
Duffie, Bruce. 2002. Conversation Piece: Conductor Yakov Kreizberg. Opera Journal 35 (2-3): 29-46.
Duffie, Bruce. 2008. Conversation Piece: Conductor Antonio Pappano. Opera Journal 41 (3-4): 27-45.
Khodyakov, Dmitry. 2014. Getting in tune: A qualitative analysis of guest conductor–musicians relationships in symphony orchestras. Poetics 44: 64-83.
Kitajenko,Dimitrij. 2015. There is always part of a mystery. ICMA, Interviews. 9 March.
Koivunen, Niina, and Grete Wennes. 2011. Show us the sound! Aesthetic leadership of symphony orchestra conductors. Leadership 71 (1): 51-71.
Ladkin, Donna. 2008. Leading beautifully: How mastery, congruence and form create the aesthetic of embodied leadership practice. Leadership Quarterly 19(1): 31–41.
Marotto, Mark, Johan Roos and Bart Victor. 2007. Collective Virtuosity in Organizations: A Study of Peak Performance in an Orchestra. Journal of Management Studies 44 (3): 388-413.
Maslow, A. (1968) Towards a Psychology of Being. New York: Van Nostrand.
The Masterclass Media Foundation. 2015. Haitink:Conducting And The Importance of Eye-contact. Youtube, 22 July.
nmzMedia. 2015. Meisterkurs Dirigieren Youtube, 13 March.
nuevamusicologia. 2012. The Art of Conducting: Great Comductors of the Past. Youtube, 29 July.
. I’m an orchestra conductor. What do you want to know? The Guardian, 22 July.