Conductors - Why Bother?

07/06/2013 17:29 | Updated 07 August 2013

The Conductor, hero - worshipped and hated possibly in equal measure, seen as a saint by some and an absolute sinner by others. Over the last two centuries the rise of the conductor and their power over our imaginations has been a dramatic journey encompassing towering musical figures from Mendelssohn to Wagner and Mahler and later conductors such as Furtwangler, Bernstein, Karajan and Carlos Kleiber.

Earlier on, the conductor was often also a composer and it was only around the last 200 years that composers began to demand more from and expand orchestras that the musician dedicated to the art and craft of conducting began to emerge.

But in this age - in the west at least - of democracy with its relative personal freedom and self-expression, is it appropriate to have the role of the conductor any longer and what do they actually do to justify their existence at all? Is a conductor really necessary?

In the opera world the role of the conductor is more easily apparent. At its most basic level someone needs to be at the centre of the varied array of performers, - soloists, chorus, orchestra etc. - to direct and lead the ensemble. In the world of symphonic conducting the dynamic between the musicians and the conductor is less obvious.

We all may have experienced that orchestras can play perfectly well without a conductor, especially so in works from the 18th-mid 19th Century. Repertoire including anything from the birth of the symphony by composers such as Andrea Zani and on through Boccherini, Monn and Stamitz through to its classical apotheosis in Haydn and Mozart and on to include Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and even Brahms.

But what about later when the symphony had gone through seismological shifts? In the works of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Prokofiev, Shostakovich or Stravinsky its structure and content, its expressive nature and its very purpose had all radically shifted while Bartok, who although writing copious orchestral repertoire, never wrote a symphony in his life.

With these composers the practical need for a conductor, as in opera, becomes obvious again. The size of the orchestra, often in excess of 100 musicians and the complexity of the works justify pragmatically the conductor's existence.

In this way, the conductor does have the role of a director. But do they need any special skills beyond those of a professional musician for this and how does this meld with the musicians before them, each of whom has their own will, training and expertise about how the work should sound?

Examining the functions of the conductor at is most basic level, the level needed to achieve a routine performance of a work and taking the mechanical issues for granted, i.e. the ability to beat time, there are a number of issues left. If we take a couple of these individually we can start with the question of tempo, i.e. the art of finding the 'true tempo' - as Wagner put it - of a work. The 'speed' a work is performed is a crucial element in its expressive power and is a real art to judge. Then there is the issue of balance, the art of balancing the different sections and instruments of the orchestra, so they are all able to play their role in the score to greatest effect. To achieve this a conductor needs a knowledge of each instrument, its note range or registers, its weak points dynamically and the sound or colours it is possible to elicit from it. If we look at the trumpets as an example, we might ask are they required to sound piercing, as may be required in Shostakovich or Prokofiev or more like chorale as in maybe a Brahms symphony? Another example may be in the strings, should there be vibrato and if so how much and when and how fast should the bow speed be in this chord or phrase? Then, more generally again, there are the questions of expression, dynamics, musical style, concept, cultural background and so it goes on.

After these considerations there are the personal qualities of each conductor, their individual knowledge, perception, ability to express character and articulation, i.e. short notes, sustained notes, light graceful notes, psychological charge, dramatic power -through their beating and gesture, but above all of this, is the individual's power to communicate.

In the end, it is this talent for communication that is the unknowable factor in a conductor's role. Whether it is developing a creative, co-operative atmosphere in rehearsals or somehow projecting their feelings around the orchestra until it reaches the last viola in the back of the section a second before the beginning of a performance.

And so, conductors - why bother? Because in the end, it is this talent for communication, synthesized with all the expertise and knowledge described above, that will make an individual conductor stand above the very good conductor and give lovers of music the possibility of experiencing these great works of art here and now, moment by moment in time that has become hyper reality.

For it is beyond all this, all the multitude of craft, techniques and knowledge a conductor must develop, that their primary aspiration and talent might lie, existing or not, in their ability to communicate what is discovered upon looking into a score and finding there what isn't written.