Conductors command respect through authority rather than power
A retired boxer recently told me that he always got goose bumps when conductors stepped on to the stage. He said he was in awe of their power. Coming from a man with the physique of a taut bass drum and a head as brash as a cymbal, the irony of his words left me speechless.
I am always surprised when people see the job in terms of power. There are certainly conductors who wield considerable influence as a result of their position within the profession, but this tends to apply on mostly extra-musical levels. When it comes to actual rehearsal and performance, power is a complete anathema to the fundamental spirit of music-making.
Authority, on the other hand, is an essential quality for any conductor. Whereas power is something granted to an individual by others, authority is an innate natural ability for which, to labour the etymological point, its owner is quite literally the author. Power can force people against their will, through status or physical strength, but authority persuades people to follow voluntarily, simply through personal influence. It is undeniably more successful in creating genuine musical results. And without it there are definite limits to how much conductors can achieve.
The majority of orchestral players follow the conductor at the very least as a matter of professional practicality. It is a covenant that is part of the process, and the box on which most conductors stand is essentially a symbol of this agreement. Though many of us need the practical vertical assistance (not a surprising number if you believe in the Napoleon complex), the podium is basically just a reflection of the orchestral system, a structure undoubtedly aided by the fact that conductors are the only people in the room standing up. The best performances however, occur when the relationship between players and conductor transcends that of a ‘social contract’. It becomes more than the sum of its parts. And though the mindset of the larger group has a profound role to play, it is the authority of the individual that is most able to provide the catalyst for great large-scale music-making. It is interesting that the same authority does not always flourish in every situation, and there are many conductors to whom some orchestras respond well whilst other groups do not. The right dynamic is a mysteriously delicate chemical balance, and one in which everybody plays their part. Knowledge of its exact ingredients would fetch a high price from both conductors and orchestral musicians alike.
Power normally works through fear, but authority creates through respect. In the long run, even if it looks less impressive, control without oppression is far more successful. Orchestras prefer to be stirred, not shaken. Over time, power damages relationships, and the trappings of power rarely last forever. But natural authority, and one that stops short of being authoritarian, empowers others and lasts a lifetime. It is an encouraging fact that conductors have much longer careers than politicians – and even boxers too!