The art of the conductor

Geoffrey Norris
Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Geoffrey Norris talks to six leading maestros in his quest to discover what makes a conductor a true master of their art

Sir Thomas Beecham famously remarked that there are two golden rules for an orchestra: ‘Start together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between.’ This is one of those flip, caustic one-liners for which Beecham has been immortalised. Describing Herbert von Karajan as ‘a sort of musical Malcolm Sargent’ is another. But at the opposite end of the spectrum of conductors’ aspirations, a great maestro of our own age, Mariss Jansons, says that he constantly strives for his performances to be ‘cosmic’. In between and alongside these two extremes there are legions of conductors, each with his or her own attitude to the profession, each with his or her own way of conveying to an orchestra the nub of what is being aimed at in interpretation. Compare the waggling fingers of a Valery Gergiev with the strong beat of a Jiří Bĕlohlávek, or the strenuous aerobics of a Gianandrea Noseda with the quieter mien of a Sir Colin Davis. Each one gets results but in different ways. As Jansons says, ‘Gesture is the language of the conductor.’ The trouble is that gesture can speak in so many diverse tongues that the world of conductors can seem like the Tower of Babel.

Conducting is a mysterious art. Mark Wigglesworth describes it as ‘shaping the invisible’. Whereas the ability to make an orchestra start and finish together is clearly a useful attribute in a conductor, it is equally clear that there is more to it than a BBC programme such as Maestro would have us believe: a few weeks’ training of the previously uninitiated is in sharp contrast to a musician such as Bernard Haitink, at 83 still poring over scores he’s been performing for decades, pondering on ways in which his interpretation could be improved.

During the quarter-century or so that I was working full-time at the Daily Telegraph, I used to attend a couple of hundred concerts a year, many of them orchestral and all of them posing the same question as to how one conductor might be able to transport the listener to uncharted emotional realms while another might give the impression of simply being what the Italians so delightfully dub a batti tempo, or time-beater. Now, at last, I have been able to sit down with six of our leading conductors and try to fathom the answers. I decided that it would not be particularly diplomatic to approach a conductor and ask why he or she is such a dud, so I deliberately chose to concentrate on highly respected conductors at the forefront of the profession – Marin Alsop, Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons, Kirill Karabits, Michael Tilson Thomas and Mark Wigglesworth – to investigate the various ways in which they tackle their job, and to establish whether there are any common denominators.

A common approach

If we take talent as a given (I shall touch on that knotty topic again later), the crucial question seems to be one of psychology: the manner in which a conductor deals with an orchestra and establishes a fruitful relationship – or not, as the case may be. Maya Iwabuchi, who’s been leader of the Philharmonia Orchestra since 1994 and now also shares the leader’s chair in the RSNO, says that it’s easy to make immediate judgements about a conductor, but that she endeavours not to. Her approach, if the first rehearsal has not gone too well, is to give it time and see how the concert itself fares. What she is looking and hoping for is a conductor who has ‘clear messages to give to the musicians about interpretation, structure and emotional value, and is then able to convey them physically. Good or bad, the conductor affects everything that happens, how an orchestra plays.’

From the conductors’ perspective, there is a fair degree of consensus about what they are aspiring to do. The idea of terrorising or intimidating an orchestra into achieving results is not today an option and probably never was in any universal sense, although George Szell and Arturo Toscanini certainly had reputations for fiery tempers and for firing musicians on the spot if their authority was challenged. The modern union system would have something to say about that, and in any case, as Wigglesworth comments, ‘Most orchestras have a fundamental say in who their conductors are. In that respect, conducting is harder than it used to be, because authority is not granted automatically. You don’t have power as a conductor. What you have is the power to empower.’ The art of conducting, he maintains, ‘is the ability to convince people of the strength of your convictions. I spend a lot of time studying with the score, and if I’m clear about what I feel and why, I hope that it transmits itself.’ Tilson Thomas stresses that a conductor needs ‘to resolve issues of ensemble, balance, nuance, and to help a large number of people appreciate where “now” is’ – to find a focus when each musician in the orchestra might have particular thoughts on what should be happening. ‘It’s the members of the orchestra who are actually giving the concert, and the conductor’s job is to inspire them, make them confident and do the best they can.’ For Alsop, the primary role of a conductor is ‘to be the messenger of the composer, to bring the composer to life in a compelling way’. For Karabits, the conductor ‘helps the orchestra to perform; he is only one element of a process. Making music is about sharing with others.’

Then there is Jansons, reaching out for the cosmos. I make no secret of the fact that I have been an ardent admirer of Jansons for decades, since way back when he conducted what was then the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, through his long tenure in Oslo, his guest conducting in London, and now with the supreme Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. Years ago I wrote a review that, perhaps because of natural English squeamishness about such things, seemed a bit purple when I read it in the paper the next morning; it was about a concert that Jansons had conducted during which I had somehow felt lifted out of the confines of the auditorium into a completely different world, where the only thing that existed seemed to be the music. It was an odd sensation and doesn’t happen with any regularity, but it went way beyond merely judging whether the concert had been good or not. Jansons has spoken often in recent times about his cosmic objectives, and my experience was clearly one in which I had rocketed into the stratosphere.

Jansons is quite clear about what he means. ‘For us,’ he says, ‘the cosmos is something special, almost untouchable. It’s outside our world.’ The analogy in terms of music has come to him gradually over the years. ‘When I was a student,’ he says, ‘I followed everything I was taught. I had big authorities as teachers – Karajan, Nikolay Rabinovich, Evgeny Mravinsky; and also there was what papa [the conductor Arvīds Jansons] said. When I was young, I had many complexes. I came from Riga. The level of music in Leningrad [where I studied] was higher, and I could not speak Russian. Also I didn’t want everyone to think that I was just the son of Arvīds Jansons. For me it was very important to follow everything that was written in the score. Then with the years you develop. You talk with your colleagues and you start to analyse why a concert made such a big impression on you. Notes are only signs, and you realise that there is something beyond. Accents, tempi, crescendos – you should follow them all and do them well, but if you do everything that is written it is not enough. There has to be imagination, atmosphere, an appreciation of musical content and context. This is difficult to explain, because it’s more to do with your feelings and emotions. If you reach this situation and this level of imagination, I think it should be an unbelievable feeling, not only for us as musicians but for the public as well. This is what I think should be the goal. This is what I call cosmic.’

All these responses are part of the same equation, and in different ways each of the conductors I spoke to had comparable ideas about their aims, with music at the forefront and absolutely no suggestion of self-aggrandisement. It is perhaps inevitable that we, as the audience, view the conductor as the mouthpiece or spokesman of a performance. He or she is not only the one who is responsible for managing a large body of people, but also the one who has to galvanise them, enthuse them towards reaching an artistic end. The conductor has to be the final arbiter in matters of interpretation, or else anarchy might ensue. If something goes pear-shaped or the performance is dull, the conductor is the one who tends to get the brickbats. If it all goes swimmingly and the interpretation strikes an emotional chord with the audience, the conductor is the hero of the evening.

In rehearsal

The majority of a conductor’s work is done long before the audience witnesses the finished product on the platform, first in private study of the score, then in rehearsal. And rehearsal technique is a vital clue to the mystery of how a conductor achieves success or failure with orchestral players. Karajan, as Jansons reminds us, used to say that the first lesson a conductor needs to learn is how not to destroy an orchestra: ‘You have to feel what an orchestra needs.’ Alsop says that when she was starting out as a conductor she used to practise rehearsal technique at home, with a stopwatch. This has given her a reliable internal clock that allows her to judge the finishing time accurately and never to need reminding when the musicians’ tea break is due.

But rehearsing is more than just timing, and, as she says, can differ from orchestra to orchestra and from country to country. ‘In Japan musicians practically memorise their scores, and there’s no talking in rehearsals. This is a level of discipline I’m not used to. In France it’s just the opposite. In London I try to establish a good sense of humour, get things done, and get out. In Germany you never let the musicians go early, because they are accustomed to more rehearsal time.’ Karabits reiterates the point that in Germany ‘orchestras want to be pushed in rehearsals, need exact ideas and want defined answers to questions’. Other orchestras, other nationalities, have other requirements, and a conductor needs to appreciate what those requirements are and to be adaptable, while at the same time asserting authority and commanding respect.

Wigglesworth says that you can sense within 10 seconds whether an orchestra is with you. Pieter Roosenschoon, who has been a viola player with the Concertgebouw since 1970, says that you know what to expect from a new conductor after the first 10 minutes. But however long it takes, the conductor has to establish a rapport pretty quickly. Some conductors use the metaphor of meeting someone for the first time – whether the handshake is good, whether the other person looks at you directly (or too directly); you can sense at once if you like them or not. It is a subtle psychological process, and perhaps the most important one governing the final quality of the performance.

Some conductors talk to the orchestra during rehearsal, others don’t, or at least keep their comments to a minimum. All of those I have spoken to emphasise the fact that the important thing is how you talk to an orchestra. The players are professionals; they can see the nitty-gritty of a score, its phrasing, its dynamic markings, and they know what to do with them. Musicians do not want to hear a lot of waffle or be lectured at, but they do need to have a clear vision of what the conductor wants. Channels of understanding have to be activated between the conductor and the section principals, and between the principals and their sections. In the worst-case scenario of a conductor being indecisive or inadequate, as Iwabuchi explains, the principals have to ensure that, through ‘some kind of driving force and collective energy’, the best possible performance is none the less achieved. ‘These days there’s a lot at stake – reputations to think of; there’s a determination not to fail.’

Getting results

If words are needed, conductors seem to find more mileage in poetic references than in the crudely practical or technical. Alsop uses ‘key descriptive words, insights into the composer, but no long-winded storytelling’. Jansons recognises the importance of what he calls ‘the organising process’, but rather than say that a passage needs to be softer, he will ask the orchestra to imagine some kind of mysterious atmosphere. Or elsewhere he might call to mind a letter that Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann. ‘It’s a different way of getting a result,’ he says. He also remembers the great Carlos Kleiber’s approach: ‘The way he explained things was very relaxed, full of humour. It all depends on how you introduce ideas – if you are exciting and express things in an exciting way, the musicians will follow.’

As to the extent to which an orchestra should be drilled in rehearsal, Jansons maintains that ‘if you rehearse too much it’s bad, if you don’t rehearse enough it’s bad. If you rehearse too much, it can be boring and routine; if not enough then people are tense.’ But the quality that shines from the great conductors is not just that a performance is immaculately prepared but also that the audience senses a degree of spontaneity. ‘Spontaneous things are incredibly important,’ says Jansons. ‘During the rehearsals you must feel that the musicians are sure, and then I ignite the fire during the performance. You should yourself be fresh and excited. I try to make each concert an event. You must sometimes do something that has never been done during rehearsal and perhaps will surprise an orchestra. Personally, when I repeat programmes on tour, I always try to do something differently.’ He recalls his first tour with the Oslo Philharmonic, in particular a UK concert in Leeds, playing Sibelius: ‘I wanted something new and spontaneous, but they didn’t respond. Afterwards, I said, “Look, you must be alert, because every concert will be different.”’ This is echoed by Wigglesworth when he says, ‘Each concert must be unique.’

Haitink has always said that his verbal reticence in rehearsals stems from the fact that he was extremely shy as a young conductor and so had to express everything through gesture – a stance that he maintains to this day. Viola player Roosenschoon, who has worked under both Haitink and Jansons in the Concertgebouw, confirms that Haitink does ‘everything through body language’. As Haitink himself says, ‘When you really know a piece, really have it in your blood, it comes by itself through your arms and personality. That’s what I want to try and tell younger conductors who come to me. Nowadays there are all sorts of means available, videos, CDs and so on. The young conductors have seen everything – Karajan, Bernstein, Böhm – and they know all the tricks. But the problem is that they conduct themselves. I say, “Forget yourself. Let the music come through your arms and get to the orchestra. They need it.”’

Of course, body language is the only tool that a conductor has at his disposal during an actual concert. Alsop calls it the crux of the profession. For Jansons, ‘Every movement should come naturally from inside as a result of your feelings and what you want to express.’ He recalls the Italian Willy Ferrero conducting Ravel’s Boléro, starting with the baton tucked up his sleeve and slowly letting it emerge as the music got louder. And then there was Fritz Busch, who wore white gloves for the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and black ones for the funeral march. While he concedes that these are ‘interesting ideas’, you sense that neither Jansons nor indeed any of the conductors I have talked to would need to resort to such measures to make their desired impact.

All of my interviewees teach conducting as well as practising the art themselves, so I ask whether conducting can in fact be taught. And here’s the bad news. Yes, you can teach aspects of technique, give guidance on how to marshal a rehearsal and offer other practical advice. Greater experience of music and life will inevitably colour a conductor’s character as he or she gets older, but at the root of it there has to be natural talent and instinct. Alsop calls it the X-factor, and she can tell whether the conductors she teaches have it or not. The capacity to inspire and carry an orchestra with you is innate. It cannot be learnt. ‘The challenge for a young conductor’, says Tilson Thomas, ‘is to know what possibilities you can offer, to accept that there are so many different ways to play a piece.’ The conducting gene, says Jansons, is ‘some kind of energy that comes out of you and passes to another human being. But I can’t get inside another conductor and give him this gift. You either have it or you don’t.’

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Gramophone.

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