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Is a conductor really necessary in classical performances?

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by Taylor Livingston, Feb 26, 2008.

  1. Taylor Livingston

    Taylor Livingston Supporting Member Commercial User

    Dec 25, 2002
    Oregon, US
    Owner, Iron Ether Electronics
    I have never been a part of a traditional classical performance, but I write music that involves cello, doublebass, viola, and violin. I have never played live with this music, but when I play with these musicians, they learn the piece, and I don't have to conduct for them (and I wouldn't). Coming from a band-oriented perspective in music, I expect the people performing a piece to know it. So I don't really get the need for a conductor.

    I realize that working with a large group like an orchestra presents some complications, and the most obvious one is making sure everybody stays in time with each other. But to me, it's far easier to just listen to the people I'm playing with, rather than trying to play in time with a bouncing baton. In terms of dynamics and expression, shouldn't the orchestra playing a piece know how they should be playing before they perform it live? Is it not ridiculous that such talented people need to be told during a performance when to diminuendo or when they should be playing pizzicato?

    A related issue is the need for sheet music. Even when they are hammering out Pachelbel's Canon, it seems classical musicians need a sheet with the notes in front of them. Some comedian had a good quip about this, when Guns N Roses performed with an orchestra, and the orchestra all had sheet music in front of them:

    "So Slash can remember the tune, but the first violin of the Boston Philharmonic is having a little trouble?"

    "A? Now A minor. . .uh oh, back to A! My fifty years of training did not prepare me for this!"

    This sort of thing wouldn't be tolerated in any other form of music, of course (I'd like to see the reactions if I showed up to an RnB gig with sheet music and asked the band leader to let me know when I need to be palm muting). So why is it that in a world of such talented and knowledgable musicians, a conductor and sheet music are always necessary?
  2. bigthemat


    Jan 25, 2008
    Salt Lake City
    You want to memorize an hour long symphony? There is a lot of notes. It is one thing to remember a chord progression that repeats, but 4, 5 different movements of incredibly intricate and friggin hard music? Also, in pro orchestras, You have the music for about a week, rehearse like twice, put on a concert, and never see it again.

    As for a conductor. Have 50 people come in on a soft, rubato passage all at the same time. With no conductor, it is impossible. Sure, if you are trucking along in the same tempo (and not rushing... ha ha ha, like that will happen), it MIGHT happen, but in a huge group (100+) of a full orchestra, you need some help, especially when the tempo is slow, or there is a fermata, etc.

    Also, the conductor hears what is sounds like in the front. As a brass player, I hear the brass well, but not the strings. So I don't know how well I am blending half the time. Of course, you should always be listening to the other players, but you see a fortissimo passage, belt it out, and it is too loud. The conductor gives you the hand (i.e. shut up!!) and suddenly the blend is great.

    Also, conductors are incredible musicologists. Everyone I have been under knows so much about the composers. I learned more about mahler the past 2 months working on his 4th symphony than I have in the rest of my classical career.

    I can kind of see where you are coming from, but if you perform in an orchestra, you will see how important the conductor really is.

    If you want to see some good conducting, get Simon Rattle's DVD of Mahler 5. That man is INCREDIBLE.
  3. Marcury

    Marcury High and Low

    Aug 19, 2007
    Mid Hudson Valley, NY
    At the risk of this being a troll and my looking foolish for taking it serious.

    The conductors role is much more complicated than just functioning as a human metronome. It is his interpretation of the piece that the orchestra performs. He sets the overall tone of the performance, decides what dynamics and tempi will be performed, what the balance between instruments and sections is and often as musical director of the orchestra what pieces will be played.

    As far as sheet music, maybe the orchestra doesn't need it to perform Guns and Roses, but considering the length and complexity of many orchestral pieces and the amount of repertoire that is performed the use of printed music is necessary. It ain't I, IV. V in the key of D.
  4. mutedeity


    Aug 27, 2007
    Conductors are there to do more than just keep time.

    The conductor directs things like tempo change and dynamic as well. There is a pretty big difference, I would imagine, between four or five musicians playing with a drummer and an orchestra in terms of listening to those around you. In terms of dynamics who is going to lead the different sections of the orchestra if there is no conductor?

    The other thing to remember is that the orchestra is there to play the composer's work and the conductor is the agent of the composer in this sense. In rock and roll and jazz for example (although jazz band leaders do tend to conduct from time to time, and even Frank Zappa did, come to think of it) interpretation as part of the performance is widely accepted.

    On sheet music. An orchestra has to play a much more complex sequence of music than the average rock band. That said there are plenty of "rock" bands that read from charts.
  5. Hawaii Islander

    Hawaii Islander Supporting Member

    Aug 11, 2007
    Rio Rico, AZ


    Even in highschool orchestra, we needed the conductor to guide each of the sections through a piece of music. Conductors are responsible for giving the cues to each section and parts of each section in the orchestra. Without the conductor (in our case music teacher), we never would have been able to play complex pieces with any kind of feel to it. And, we had most of at least a month or more to learn one piece.
  6. Taylor Livingston

    Taylor Livingston Supporting Member Commercial User

    Dec 25, 2002
    Oregon, US
    Owner, Iron Ether Electronics
    See my comment about Pachelbel's canon. Surely any 4-year-old can remember that one without sheet music, no? ;)

    I have been around this forum over 5 years and have about twice the posts you have. This is not at all indicative of me not being an idiot, of course; it is only presented as being proof that I am not a troll.

    Other than that, thanks for your comments; they were enlightening. I still wonder if there might be situations in which an orchestra would be fine without a conductor, though. Perhaps it is because I am into the Nancarrow-esque sound of things unraveling.

    Right, and I mentioned all of that in my original post. I then wondered why the players are not expected to know the dynamics with which they should be playing (or why the sheet music they are looking at is not sufficient to explain the dynamics).
  7. Marcury

    Marcury High and Low

    Aug 19, 2007
    Mid Hudson Valley, NY
    There have been small conductor-less chamber orchestras like Orpheus who work out the interpretation collectively.

    As far as Nancarrow his greatest output was for player piano. While there have been some transcriptions of that music for live performers, the pieces as composed make the participation of conductor or other musicians for that matter moot.

    Because in the classical world those things are not set in stone even if printed in the score. They are within parameters open to the interpretation and discretion of the conductor. If you listen to the same orchestra performing the same piece under different conductors you hear those decisions.
  8. I defy any orchestra to play Nancarrow without a conductor.

    But seriously, the conductor is there because someone needs to play the orchestra. A small ensemble can put their heads together and decide how to play a piece and leave a lot of stuff unsaid. Now take 20 times as many musicians, and see how it works out.

    As for memorizing pieces, I'm sure most professional classical musicians have large swaths of the most common pieces committed to memory, purely from playing them often. But they don't, and can't realistically, know every piece they are going to play from beginning to end. Even I know how most of Pachelbel's canon goes, but if you sat me down in the violin section without sheet music there would be trouble. In an ensemble the size of an orchestra, if every musician knows each piece 90% by heart (which is an optimistic figure) but doesn't have the music, it's going to go all to hell.
  9. bigthemat


    Jan 25, 2008
    Salt Lake City
    yeah, anyone can remember a melody. Orchestral playing is a little more that da da da da.

    and we wont even start on pachelbel's canon. ugh. :spit:

    And i doubt many 4 year olds can play violin (unless they are a student of Suzuki).
  10. Taylor Livingston

    Taylor Livingston Supporting Member Commercial User

    Dec 25, 2002
    Oregon, US
    Owner, Iron Ether Electronics
    Yes, I know this, and I know that, as lemur821 alluded to, it takes a great deal of precision to do things like Nancarrow's work which bend time and speed up and slow down different parts of an arrangement simultaneously. This is of course why Nancarrow composed for the player piano. My Nancarrow comment was meant as a joke. A bit like a new doublebassist calling himself an "inadvertent microtonalist".
  11. IanStephenson

    IanStephenson UnRegistered User

    Apr 8, 2006
    To a certain extent the conductor and music are both there for the same reason - because they can be...

    Music is easiest to consider - they CAN read the music so why not use it? Sure the could learn the parts (and a featured soloist often will play without music), but they have the music, and can read it, so they put it in front of them so they don't make mistakes. They don't need to jump around so it's a straight win. They save the effort and use it for something more constructive.

    Simlarly for a lot of pieces the conductor doesn't need to be on the stand. In some cases the guy IS leaping round for theatrical effect (though not always). BUT the guy has done the work AT REHEARSAL. Once he gets to the gig, his job is done - rather like a sports coach. Once he gets to the game, he puts his players on the field and they do their job. He can make a few strategic adjustments as play progresses, but his real work was at the months of practice where he shaped the team, and developed the players.

  12. mvw356


    Mar 2, 2006
    an orchestra without a conductor id like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. no sense of direction.
  13. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    I agree with all of the above - Mahler's symphonies are incredibly complex and his scores have a lot of additional information/instructions on performance - that's a huge amount to memorise!

    Secondly - a Mahler symphony despite such detailed instructions can sound very different with different conductors ! Rattle's version are different to Von Karajan's even with the same orchestra...?

    And when it comes to Beethoven - somebody like Roger Norrington tries to go for a 'period' perfomance as it would have been played in Beethoven's time - whereas somone like Guner Wand goes for the emotion he hears in the music.

    Norrington's Beethoven's 9th Symphony sounds like a completely different piece to Wand's!! So the latter is much longer and closer in feeling to Bruckner.

    Bernstein's recorded version of Tchaikovsky's 6th is way longer and slower than any other conductor's -but works perfectly!

    I'm not sure how an orchestra could do all of this without a conductor?

    But to throw a spanner in the works - pianists always memorise concertos and you virtually never see a soloist in a concerto reading a score...:meh:
  14. The BurgerMeister

    The BurgerMeister musician.

    Apr 13, 2006
    Big Bear, CA

    a little article about an early conductorless orchestra (1922). pretty interesting.

    it obviously can be done, but it takes a lot more work on the part of the musicians. many of the previous posts have great points in them, but lemur821 said it best in my opinion: "someone needs to play the orchestra." an orchestra is a monstrous multi-timbral instrument and needs to be kept in check by someone in a more "objective" position. an orchestra is also made up of a bunch of big, colliding, fiery egos that need to be quelled on a regular basis. the conductor is there to make sure that his/her ego is always the biggest in the room. that's how a great orchestral performance is made! :)
    http://[malware url removed].net/vicious-smiley-1815.gif
  15. BassChuck

    BassChuck Supporting Member

    Nov 15, 2005
    Pachelbel's canon was written for organ originally. But beyond that, music of that era was often performed without conductors, or the first violinist took care of what little conducting duties were needed, and then went back to playing. (the first violinist is very much a leader in the orchestra, if you notice, they are the last player on stage, cue the oboeist for tuning... and the conductor usually shakes hands with them before and after the performance.)

    As music got more complex and the orchestras larger, a conductor was necessary. Take a look at a score by Stravinsky, Mahler, Strauss, Brahms, Copland etc etc.... the music is complex and the parts for different instruments are very different than each other. Compare the rhythmic qualities of Mozart's strings and winds and see what a difference there is in the way Strauss and Mahler treat the orchestral sound.

    Having performed most of the standard orchestral literature on horn and many years in jazz and R+B bands (bass) I can tell you that while neither style is better than the other, participation in a symphony orchestra takes a lot more training.

    That's because the conductor is following the soloist and keeping the orchestra together in the process.
  16. nsmar4211


    Nov 11, 2007
    Big orchestra's need directors.......:hyper: I can't imagine playing in an orchestra without a conductor to let everyone know their dynamics, because, as mentioned, you can't hear how it sounds up front. And there's no walking up front like you can in a club to hear the mix!

    Now...... I have played in orchestra (percussion section) and not used sheet music simply because I had it memorized. Two of my orchestra directors, usually for the Christmas concert, would let the group play without them for a couple songs while they did something funny. But....most orchestra music has assorted rests in it. Very easy to get lost... and the conductor can giveyou a cue if he sees you're lost!

    Now... do marching bands really need that arm flapper up there? That's a whole different ball game!:bag: Never watched em anyway... our director taught everyone how to listen back and taught us all about phasing of sound. Our drumline only watched em for the starts, and the rest of the band followed the drums so... :ninja:

    One thing I do find odd is percussion ensembles with a conductor... I've never played in one that performed with a conductor for a performance. Time keeping? Listen to each other. Dynamics? Listen-group isn't *that* big (less than 20 usually). Count off? Pick a person! No director needed at concert.......
  17. tkozal


    Feb 16, 2006
    New York City
    Singers I know will judge a Conductor on how good they cue their entrances....

    The classical world has a very different sense of the beat than rock, as I find out frequently in my playing situations...:smug:
  18. Taylor Livingston

    Taylor Livingston Supporting Member Commercial User

    Dec 25, 2002
    Oregon, US
    Owner, Iron Ether Electronics
    Thanks for the great posts, all. The one point I had not considered is that it would be very difficult to hear what other sections are doing over your own.
  19. Another point to think of is held notes such as fermatas. In a small group, it is fairly easy to communicate visually with the other musicians. In a group like a large orchestra, that visual communication is all but imposible. A good conductor can feel the music to see when they should cut off the note, as well as keep an eye on the musicians to see if the principle trumpet is about to pass out from holding a high C.
  20. marcray


    Nov 28, 2006
    Englishman in Oyster Bay, NY
    Aging Former Bass Player
    maybe a practical demonstration will help... go fined Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" (music at the end of Platoon, if that helps)...

    listen to it and enjoy it... it's a beautiful piece of music....

    now, go to youtube and watch this performance of the same piece of music... watch all of it...

    what the conductor does here is self explanatory... it's rumor'd he collapsed afterward from sheer emotional exhaustion... the emotion he took from the events of the days past, he placed into his hands and passed to every musician. He guides that orchestra to bare there souls thru their instruments on a piece of music they have each probably played over 1000 times (exag), and makes it a performance unequaled.

    That's what a conductor does and can do.

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