Role of Conductor

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by jazzbo, Dec 11, 2001.

  1. jazzbo


    Aug 25, 2000
    San Francisco, CA
    I was curious about this, but I'm not sure if this is where it should be posted.

    What does the conductor of an orchestra do? Okay, obviously, they conduct. They queue the beginning of each song, queue breaks, the end of the piece, whatever. They count a tempo and maintain it, fine. But what else? It seems that there's more, because whenever I go to the symphony, the Playbill has a bio on the conductor that would rival the most accomplished orchestral musician. Is it a social status position? Also, do they usually start as an instrumentalist, composer, etc.? I remember reading that in classical and romantic periods that the composer of the piece conducted, but this is certainly not always true now. Anybody know?
  2. Basically the conductor is the "focus" - the leaders of each section are taking their cues from him/her. The other members of the orchestra are also taking cues from the conductor. The conductor is responsible for interpreting how the piece will be played (tempi, dynamics, feel) and conveying that to the members of the orchestra so that that interpretation wil be realised.

    There are a number of (small) orchestras which play without a conductor - it works OK with a chamber-sized group, but I don't see how it would work in a large-scale work, with a big orchestra.

    Unfortunately, because of the modern trend in marketing/image/publicity, conductors seem to get bigger billing than the music which they're interpreting... (cf. Herbert von Puffittuppp, Lenny Bernstein, et al...) - so, yes - you're correct - much of it is to do with "image". Historically, before the early Romantic era, (late 1700s->late 1800s) the orchestras were smaller, and the Konzertmeister would direct from the harpsichord, or perhaps the violin. As orchestras became bigger, it became more an more difficult to control the seething monster :)>). The role of the conductor evolved, and was brought in to focus by the likes of Berlioz and Richard Wagner.

    A musician playing in a large orchestra tends to only hear the instruments around him/her, and so it's very difficult to play as an "ensemble" - the conductor makes this easier, as they are usually a the front of the orchestra, and provides a focus, not only for the members of the orchestra, but also fot the audience.

    Most modern-day conductors are likely to have studied the piano as their first-instrument, although this is not alway the case (Sir John Barbirolli was a 'cellist, Serge Kousevitsky was a bassist, Sir Colin Davis played the clarinet,

    Hope this helps -

    - Wil
  3. ...and then there are those conductors who memorize entire scores!

  4. jazzbo


    Aug 25, 2000
    San Francisco, CA
    Helps tremendously because my thinking was, these guys are classically trained, elite, musicians. They should simply be able to read from a score. If the score has them resting for 24 bars, then they should be able to count them, then come in. You would think that they would be familiar enough with the piece to be able to do that. Of course, I've never played in an orchestra so I can't discount the factor of not being able to hear other instruments.

    Thanks for the info Wil!
  5. Aroneng

    Aroneng Supporting Member

    Sep 7, 2001
    Ft. Lauderdale, FL
    I wonder how they would sound with a conductor?? Conductors as Wil well explained do much more than just keep everyone in time.
  6. The first thing I notice about a conductor is his/her right hand (baton) technique - I'm just picky about it. My favorite conductors are surgically precise with the baton and can clearly impart all manner of direction to the ensemble - tempo (duh), articulation, dynamics, etc. The best conductors realize that the ensemble has to understand their direction in order for their visionary interpretations to come to light. In other words, they make themselves clear to the other musicians and get out of the way of the performance.

    I can't stand these folks that have these ridiculously huge techniques and that mysterious orchestral downbeat. I'm referring to that bizarre gesture just after the bottom of the downbeat movement that is allegedly the real downbeat. They look real damn silly, and I certainly couldn't tell what the hell they were up to...

    The Dallas Symphony's music director, Andrew Litton, is just one of those unfortunate spastic conductors - he jumps around, makes absolutely insane faces, and uses a full seven feet of area to impart his baton magic. Overdramatic and silly, IMHO. Great music director, though, and I love the DSO's more recent recordings.
  7. As some of the earlier posts say, My concept of "what the conductor does" is to *unify the orchestra*.

    This basically means that He provides the one interpretation that everyone must go by if there is to be any convincing interpretation heard at all.

    In the case of Vienna or St Paul, et cetera, there is usually still one person (the concertmaster) leading, and the interpretation is agreed upon through rehearsing - or perhaps agreed upon just because they've been together for so long and know how they "usually" play a piece.

    As far as "stick technique", in many cases it's actually the orchestra that responds late to the conductor, rather than the conductor trying to be way ahead.
    The better the conductor, and the better the orchestra, the more the orchestra can wait at every ictus to gather the information shown and then play the way the "maestro" is "showing".

    Conductors are also often hired with the intent of their style rubbing off on the orchestra and, over time, yeilding a characteristic sound; a sound that can be identified like "the Cleveland sound" or "the Philadelphia sound".
  8. jazzbo


    Aug 25, 2000
    San Francisco, CA
  9. Joe Taylor

    Joe Taylor

    Dec 20, 2001
    Tracy CA
    I think the conductor plays the orchestra just like a member of the orchestra plays their instrument. Also, they tame the ego of the first fiddle.
  10. Joe Taylor

    Joe Taylor

    Dec 20, 2001
    Tracy CA
    any one else dislike playing under a vocal conductor? Not opra but a choir director. They have always been a bane too me. As in where the beat or pick a beat any beat. I really like it when they start waving ther hands in circles just circles.

    And, while I am on a rant I was at the SFO orchestra last year and the conductor was playing a paino trying to direct by waving his hand under the bench he was sitting on. It was a real sight to behold. So, I closed my eyes and let my ears take over it was not too bad. The bass section was hot that day.

  11. Yeah, Choral conductors are the most likely to have bad time, and to be unaware of what else is going on when the words stop. Pretty typical.

    Probably something you're just not used to. Conducting from the Piano happens occasionally, and with smaller groups the conductor is a violinist, with no hands to wave, just bowing and body language... Plus if Mozart and Beethoven wrote their concertos with themselves as player AND conductor in mind, it only stands to reason that it could work perfectly well in this day and age!

    Was that the San Francisco S.O. that you saw doing this?
  12. dhosek


    May 25, 2000
    Los Angeles, CA
    I can always spot someone trained as a choral director in that they very rarely distinguish their beats: Usually it's baton down for each beat, no way to tell what's "one". (And this seems to be close to universal in my experience)

    However, after a year and a half of choral singing, I've adapted and I can follow the conductor a lot better than when I first started when I got lost in an intricate part and was desparately trying to find "one" from the conductor with no help.

    On the other hand, the string players who come in to play Midnight Mass (which, incidentally, will be on the WGN superstation at midnight CT) invariably have all manner of problems following the conductor, especially in some of the pieces where we have frequent time signature changes or odd times. The brass who do Easter seem to do ok, but that's probably as much because horn players don't pay that much attention to the conductor to begin with ;-)

    In defence of choral directors, to a certain extent they're handicapped with a distressingly high level of musical illiteracy on the part of their singers. A very large number of singers just learn their parts by ear, and couldn't count a written rhythm if it was 4 quarter notes, so anything more than an indication of tempo will be lost on many singers.

  13. Joe Taylor

    Joe Taylor

    Dec 20, 2001
    Tracy CA
    Yesit was the San Francisco Symphony, last spring they did Carmina Brannana (sp?) and some nice piano stuff. Saw it on a Sunday afternoon.
  14. My church choir director is sheer pleasure to play for, absolutely clear, alert, gives perfect cues to sections, and "hears" misprints when they occur in parts.
    I sing in his choir, and I have played bass several times for him in chamber orchestras. I have never heard a single instrumentalist express any confusion in rehearsals. He is utterly superior to the conductor of the Ridgewood Symphony. So this past Sunday, when we were to perform a Christmas concert with a dozen players from the Met, he was in the hospital. The conducting was done flawlessly by our assistant choir director. So frankly, my experience is contrary to all these complaints.
    Just lucky, I guess.
    Question: Wasn't Robert Shaw also the conductor of the Atlanta Symphony?
  15. dhosek


    May 25, 2000
    Los Angeles, CA
    Our director does just about everything I could hope for other than distinguishing which beat in the measure he's conducting. Based on the frequency with which I see this, I suspect that this may just be how (a segment of?) choir directors are trained.

    Another choral director I work with occasionally, I can tell is primarily an instrumentalist because he has the clearest "1" I've ever seen at the podium. The other clue is the stronger enthusiasm he has for directing the orchestra than the choir.

    And wrt the earlier post, the piece is Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. For those with any contact with children's music, yes, this is the guy behind "Orff Schulwerk".

  16. rablack


    Mar 9, 2000
    Houston, Texas
    Jumping in late with an old one:

    What's the difference between a bull and an orchestra?

    The bull has the horns in front and an a**hole at the back. The orchestra has the horns at the back and ...
  17. Joe Taylor

    Joe Taylor

    Dec 20, 2001
    Tracy CA
    Thanks for the spelling correction I have a real problem when it comes to spelling. I envy theose who can spell.

  18. Quizzo


    Aug 10, 2002
    Upstate SC
    A conductor is much more important than most people think. Sure people can play music without a conductor and sure, anyone can stand in front of an audience and make a fool of themsleves but a conductor does something special. He gives cues, which anyone can do if they can count to 4 but he interprets the music. Bottesini is dead and obviously can't show you how he wrote it, or thought it. So a conductors role is to interpret the music his way. It might not be right but it gives a symphony an uniform idea. The Vienna (was it?) plays without a conductor maybe but i am sure that there is someone in the orchestra instructing everyone else. Most likely the concert-master. He is in effect the conductor of the music. The interpreter of the great composers past. He just doesn't stand in front of everyone.
  19. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Hmmm...seems like somebody's working their way through all the old DB threads and "resurrecting" them! :confused:

    Anyway - this is actually an interesting one and nobody has mentioned rehearsals so far.

    The BBC televised a competition for young aspiring conductors one year and the rehearsals were the big thing. So the conductor takes the rehearsals and goes through the score and points out areas where he/she wants particular attention paid and has ideas about the piece - expecting the orchestra to take notice.

    So they were saying how it is important for a young conductor to have a strategy to be taken seriously in these session and not just be ignored!

    Often this is how they will get started - taking rehearsals a principal can't make. But I have also read how many big-name conductors are very concerned about rehearsal time (naturally enough) and have things written in their contracts about this.

    I could go on - the competition was extremely interesting - but I would also say that a condcutor can make a huge difference in my experience and so I would always go to a concert where Simon Rattle is conducting, as he makes such a difference.

    I have seen the same London orchestra in the same material, transformed by the presence of "Sir Simon"! I think particularly in the late 19th, early 20th Century repertoire - like Mahler, Bruckner etc. - the conductor can have more impact than the orchestra - within reason! ;)
  20. Johnny L

    Johnny L

    Feb 14, 2002
    Victoria, TX
    I was encouraged by my current bass instructor to find a way into the local symphony's rehearsals and sit in to watch the bass section and see things from their I got lucky and found a way in. It was a great experience. I also went out to hear the orchestra rehearsal from the audience's perspective. Don't get me wrong - overall they sounded very good, but boy, was I in for many surprises.

    I just want to assert that I feel a conductor is ESSENTIAL to the success of the orchestra's performance, and I now understand that a conductor's name has value because he/she has interpreted the work successfully and the orchestra performers have worked their asses off together to support the conductor's vision.

    I'm having great difficulty imagining an orchestra without a conductor. I keep imagining a body without a head to guide it.