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Thread: Some questions about conducting and the orchestra

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    Default Some questions about conducting and the orchestra

    Hello all!

    Having always had a love of the orchestra and a particular fascination with the role of the conductor i'm formulating ideas for a story i'd like to write (I have a background in film).

    I'd really appreciate anyone who would take the time to help me answer some questions I have about conductors and the nature of conducting in general.

    If for any particular question you think I would be better pointed to a particular reading resource, be it a book, web article, interview then that would be great: the more information the better. Apologies if some of these questions are overly simplistic, this is still the early stages!

    If context is needed for any questions, assume we are talking about a conductor at the peak of their career.

    1. Would an orchestra ever be rehearsing with two separate conductors in the same day (for two separate performances: e.g. one conductor leaves and another conductor arrives to rehearse for a different performance)

    2. Have conducting styles seen any dramatic changes or development from the 18th Century to the modern day (I appreciate this is a loaded question, but any obvious generational differences would be a good start)

    3. For any conductors reading this: What might be your greatest fear when conducting a piece of music (e.g. is it failure to do justice to the piece?)

    4. From some initial research, it appears personality clashes are not uncommon between conductors and players/orchestras. Any famous/interesting examples that I might not be aware of? Any of your own stories that you'd be happy to tell?

    5. For anyone in the UK: I'm constantly looking for any opportunities to watch conducting masterclasses, lectures, tuition (live). If you have any ideas or could point me int he right direction it would be hugely appreciated.

    Many Thanks

    Jack

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    Senior Member emiellucifuge's Avatar
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    Hi, Ive attended many concerts and public rehearsals and studied conducting for a few years, which gave me the opportunity to conduct myself and to assist in professional rehearsals. Ill do my best to answer your questions, as long as you realise my position and my limited knowledge.

    1. I suppose it is possible but I know the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra doesnt do this. Nor has the ensemble at which my teacher was resident.

    2. Yes definitely, huge difference. The role of the conductor has grown greatly, in correlation with, but not neccessarily caused by the growth in size of orchestras. The conductor was originally a principle member of the ensemble who would nod, or move in time with the beat to give time. The conductor then became a separate figure who would stand in front of the ensemble and use gestures to indicate timings and entries. During the early 19th century, the baton was adopted as a standard. Berlioz and Wagner became conductors who began to interpret music and impose their visions onto the performance. Only in the late 19th century did conductors become full time professionals.

    Read the essays by Berlioz and Wagner on conducting.

    5. The concertgebouw orchestra does public rehearsals to which you can buy tickets. Check if any of your local orchestras do this.
    "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody." - Rousseau

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    Brilliant that is very useful, i've dug out both these essays and will read through them, thank-you.

    Be great to get as many takes on this as possible so if anyone else has answers i'd love to hear them...

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    1. A rare occasion, I imagine, with the constraints of time and union. It could happen if a living composer wanted to conduct one of his pieces on the program.

    2. To my knowledge, once careers are well on their ways, there's always been a wide variety of styles...such as small beats in place for Reiner, to dancers and jumpers like Bernstein, Dutoit, A. Davis.

    3. Poor player performance. The maestro is never wrong.

    4. BPO/Karajan, OSM/Dutoit, La Scala/Muti, Cleveland/Szell have history in this regard.

    5. YT might help. Contact university music departments for open masterclasses, etc. Orchestra rehearsals are another good source.

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    Fantastic response, thank you. it's been a most interesting few days researching and diving back into the history of conducting.

    1. So just to clarify, would an orchestra be typically only rehearsing for one performance at a time? Am I right in thinking this is why the answer is probably no.

    Extra questions:

    6. Who typically appoints the principle conductor fo an orchestra? Is it a combination of the orchestra and the chief directors of the organisation?

    7. It appears that, with regards to disputes, the principle conductor will prevail unless there is a majority vote from the orchestra to remove him/her from the position. Is this correct?

    8. Is it possible that a virtuoso player could have such notoriety that he could effectively have an unspoken immunity from removal? (ie the conductor could not fire him/her because it would damage the reputation of the orchestra to lose him/her)

    Again, thank you all for taking the time to help!

    Jack

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    Senior Member emiellucifuge's Avatar
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    8. I cant imagine this as an orchestra that mutinies against its maestro will wreak even greater damage upon its own reputation.
    "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody." - Rousseau

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    Understood.

    Although in a less extreme sense, If it was just a dislike or minor dispute between a maestro and one particular notorious virtuoso player, could it be possible that the maestro might be unable to remove him simply because of who the player was?

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    The question is a little too hypothetical for me.

    First of all, the orchestra administration, presumably including personnel management would not be done by the conductor. Secondly, these are professional relationships which I dont think would be subjected to petty disputes of the nature you describe. Thirdly, a player as virtuose as you describe would probably be an asset the conductor would be reluctant to lose. And finally, again, I dont know of any orchestral musicians with greater celebrity or reputation than their maestro.
    "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody." - Rousseau

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    Senior Member Lunasong's Avatar
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    You may find this excerpt appropriate to the topic:

    Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World's Only Conductorless Orchestra
    By Harvey Seifter and Peter Economy (book is about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which does not use a conductor)

    As Peter Drucker noted, orchestras, like hospitals and universities, are "information-based organizations," composed largely of specialists who direct and discipline their own performance through organized feedback from colleagues, customers, and the organization's management.

    Orchestras add one more element to the mix: a single manager who leads the organization in preparation (rehearsal) and execution (performance) -- the conductor. A conductor's work, as portrayed by Elizabeth Green in The Modern Conductor, might also describe a successful CEO leading any organization: "To stand in front of an orchestra, band, or chorus and beat time does not make one a conductor. But to bring forth thrilling music from a group of singers or players, to inspire them (through one's own personal magnetism) to excel, to train them (through one's own musicianship) to become musicians themselves, personally to feel the power of music so deeply that the audience is lifted to new heights emotionally . . . yes, this can be called conducting."

    But the job of conducting encompasses much more than inspiration and education. Conductors are also specifically trained to micromanage. They select the music and the musicians who play it, and determine exactly how each piece will sound by making thousands of decisions about tempo, phrasing, volume, and balance -- details that govern each musician's playing and ultimately determine the character of the musical performance. Conductors are expected to have strong opinions, backed by knowledge about the technical capabilities and challenges of each instrument of the orchestra. These opinions are rarely open for question or discussion.

    Conductors stand at the very pinnacle of their orchestras' musical hierarchies, in roles that go far beyond those of most corporate CEOs or presidents. Instead of directly supervising the activities of a relatively small team of vice presidents or top managers as do most chief executives, conductors directly supervise the activities of each and every musician in the orchestra. They are expected to exact uniformity from large groups, down to the smallest details, and any failure to invoke that authority is likely to be perceived as weakness. When asked if the orchestra conductor is a good model for leadership in business, Ben Zander, founder and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, was unequivocal in his response. "It's the worst! The conductor is the last bastion of totalitarianism in the world -- the one person whose authority never gets questioned. There's a saying: Every dictator aspires to be a conductor."

    Many conductors are resistant, if not downright hostile, to receiving input from the musicians who actually play the music. Such conductors literally rule their orchestras with an iron baton. The stories are legendary. Zander recounts one about the renowned maestro Arturo Toscanini: "It is said that once in the middle of a rehearsal, in a fit of anger, he fired a long-standing member of the double bass section, who now had to return home to tell his wife that he was out of a job. As the bass player packed up his instrument, he mentioned a few things that he had hitherto kept to himself, and, as he left the hall for the final time, shouted at Toscanini, 'You are a no-good son of a bitch!' So oblivious was Toscanini to the notion that a player would dare to challenge his authority, that he roared back: 'It is too late to apologize!"

    With such attitudes, it's not surprising that orchestral musicians tend to keep their most original and creative impulses to themselves, rather than risk the fury of a conductor who neither wants nor expects input. The inevitable result is that the musicians are detached from their product, the music they create with their instruments. Says jazz guitarist Mark Worrell, "In a symphonic context, you find 'workers' with fabulous talents, formal training, and an abundance of theoretical knowledge, and yet strangely enough these musicians are forced to separate their capacity for conceptualization from the moment of execution. This is an incredibly authoritarian and antidemocratic model of musical production. It would not be an exaggeration to state that the symphony itself is a mass celebration of authoritarianism -- perhaps even charismatic dictatorship."

    This kind of environment makes the traditional symphony orchestra a prime example of the tension that exists between traditional hierarchy's command-and-control structures and the knowledge worker's inherent bias toward self-management. Since it is the knowledge workers who provide the intellectual and creative capital that drive all information-based organizations, alternative management models that succeed in transforming the orchestra can have potentially wide-ranging applicability.
    "To be a musician is a curse. To NOT be one is even worse." Jack Daney

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    Quote Originally Posted by xjkx View Post
    1. Would an orchestra ever be rehearsing with two separate conductors in the same day (for two separate performances: e.g. one conductor leaves and another conductor arrives to rehearse for a different performance)
    If a guest conductor were to be conducting only part of a performance (i.e. a composer conducting his/her own work), I could see this happening.

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    Brilliant, great answers and reading material. This has all been a lot of help so thank-you.

    Much of what I have seen has suggested many conductors now give the orchestra much more freedom, as if there has been a realisation that the dictatorial style is no longer the most effective method. That's not to say it doesn't still exist, but it's interesting hearing how some of the more famous conductors approach the craft.

    Any more information still greatly appreciated.

    Thanks!

    J

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    Senior Member kv466's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by xjkx View Post
    Brilliant, great answers and reading material. This has all been a lot of help so thank-you.


    Thanks!
    Aren't we here at TC just wonderful and efficient?!~

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    Quote Originally Posted by kv466 View Post
    Aren't we here at TC just wonderful and efficient?!~
    Yes, I particularly valued your input!
    "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody." - Rousseau

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    Quote Originally Posted by emiellucifuge View Post
    Yes, I particularly valued your input!
    To forum, I hope...because I had nothing to say in this thread.

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    Quote Originally Posted by xjkx View Post

    Extra questions:

    6. Who typically appoints the principle conductor fo an orchestra? Is it a combination of the orchestra and the chief directors of the organisation?

    7. It appears that, with regards to disputes, the principle conductor will prevail unless there is a majority vote from the orchestra to remove him/her from the position. Is this correct?

    8. Is it possible that a virtuoso player could have such notoriety that he could effectively have an unspoken immunity from removal? (ie the conductor could not fire him/her because it would damage the reputation of the orchestra to lose him/her)

    Again, thank you all for taking the time to help!

    Jack

    6. Normally, it's done by President & CEO of the orchestra, after considering input from valued sources such as board members, trustees, donors, sponsors, musicians, etc.

    Berlin PO players probably have the biggest say with their casting of votes, apart from the VPO, who invite their guest conductors, since there is no music director.

    7. Laws regarding labor/human resources, union contracts, and fear of bad publicity will often guide direction.

    8. The New York Phil. might be the best example of something like this happening (but it's not likely--cooler heads usually prevail). For instance, with players like Glenn Dicterow, Cynthia Phelps, Carter Brey, Liang Wang, Philip Myers, Philip Smith, Nancy Allen. Music Director Alan Gilbert could have a pretty big wall in front of him.

    IOW, if it came to this, a group of players would likely form extra solidarity.

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