Friday, February 29, 2008

Conducting as Spectator Sport

I probably don't spend enough time poking fun at conductors. It's a rich subject area for exploring all the right ingredients for your basic chuckle-fest. As comic actors and cartoon characters throughout the ages have shown us, from the Three Stooges and Elmer Fudd, to Inspector Clouseau and Homer Simpson, the humor lies in this equation: self-importance plus incompetence equals funny. One of my favorite jokes goes something like this:

Q: What's the difference between an orchestra and a bull?
A: On a bull, the horns are in front and the a**hole is in back.

But you have to be careful, because there are just enough good conductors out there to keep you humble. Good conductors can be a wonderful thing. Whatever else they add to the art of making music, mainly they save time. There is never much time to rehearse, typically ten hours for a professional orchestra per concert series, so you can't afford to waste any of it. Furthermore, musical scores and parts are only somewhat specific about the composer's intentions. The notes and articulations are pretty much all there, but when it comes to the tempo (speed) and dynamic (loudness) markings, most composers don't bother to overspecify -- typically tagging each section with a few terse words of instruction. The conductor must make decisions about how far to carry them.

Why can't the individual musicians make their own decisions? By themselves, they are no more than a very talented rabble. Without a conductor, all of the decisions would tend be to made by the most persistent and opinionated players. In other words, chaos. You may not like the way the man with the stick is interpreting a symphony, but somebody has to be the authority. A good conductor can turn this talented rabble into a united instrument that makes music possible.

{Opinion mode ON} I do think music critics tend to make way too much of the variable known as "interpretation." Okay, fine, so Zubin Mehta performs the finale of Sibelius's Second Symphony faster than Carlo Maria Giulini did it thirty years ago. So what? There can be more than one "correct" interpretation. It's really the basics that matter the most. Is everyone playing together? Is it in tune? Does it sound good? Are the most dramatic moments well-showcased rather than dismissively glossed over? If a conductor can make these things happen, the performance will probably be a success -- and we'll just leave all that jibber jabber about a conductor's "faithfulness to the score" and "depth of interpretation" to the critics, who have to pretend something is there even if it is not.

What does it take to be a great conductor? Well, if I understood the answer to that question, I'd probably be a great conductor. But let's try anyway. When done correctly, there is probably no more demanding job on the planet. Being a conductor requires essential talent, thousands of hours of study, and first-rate musical instincts. He must possess an invincible sense of rhythm; nothing is worse than having to battle the conductor about where the beat is. He must have a reliable ear for hearing discrepancies in pitch. He must possess an in-depth knowledge of the musical score; conductors who manage to get lost tend to drag their musicians down with them. (And in the music reviews, guess who gets blamed?) He also needs the ability to communicate to the orchestra how he wants them to play. A good stick technique doesn't hurt, but a lot of the great ones never did anything more than wave their arms around as if they were standing at ground zero of a hornet attack. It doesn't matter how the communication happens, so long as it happens. Suffice to say, in a perfect world, the conductor would be the best musician on the stage -- even though he adds nothing directly to the sound.

However, the sad truth is that it is far easier to look like a great conductor than to be one. So for many who enter the profession, the question becomes, who do you have to fool? You certainly can't fool your players, but fortunately nobody cares what the musicians think. You really only need to make sure you're keeping the people who sign your paycheck happy, and most orchestra boards don't know how things are supposed to be. Furthermore, if they selected you, they're already on your side and will be reluctant to admit an error. That's a relief. And the real irony is that the better a musical ensemble is, the less pressing is the need for a competent conductor. An amateur orchestra needs a skilled, sensitive conductor if it ever hopes to pull off a Brahms or Mahler symphony, whereas the Chicago Symphony Orchestra could polish off Mahler's Ninth in its sleep even if Jerry Lewis were the one waving the baton. Hey lady, could you please follow the beat? Haahhhh!!!!!

This opens the door to charlatans.

And that probably sounds mean. Problem is, it is not me who gives the game away, but rather the good conductors themselves who set the standard.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to perform under the baton of Col. Arnald Gabriel, who conducted our group (the Virginia Wind Symphony) in what can only be called an inspired performance. Col. Gabriel was the commander of the United States Air Force Band for many years, and in terms of his conducting prowess, he is the real deal. One of his trademarks is his ability to memorize musical scores, and he performed our concert without using any of the scores. When Col. Gabriel memorizes a score, he memorizes every single note and marking, so that if you were to ask him what note the second horn should be playing at measure 119, he will think for a minute and then be able to tell you the correct note.

Well, (I heard this from one of my former Air Force band commanders) the USAF band was once auditioning Air Force field band conductors, and one of the auditionees performed, from memory, Verdi's Overture to "La Forza del Destino" (i.e., "The Forceps of Destiny", or something close). When he was done, Col. Gabriel stood up and said, "Very nice. I just have one question: in what key does the overture open up?" The auditioner's facial expression went from zero to outraged in about four seconds, and, livid with anger and embarrassment, glowered at Gabriel and spat, "You... Animal!!!!" He stormed off the stage, needless to say, to the great amusement of the players. Finally, Col. Gabriel announced, "If anyone needs me, I'll be in my cage." Hopefully the word was spread that Col. Gabriel expected prospective conductors to know the music, not just be able to beat time convincingly.

Ultimately, conducting shares a certain trait with other managerial endeavors, and that can be summed up by the phrase, "An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance." If you look good in a tailcoat and can strike a convincing pose with a baton, and especially if you're young and presentable, you'll at least have the local newspaper on your side, and that's half the battle. But there's more. It may take a great genius to master the art of conducting, but it certainly doesn't take a genius to cop an attitude. Arrogance is a tool of the trade. It can serve to disguise incompetence as well as to make others reluctant to question you.

Now, I certainly don't mean to imply that all conductors are arrogant. I remember how fond the Pittsburgh Symphony players were of Andre Previn, when he was their music director, and by all accounts Maestro Previn was not an arrogant man, but rather a helpful, pleasant man. But there has certainly been enough arrogance at that position. Arturo Toscanini was a screaming tyrant who once put out a musician's eye by throwing his baton at him in a rage. Fritz Reiner was quietly sadistic and enjoyed putting his players through the crucible. A notorious number of concert band conductors have fallen into that category as well; I once watched a college band conductor reduce an oboe player to tears because she did not have a good reed. Now, in none of the above examples was it a question of using arrogance to hide incompetence -- all were good conductors -- and in the case of college band conductors, their abusive tactics did not prevent many of their students from worshiping them. I have even heard such tactics defended as just another way to inspire students to perform better. Fine, if you enjoy playing for such conductors, then you play for them.

Incompetent conducting can manifest itself in a variety of ways, and even the best can display rare bouts of it. Or, as Connie Francis observed, "Everybody's somebody's fool." Usually, the more secure a conductor is, the less he will mind admitting a mistake. And vice versa. It can get painful, sometimes, when a conductor keeps making the same mistake at the same place in the music, and then pretends like he stopped on purpose because the oboe needed to bring out the melody more, or the brass were too loud. They think we're too dumb to notice. Dropping beats in a mixed-meter passage is always a great way to discover what else you were doing wrong that happened to coincide with the conductor's brain farting. Irregular beat patterns (e.g., 5/8, 7/8) reveal whether your conductor has a solid sense of rhythm. Other times, your conductor may have great skills but still lose the vision. There was a conductor back in college -- I swear, he really could hear the grass grow. Exceptional technique, fantastic musicality, what could possibly be wrong? Well, this fellow loved to spend an entire hour of rehearsal on one or two measures of music, beating the same players up over and over because they just could not produce what he wanted to hear. Groan. It was not unusual to get to the concert and never have played any of the pieces all the way through without stopping. Needless to say, the concerts were white-knuckle affairs.

But there's nothing like sticking it (so to speak) to the incompetent and arrogant. Just one example, heard this one from a professional trumpet player in a large midwest orchestra. A friend of his auditioned for another orchestra, and had to perform the offstage trumpet call in Beethoven's Leonore No. 3 Overture. The first time he played it, the Maestro asked him, "That was nice; do you think you could play it again, but this time, more sudden?"

More sudden?

"Yes, more sudden."

The trumpet player had no idea what the Maestro was trying to communicate, so he played it again, but this time a little louder. "That was louder," said the Maestro, "But I want it to be more sudden."

So the trumpet player thought for a minute. Then he put the horn up to his lips and took a deep breath... but did not play. He just held it there and made eye contact with the Maestro. Finally, the Maestro looked away quickly, and that's when they trumpet player pounced, playing louder even than before.

"That's it!" the Maestro beamed triumphantly.


Anonymous said...


I am the other conservative fishing trombonist from the other end of the country.


Lee said...

What? There's two of us???