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Classical Mythology 101

2. The Myth of the Super Conductor

There's magic in that stick, and all a great conductor has to do to instantly inspire his musicians is wave it.

To anyone who's never played in an orchestra, it must look like the ultimate power trip. An ensemble of 80 or 100 professionals works its butt off while some jerk in bow-tie and swallowtails wags a long, white fiberglass rod to a rhythm that either does or does not resemble the beat of the music. He (or she) doesn't have to worry about executing intricate fingerings, maintaining good breath or tongue control, making a crisp percussive attack after 324 bars of rest. Yet what he's doing looks so easy -- and it's so easy to watch this exhibition and understand the meaning of power and control -- that people fantasize about his job as if he were President of the U.S.

Since the late 1800s, a seductive mystique has whirled around conductors. Norman Lebrecht, in his juicy read The Maestro Myth, gives a fine account of the history of glamour-puss conductors beginning with Hans von Bülow, Artur Nikisch and Gustav Mahler; on to the dictators of the '30s -- Stokowski, Toscanini and Beecham; and the latter day Bernsteins and Karajans, who milked it for everything it was worth.

After the fashion of today's exorbitant CEO salaries, orchestra conductors are paid enormous sums of money to fly in, play their gig and fly out. But what the audience sees in performance is barely skin deep. People often don't appreciate what it is that a conductor really does, and even critics oftentimes fall for the same misapprehensions and fill their reviews with nonsense about "stick technique" as if the quality of the performance somehow hinged on the flex of one man's wrist.

Here's a less glamorous picture. The conductor's job is done mostly in rehearsal but it begins even before that. He (let's stick with a generic male here) studies the score to see how all the parts fit together. He establishes tempos and carefully works out (again, in advance) how to pace the transitions from section to section. He instructs individual players or entire departments of the orchestra in his directions for overall volume or relative volume (balance) so that solo lines aren't buried and orchestral unisons or harmonized lines come through well blended. He works on attacks so that everyone plays them alike, and he knows the limits of his players and how much more he can demand. He's always telling the violins to shut up and asking everyone else to play out (except, of course, the trombones whom he'd rather not hear at all). And when the union time limit is reached and the rehearsal is over, he has to trust in the professionalism of his musicians to do the job when performance time comes. All he can do is try to offer a clear beat and signal a few reminders of what they discussed in rehearsal.

And what about those occasions when a young ringer comes in to direct an orchestra at the eleventh hour without the benefit of much, if any, rehearsal? Nagano in Boston and Salonen in London come to mind here, both of them conducting big Mahler symphonies. To his credit, each conductor was well prepared for luck and knew the music score thoroughly. But in each instance, the conductor took a lot of credit that rightfully belonged to a great orchestra and its musicians.

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© David Bündler, 2000
Last revised: May 23, 2000