Do orchestras really need conductors?

bdn-pointing

NewWSO Conductor Benjamin Niemczyk

The age-old debate about whether a conductor is actually necessary is still alive and well. After all, hasn’t the composer given all the instructions necessary for playing beautiful music?

The pro-conductor camp has been given a boost by this recent and very articulate article by Ivan Hewitt (“What do Conductors Do?The Telegraph, May 1, 2014) for the necessity of a conductor in a large symphony orchestra. He also illustrates the difference between what a new conductor versus a seasoned conductor can evoke from an ensemble:

…Even when they don’t actually collapse, performances led by beginner conductors always have a strange blank quality. It’s as if the violins are deaf to the cellos, and horns to the woodwind; there’s no guiding spirit which makes everything cohere.

Last week, at a masterclass given by eminent conductor Bernard Haitink at the Easter Festival in Lucerne, I witnessed several young conductors who, at this level of basic intelligibility, were all pretty competent. But the experience of the maestro, as he talked about the piece they were conducting (Mahler’s Fourth Symphony) showed that they still had a long way to go.

A common problem was a failure to pay attention to the composer’s markings in the score. “Playing what’s written” sounds dull, but actually it’s really hard, because what’s written needs imagination to be brought to life. Haitink pointed out a telling indication in Mahler’s symphony: “geheimnisvoll” — literally, “secret-full”. How on earth do you make something sound secretive? The young conductor on the podium was flummoxed, so Haitink seized the baton. And instantly a dusky, mysterious quality appeared, bearing down on the music like encroaching dusk…[link to full article]

This article is a good reminder that an orchestra is not a gathering of individual musicians playing their own parts on their own instruments. An orchestra is one cohesive unit playing a single piece, and the conductor is the person who reminds us of that fact.

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