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Do Maestros Conduct for the Audience?


Mark DeVoto’s recent review of the Boston Symphony’s performances under the direction of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos elicited a query: “Why is it that reviewers seem obsessed by the movements of conductors? How is it relevant to a listener? Is this even a fit subject for a review?” Mark asked for space to respond more fully than would be appropriate in the comment field.

Disclosure: I have never been a conductor by profession but I have a good deal of miscellaneous experience in orchestral conducting, including direction of student orchestras for six years. I have had informal instruction in conducting from friends such as John Harbison and Joel Lazar and formal instruction at the Conductors Institute and elsewhere, and I have been observing professional conducting technique in performance and rehearsal for over five decades.

Above all else, a conductor’s style must communicate to the orchestra; otherwise the conductor would be superfluous. Beating time is only part of that communication, and with music that is metrically regular, beating time in a visible pattern is often the least important part. The more important parts of the communication are accentuation; articulation; control of changes in tempo; dynamic level and changes in dynamics; shaping of melodic line; cueing entrances; registering (indication of high or low points in the melodic line); and synthesis of all of these variables into something more, something that includes “feeling.” Any one of these may be more important or the most important factor at a given moment, but for any of them to be communicated, the beat must be visible. An entrance cue can be given with the other hand, or even with the eyes, and the nonbeating hand, usually the left, can control the dynamic level within a section of the orchestra as well as in the tutti.

There is another “above all else”: the conductor conducts for the orchestra, because he faces them, engaging their attention full on, and not for the audience, to whom his back is turned. What the conductor must communicate to the audience comes through the music; whatever he has to show directly to the audience is unnecessary. There is an unstated rule about this: gesturally speaking, less is more. A smaller beat often affects the orchestra more immediately than a larger one, because the players look for it, and this means that the larger beat, appearing less often, is all the more effective when it does appear. James Levine, Charles Dutoit, Oliver Knussen, Alan Gilbert, Ludovic Morlot, and even Stéphane Denève are examples of recent BSO conductors who understand this, most of the time employing a restrained and fully controlled beat, and with a minimum of moving around on the platform. (It was said of Fritz Reiner, two generations ago, that a fly could sit on the point of his baton for an entire concert without being dislodged.) The small shaped beat, too, is often little more than a simplified signal, or reminder, of what had already been agreed upon during rehearsal.

There’s no doubt that audiences expect to see something when they watch the conductor, and surely the conductor himself reacts physically to the music that he is making with his players. But whatever the audience actually sees has to be subordinated to what the conductor conveys to the ensemble. Those who conduct in an obviously theatrical manner, with gestures all over the place and exaggerated bodily motion, are playing to the audience and thus are suspect in my book. We have seen several of these on the BSO podium in recent years: Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Roberto Abbado, Yan Pascal Tortelier, and Myung-Whan Chung. Among well-known masters, Leonard Bernstein’s is a prime example of such excess in conducting technique. He sometimes got good results with the New York Philharmonic because he worked with them for years and the orchestra players were used to him. He was a superb musician and a brilliant composer, but to my mind he would have been a better conductor, and brought forth performances, had he cultivated a more conservative and refined technique and pushed his onstage persona less. (In his last years, Bernstein put on quite a bit of weight, and this somewhat limited his cavorting on the podium, much for the better result.)

It’s a tossup among musicians about the importance of the baton. I usually have doubts about conductors who dispense with it. The baton is more than an extension of the hand and arm; it is the visual focus of detailed gesture that ought not to be exercised with just palm, wrist, and fingertips. Some can succeed without the stick and I can admire the result, but as a performer I would normally have trouble following the beat. There is another refinement that originated I believe with Ozawa: he regularly wore a white turtleneck jersey rather than a boiled shirt and tie. The plain background, against which the hands can be more readily seen, is a positive improvement in conductorial dress that ought to be taken up more.

In the review [here]I mentioned the conducting style of Wilhelm Furtwängler, universally regarded as one of the all-time great orchestral conductors. I have seen films of his performances with the Berlin Philharmonic, his home orchestra, in which his baton looks like the last throes of delirium tremens—wiggling and thrashing, constantly pointing below the knees and even to the floor, in which any appearance of regular beat was only a lucky accident. That was his style, with the orchestra he worked with intimately on a regular basis for decades and with whom he could form a daily partnership in expert musicmaking, with hour after hour of rehearsal. I have also seen a film of Furtwängler guest-conducting an orchestra in one of the smaller German opera houses, and there his style was utterly different, with crystal-clear beat pattern visible anywhere and precise gestures at every moment. Because it wasn’t his regular orchestra, Furtwängler knew that he would have to conduct in a way that would be readily understood by musicians who weren’t accustomed to his home style. We need to demand the same precision and restraint from conductors today, especially when so often they appear as guests, with ensembles who won’t grasp their antic gestures.

As for the style of Frühbeck, which I compared with Furtwängler’s, I didn’t mention that he was relatively subdued in his conducting during the Brahms concerto, during which he was seated most of the time, occasionally rising to give precise directions to the violins or cue the players at the back of the stage. In the Beethoven, he stood for the entire work, and his wiggly time-beating even at the level of the knees would have been fully visible to the players. But more to the point, Beethoven’s Seventh has been in the DNA of the Boston Symphony since 1881, and indeed in the repertoire of some of its players from the BSO’s ancestral Harvard Musical Association Orchestra, since 1865.  Frühbeck’s shaping of the performance to match his interpretative wishes would have largely taken place in rehearsals and would have been fully understood; in the performance, much of his actual time-beating might not even have been needed by the players. When I wrote that his style of conducting was essentially old-fashioned, that was not to underrate the obvious success of the performance.

I’ve seen movies of much older conductors, too: Arturo Toscanini, Pierre Monteux, Rudolf Kempe, Richard Strauss, even Artur Nikisch (probably around 1912!) and a doddering Pietro Mascagni, who looked very uncomfortable. Every one of these except perhaps Mascagni’s shows precise, readily visible, almost always restrained time-beating, feet standing still on the podium, and never a trace of that infuriating knee-bending that we see a lot of today. Bending the knees may be an instinctive attempt to convey a sudden diminuendo, but it is mostly a sign of amateurish technique. Once during a performance of Debussy’s Fêtes, I saw a conductor bend so low that he disappeared completely behind the music stand, and I worried (or perhaps hoped) that he might not rise again.

In my experience, a lot of the most efficient and effective conducting one can see today is in performances of new music, where communication among musicians is so essential in works that are being heard for the first time. Boston-area conductors like David Hoose, John Harbison, Theodore Antoniou, and Steven Mackey, to name several that I’ve seen, illustrate conducting styles that I most admire, and some of these I’ve also seen conduct familiar repertory as well.

Ultimately, precision of communication with the players is nearly everything, and the astute audience can always appraise it even from the back of the second balcony.   Perhaps some in the audience hope to see the conductor put on a choreographic show; but that isn’t what an orchestral concert is for, and if the body language doesn’t serve the music first, it is meaningless, at least to me.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.


6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Bernstein is an interesting case: while it’s easy to dislike his excesses, I don’t believe that they were brought about by his wishing to show off to the audience. He did just as much jumping around in rehearsals and in the opera pit as he would have in the spotlight. If his musical interpretations were somehow unreliable, I would put the blame on his hyperactive imagination, not on his ability to articulate his intentions to players.

    Comment by Camilli — December 5, 2013 at 11:33 pm

  2. A famous video of Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic using only his eyebrows:

    These days I find the conductors in general to be distracting and enjoy the music more if I close my eyes.

    Comment by Leon Golub — December 6, 2013 at 8:50 am

  3. This is a very interesting essay. I found the description of Frühbeck ‘s conducting of the seventh in the original review to be both clear and evocative, and this is a welcome elaboration.

    On the subject of knee-bending, however, I can’t resist adding this:

    “His manner of conducting an orchestra was something extraordinary. He accustomed himself to give the signs of expression to the band by all manner of eccentric motions of his body. So often as the sforzando occurred, he tore his arms, which he had previously crossed upon his breast, with great vehemence asunder. At a piano passage he bent himself down, and the lower the softer he wished to have it. Then, when crescendo came, he raised himself again by degrees; and upon the commencement of the forte sprang bolt upright! To increase the forte yet more, he would sometimes also join in with a shout to the orchestra, without being aware of it.”

    -Louis Spohr on Beethoven

    Comment by SamW — December 6, 2013 at 10:11 am

  4. It’s of interest that Mr. DeVoto omitted two conductors of importance to Boston concertgoers from his commentary – Seiji Ozawa and Andris Nelsons. Both utilize plenty of podium and ethereal space and employ indulgent baton techniques. After watching Maestro Ozawa for many years, it became easier to filter out distractions and evaluate performances with greater detachment. Maestro Nelsons may take quite awhile also. His recent Wagner/Mozart/Brahms performance here revealed to me an overwhelming podium personality.

    Comment by Dave Saucier — December 6, 2013 at 11:18 pm

  5. Most who played under Ozawa, instrumentalists and singers alike, privately reported ‘Good stick’, even if they didn’t like his work in many other respects.

    Comment by David Moran — December 7, 2013 at 2:39 am

  6. I do not think that the generalization that less movement is more effective holds water. Rather, I think that if the orchestra respect–or fears?–the conductor and her or his artistic vision, and the conductor is able to communicate that vision clearly, regardless of style, then the conductor will be successful.

    As yet another example of an effective conductor who used large, effusive gestures, I submit Carlos Kleiber, whom many, particularly conductors, consider to be the finest of the 20th century.

    In the case of Levine, it is my understanding that his technique became more minimal with his health decline.

    Comment by Matt K. — December 9, 2013 at 11:32 am

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