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The Orchestra Conductor: a Unique Phenomenon

The conductor’s authority, control and power. Orchestra/Conductor relationship changes over the past 60 years. Wagner, Stokowski, Beecham and others. Schwarzkopf recalls singing for Karajan. International questionnaire produces surprising results.

The orchestra conductor is a unique phenomenon. He alone of those who have to direct large forces has to control them from instant to instant. Until quite recently it was nearly always a ‘he’ as there were very few women conductors. Now there are an increasing number and a few who are very good indeed. In considering the orchestra conductor it is important to appreciate that his/her instrument is the orchestra. They need to have the same degree of control over their instrument that all fine musicians require if they are to realise their musical intentions. Every performance is an act of re-creation and must have spontaneity, an element of improvisation that will provide the vitality and excitement so essential if it is to be a unique experience. No two performances can ever be exactly the same. It is only on recordings that we hear exactly the same performance each time. But an orchestra is far more complex than any other musical instrument. It is made up of 75/100 musicians playing a variety of instruments and in opera and choral works there may be a chorus of as many as 250 or more, as well as soloists. And each of them is highly skilled, individualistic and will have his or her own idea of how the music should be played.

Once audiences at concerts and those buying recordings, CDs, videos or DVDs of orchestral music have decided what piece of music they want to listen to it is very often who is conducting that is of most concern. In fact it is not unusual that the choice of what to buy is determined by who is conducting. Who is conducting is also of paramount concern to the orchestra.

During an interview on Television in 1958, before a concert at Lincoln’s Inn Fields with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham said ‘When you come to face the orchestra signs are not very much. Facial expression is immense – the face and the eyes are everything …but more than that there is a link between an intelligent player in a fine orchestra … now these people notice my expression and also there is the link between us by which what I am thinking, with fierce concentration – everything – is communicated to them – they know.’ He was then asked ‘What do you do?’ ‘I let them play. That’s what all the orchestral players say when asked what does this man do – and the answer is, he lets us play. He doesn’t stop us every 5 bars; he doesn’t agitate us every 10 bars with some idiotic movement. I let them go on playing!’

His conducting, like that of all the great conductors, had little to do with beating time. As he said he ‘did let the orchestra play’. But his direction involved far more than just his face and eyes, important though they were. No! Beecham was also the master of the art of gesture. He had that mysterious gift of being able to convey by his body language his most subtle intentions, held, as he said, ‘with fierce concentration’. Musicians loved to play for him because he shared his delight and love of music with them. There are very fine musicians who give immense pleasure to audiences but who do not love music as much as they love playing their instrument or conducting.

If a conductor is to have the absolute control required that will give him and the artists he is directing the freedom and flexibility to create a great performance, he must have authority. Everyone, whether they are soloists, opera singers, chorus singers, principal musicians in the orchestra who have solo parts to play and all the section players, must follow his every move. Conductors, good or bad, take that for granted. Whether useless or great, by virtue of their role as conductor they exert, for good or ill, the same effect over everyone involved in the performance: instant response to their every move, moment to moment. Very few people are born with a natural authority as well as the ability to allow others to have freedom within that authority. These attributes are essential in a great conductor. For others it will take time before they can acquire the necessary confidence and humility. Many more never succeed in this respect, even if they have the necessary musical ability.

The necessary gestures and body language have nothing to do with ‘beating time’. Conducting is a mystery. The essentials cannot be taught. Each and every movement, however slight, affects the orchestra, and the chorus and soloists if they are involved. It is this combination of authority and allowing freedom, or at least the impression of freedom, that is the essential gift a conductor requires.

Felix Weingartner, an outstanding conductor of his day, and successor to Gustav Mahler with the Vienna Court Orchestra, relates how Fürstenau, the second flute in the Dresden orchestras, told him ‘When Wagner conducted the players had no sense of being led. Each believed himself to be following freely his own feeling, yet they all worked together wonderfully. It was Wagner’s mighty will that powerfully but unperceived had overborne their single wills, so that each thought himself free while in reality he only followed the leader, whose artistic force lived and worked in him. Everything went so easily and beautifully that it was the height of enjoyment.’ Weingartner adds that as he spoke of this experience Fürstenau’s ‘eyes gleamed with joyful enthusiasm’.

It is wonderful experiences like that, all too rare, that every orchestral musician treasures. Wagner displayed the overwhelming self-confidence that all the greatest conductors have. They can embrace an orchestra, chorus and soloists within their musical concept while at the same time interacting with and responding to them, allowing everyone to make their contribution to the performance. My experience during the years I played for Beecham was similar to that described by Fürstenau. I remember that time with the same joyful enthusiasm.

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Another conductor with this ability was Leopold Stokowski. He was one of the very few conductors who could get the sound he wanted from any orchestra within a very short time, without any talking. By some extraordinary magic he enabled every orchestra he conducted to sound very like the Philadelphia Orchestra of which he had been the principal conductor for many years. I experienced this remarkable talent playing for him in three orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic, the London Symphony and the Philharmonia.

In order to obtain the sonority he wanted, depending on the concert hall or studio he was performing in, he would change the way the orchestra was seated. He was always trying to find a way to get the richest, most resonant sound from his orchestra. Sometimes he would have the first violins to his left and the seconds to his right, at other times both sections to his left; he would place the cellos and violas so that the violas sat on his right and the cellos in the middle; instead of the basses being in a group on one side or other of the orchestra he would have them strung out along the back of the orchestra. This was one way in which he exercised his authority. Of course some members of the orchestra may be unhappy when their seating position is altered and the aural environment is changed.

Stokowski’s authority was challenged when he asked the woodwind section in the Philharmonia to sit to his right where the cello section is normally seated. The woodwind section, composed of some very fine players confidant in their own power, refused. Even though Stokowski asked again the following day and on a third occasion really pleaded with them to ‘let us just try’ they still held out against his wishes. This loss of authority had a profound effect on him and for a time he lost some of his confidence and a certain amount of his charisma with the Philharmonia. On another occasion when I was playing with the London Symphony Orchestra not long after this confrontation I witnessed a very different response. When he asked their excellent young woodwind section to change position with the cellos they immediately complied. He was clearly much happier and I am sure this played a part in his working much more with the LSO from then onwards.

In addition to his outstanding qualities as a conductor, Stokowski was probably the first to appreciate just what could be achieved in the recording studio. In the early recordings he made with the Philadelphia Orchestra, when recording was still in mono, he somehow managed to achieve results that sound like stereo. This was particularly the case with the wonderful virtuoso recording he made of the Bach Toccata and Fugue that he had arranged for orchestra.

Though Stokowski is nearly always referred to as a showman, his platform manner and conducting style was not at all showy. When he came onto the platform and when he took a bow at the end of any item he was very restrained and never ‘milked’ the applause as quite a few artists do. His appearance in Fantasia shaking hands with Mickey Mouse and his relationship with Greta Garbo attracted a lot of publicity and his bogus foreign accent led to a good deal of speculation about whether his name was Stokes or Stokowski. His name was Stokowski and he was born in London and went to school in Marylebone – there is a plaque on the wall of the school just round the corner from where I lived for many years. He then went to the Royal College of Music, where he studied the organ.

There are a lot of stories about this colourful character, as indeed there are about quite a few conductors. The anecdotes here come directly from the musicians involved and are not, as so often these tales are, apocryphal. Stokowski, who conducted the LSO quite frequently, had been rehearsing with them in the Royal Festival Hall (RFH). At the end of the morning rehearsal the taxi that had been ordered to take him back to a hotel failed to arrive, so one of the musicians, the bass trombonist, Tony Thorp, was asked if he would take the conductor in his car. This trombone player happened to be a renowned fantasist who because he was for ever telling everyone about his prowess as a medical doctor was generally referred to ironically as Dr Thorp. As he was driving over Westminster Bridge and just passing Big Ben, Stokowski turned to him and said, ‘ What that big clock?’ Thorp replied immediately, ‘I don’t know – I’m a stranger here, too.’

When my old friend Stuart Knussen, an outstanding double bass player and father of the composer Oliver Knussen, was principal double bass and the chairman of the LSO Board, Stokowski used to stay with him in his nice house on the outskirts of London. Stuart had driven Stokowski home after the rehearsal that morning in the RFH, they had had lunch and were sitting resting when Stuart told Stokey, as musicians tended to call him, that he had devised a method of producing the tone one achieves when using a mute, but without the need for a mute. ‘Play to me’ said the Maestro. Double bass players have little opportunity to display their solo talents and so Stuart dashed off a couple of movements of the Bottesini and Dragonetti concertos. ‘Very good! Now, I hear without mute playing.’ Stuart plays and Stokowski tells him ‘Good – very good.’

They had something to eat and then returned to the RFH for the evening rehearsal. After they had been playing for about 20 minutes they came to a passage where the basses were required to be muted. After only a few bars Stokowski stops the orchestra. ‘Principal bass – why you play without mute? Is written for mute- no?’ In some confusion Stuart tries to explain that he had shown him he didn’t need a mute and did not have one with him. ‘No mute. Please leave orchestra.’ And poor Stuart, principal and chairman was obliged to leave the platform. On the way back in the car, after the rehearsal, Stuart asked Stokowski ‘Why did you humiliate me like that in front of the whole orchestra? I had played to you and you said, "That’s very good."’ ‘Yes, my boy.’ replies Stokey, ‘Today you learn lesson. Never trust anyone.’

In a lighter vein: it is reported that when Ernest Fleischman, then manager of the LSO, introduced Georg Solti to him. ‘May I introduce Maestro Solti?’ Stokowski gave a slight bow to Solti and said ‘And what is a Maestro?’, leaving both Solti and Fleischman discomforted and at a loss for a reply. Something very unusual for Solti, a master at always having the last word..

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The authority and control conductors require and their desire to have every thing just as they are hearing it in their ‘mind’s ear’ does sometimes lead them to be inconsiderate to artists. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf was not only a great soprano but also a favourite of Herbert von Karajan. In an interview she relates how she had to respond to his unreasonable demands. She was singing on the recording of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in Vienna with Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra. ‘I did a performance of Don Giovanni with Karl Bohm on the 10th, Così on the 12th and Falstaff on Sunday the 14th. Now, these alone would have been quite sufficient for me, I think. But in addition to that we were recording the Missa Solemnis between the 12th and 15th. On the 13th we had a rehearsal for Falstaff with Mr von Karajan in the morning, when he had laughingly said to me ‘You, my dear, of course need not sing out because after all you have to record in the afternoon of that Saturday at 3 o’clock, so be silent.’ So that is what I started out to be. But when, of course, it came to me singing on the stage and he downstairs in the pit, hardly had a second passed when he put his left hand to his left ear and he said, ‘I can’t hear you. Please sing out. How shall I put a balance if you don’t sing? Come out! Sing out!’ – Well!’

It is at rehearsals that the relationship between conductor and orchestra is established. Can he get what he wants by his conducting gestures, or does he have to talk a great deal, trying to explain what he wants but fails to indicate? Is the orchestra spending more time listening to him than playing the music? Are they becoming increasingly bored? Nothing destroys a performer’s ability to act, dance or play their instrument well than just sitting not ‘doing’.

Some conductors are much better at the rehearsals than at the performance. For some reason they become nervous or more inhibited at the concert. A few of them are able to achieve much better results in the recording studio. On the other hand there are one or two who are boring at rehearsal doing nothing more than constantly repeating the same passage over and over again without giving any reason why they are doing so, yet at the concert they can be inspiring. With a very good orchestra this can work.

Age can be very important for a conductor. Whereas instrumentalists can practise for many hours a day, a conductor cannot. His only opportunity to practise on his instrument is at rehearsals and concerts. Orchestras do not like being practised on. They resent being told what to do by someone who clearly knows less than they do. Curiously, the very best orchestras, with the best and most experienced musicians tend to be the most patient. They probably have sufficient understanding and self-confidence to deal with the incompetence and absence of tact that sometimes goes with a lack of experience in a young conductor. If they recognise real talent, they will tolerate it and perhaps the leader and one or two of the senior principals may have a quiet word with him.

There are some conductors, now held in high esteem by musicians and the public, for whom I played many years ago when they were young. At that time they had not yet learned ‘people skills’ and were still awkward in their gestures. They often upset orchestras and were sometimes heartily disliked. Of course this resulted in the performances they achieved being less good than perhaps they deserved. Over the years, having had the opportunity to practise at many rehearsals, they have gained in confidence, learned to respect the musicians they depend on and found a way to make the gestures necessary to produce the performance they hear in their head. Now, 35/40 years later a few have developed into outstanding artists.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few conductors who do not learn with age, just as many instrumentalists and singers do not improve however long they are in the profession. But when a conductor continues to make unreasonable demands on players and remains unable to indicate his intentions by his gestures, his own shortcomings quite often cause him to be less than agreeable to the orchestra as a whole and sometimes unpleasant to individual players. With an orchestra that may have some weaknesses or, young, inexperienced players, conductors can be quite ruthless when pointing out faults. Too often this further destroys an already poor relationship, reduces confidence and does nothing to improve the performance. If a conductor of this kind does get the opportunity to conduct a very good, experienced orchestra the players will extremely quickly recognise his shortcoming. If he tries to ‘teach’ them how to play their parts and does not ‘let them play’, to quote Sir Thomas, they may find they have a rather hard time. When the final performance is unsatisfactory and unrewarding everyone is unhappy and frustrated.

Those fortunate enough to play in the major orchestras suffer less because they generally get the best conductors. But now there are a lot more good orchestras than good conductors. There are quite a number of musicians who only rarely experience the joy of taking part in a really rewarding performance. For them frustration and unhappiness can turn to anger and bitterness. In the mid-1980s Dr Ian James and a group of doctors, some of who were amateur musicians, established the Elmdon Trust, which became the British Performing Arts Medicine Trust (BPAMT). They were concerned at the increasing prevalence of physical and mental problems within the music profession. There are a number of doctors specialising in these problems and now nearly all the full time orchestras in Britain have a doctor available for consultation. Another organisation, the International Society for the Study of Tension in Performance (ISSTIP) decided that an international survey was required. A questionnaire was planned and distributed to orchestras in Britain and one or two other countries in Europe.

In the section of the questionnaire in which players were invited to comment on what caused them the most distress, by far the most frequent response was relevant to the problem of working with conductors deemed to be less than satisfactory. At that time I was Director of the National Centre for Orchestral Studies and involved with the investigation into the problems besetting musicians. I was astonished to see that when players expressed their feelings about conductors even their handwriting displayed real signs of agitation. The importance of having a good conductor and the harm caused by a bad one was referred to by 57% of those in the regional orchestras. When I said that I did not share these feelings I was told that I had been fortunate to spend my life in the best orchestras working mainly with the very best conductors.

Is there any other occupation or circumstance where the person in charge has such moment to moment control over a large number of people? No one else, employer, general in the army, even a dictator has this power, and especially when those to be commanded are highly skilled and have themselves to be making decisions all the time in the performance of their own actions. In orchestras with a permanent conductor or music director that person will probably also have the power to determine whether one remains in the orchestra. The four London orchestras have overcome this by becoming self-managed; in most countries the musicians will be protected, when necessary, by the collective power of either their trade union or an association to which they belong. This was not so in the past and a good many conductors were referred to as tyrants. Changed attitudes to authority have also played a large part in curbing any tendency in that direction.

The relationship between conductors and orchestras has changed a great deal since I joined the profession in 1942. It is a very complex relationship and difficult to appreciate for anyone who has not had a good deal of experience in a professional orchestra. Sometimes those who write about the orchestra and orchestral musicians do not realise that the conductor/orchestra relationship with a very experienced orchestra is very different from that in a school, college, amateur or semi-professional orchestra. The majority of the members of a major symphony orchestra will have had far more experience of the repertoire than even the oldest and most experienced conductor because they will have played whatever is to be rehearsed with many conductors, good and bad. Marie Wilson, who was one of the Leaders of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for many years from the early 1930s, put it very well in an interview I recorded with her in 1987, when she was still playing in the LPO. She had played with all the great conductors from Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler to Karajan and Giulini. She said ‘We should have conductors who know so much more than we do. We are at the top of our profession: we should be looking up to somebody at least better than us. Someone who can inspire you.’

Since I became a member of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1942 the general standard of technical skill on all instruments has increased tremendously. Music that even the two or three most outstanding players would consider taxing is now playable by everyone hoping to join the profession. It is not too much to say that virtuosity is relatively commonplace. The ‘teaching’ element at rehearsal that was required in all but the finest orchestras is no longer needed. The ability to obtain the right balance of the various sections and inspiring the orchestra are now what every orchestra is looking for.

The skill conductors now have has also developed so that they can mostly deal with the demands composers have made since the beginning of the 20th century. Many have employed far more complex rhythms and changing time signatures. Instead of writing whole movements in 4/4, 3/4 or 6/8, each bar may have a different time signature, 3/8 then 5/4 followed by 2/4 and so on. Instead of melodic lines, sections of the orchestra and individual instruments have been used in a way similar to how Seurat and the other pointillist artists applied spots of paint. The separate dots of paint only make sense when one stands away from the painting and one can see what the artist intended, or, in the case of music, hear what the composer envisaged. Then again, to continue the analogy with painting, some composers became interested in creating ‘sound experiences’, new and original aural worlds in the way artists have used pure colour or changed perspectives.

The development of these new compositional techniques, serial or twelve-tone music and other compositional techniques drew further and further away from the idea of ‘tunes’ as normally considered. For this music the musicians in the orchestra now often only needed someone just to indicate the beats accurately. A conductor needing a good ‘stick technique’, rather than the ability to inspire was required, so that conductors attracted to this new music were often those for whom representing in sound, as accurately as possible, the notes just as they see them written in the score was most important.

The coming of the long-playing 33rpm record in the early 1950s required conductors to share their authority with the recording producer and technicians to an extent conductors in the past would not have allowed. New techniques, in particular the use of tape for recording that allowed the extensive use of editing made this possible. With the additional use of many more microphones individual sections could be now be balanced separately, finally putting the control over the finished recording in the hands of the producer. This has affected conductors and those playing in symphony orchestras to a greater extent than those playing in smaller groups of musicians. The essential element in Jazz of improvisation would be removed if the recordings were edited. Recordings of pop music rely to a considerable extent on the use of the most sophisticated recording techniques, some of which are now used when recording symphony orchestras. Other popular compositions are usually not so long as the overtures, concertos and symphonies that are the core repertoire of the symphony orchestra and so they can frequently be recorded without the need for so much editing. In the case of chamber music the ensemble will have rehearsed the music extensively before coming to the studio. Again, there will be much less need for editing.

In spite of all the changes that have taken place over the years the conductor remains the cross that orchestral musicians still have to bear because too often he does not know more than the players do and is unable to inspire them. Yet, it is only with a very good or great conductor that it is possible for those playing in an orchestra to fully express themselves musically. That paradox remains whatever else changes.

Famous conductors bring in audiences and sell recordings and so managements, recording companies and virtually everyone they have contact with respond to their every wish. For several years whilst I was Chairman of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Council of Management (its board of Directors), as well as playing in the orchestra, I had quite a lot to do with conductors. I quickly learned that it was necessary to think of the very good, sometimes great artists we were privileged to work with as extremely intelligent, highly gifted and wayward children. I also found that some of these wonderful artists had become so used to their slightest whim being complied with that they had become prone to change their mind from one moment to another. The qualities that enabled them to get outstanding results when they were on the podium had led some of them to be rather autocratic and dictatorial in their relationships when they were not conducting. It was necessary to be absolutely firm and establish that ‘yes’ really meant ‘yes’ and ‘no’ meant ‘no’, today, tomorrow, and next week, otherwise it was possible to find oneself running around in circles all the time. It was not always easy. We wanted them to be happy, not only with how the orchestra played, but to feel that the orchestra respected them. If they were outstanding, perhaps great conductors, we wanted to work with them again. They could make playing in the orchestra a really enjoyable and enriching experience.

Chapter 10


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