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What Does a Conductor Do?

Conducting 101

So where do I start? Ross gently advises me against trying to meet the standards of Lorin Maazel, legendary for his freakish memory and for terrifying apprentices with pop quizzes: Second movement, bar 123, what’s the second bassoon doing? Instead, he suggests I study the overture, take apart the structure, and feel the rhythms until I can sing the whole thing through by heart. Ross warns me to avoid recordings: If you could learn to lead by following, I’d be an expert.

I’ve chosen the Don Giovanni overture because it distills almost everything I adore in music: darkness, humor, violent emotions elegantly expressed, the subtle play of human interactions. In the opera, virtually every conversation is an argument. The Don bickers with his complaining servant Leporello, fends off the grasping Donna Elvira, humiliates the peasant Masetto, and seduces the young bride Zerlina. Mozart weaves this banter into the overture, developing a rhetoric of interruptions and contradictions. After the slow introduction, the violins unfurl a gently swelling theme, made piquant by syncopations. The phrase breaks off in mid-thought and skitters impishly back down for a couple of measures before being interrupted by a fanfare full of bravado. Mozart, the showbiz professional, has introduced three moods, personalities, and styles in eight bars, all with seamless charm. How to translate this into movement? Will I just wind up exaggerating the contrasts with silly pantomime?

My first task is choosing a tempo. This is not as easy as it seems. A beat is a negotiable unit, now infinitesimally shorter, now noticeably stretched. A tempo has to be strong and elastic, steady but not mechanical. In one session, Gilbert stops a student just a second or two into Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony Overture. “I didn’t feel that you had the tempo in your system before you began,” he says. “Your hand shouldn’t make the tempo; it should reveal the tempo.”

Haunted by that admonition, I run through the overture at different speeds in my head, hoping it will seep into my body. The introduction is marked “Andante,” which means “walking,” so I try synchronizing the music with my step while I’m out with the dog in Riverside Park. When I get to the next, very fast section, though, the most logical way to negotiate the jump is to quadruple the pulse, so a lively Andante means a frantic Molto Allegro. I try it much slower, and the Molto Allegro is comfortable and relaxed, but the introduction has grown lugubrious. A few more adjustments and it’s right. I spend the next few days absorbing the beat. My family becomes accustomed to seeing my arm start twitching at the dinner table.

Next I have to figure out what I should be doing with my hands. The overture opens with a thunderous D-minor chord, magnificently rich, thickly orchestrated, and propelled by rolling timpani and slow syncopations in the violins. This clap of moral judgment returns in the final act, accompanied this time by a trio of blaring trombones. That first chord is so full of subtleties that my arm begins to feel as clumsy as a lead pipe. At my slow tempo, every beat is another chance to fall flat.

In the second measure, most of the orchestra cuts off the ringing D-minor chord on the second beat, so I pluck silence out of the air with my left hand and give a separate cutoff with my right for cellos and basses, which keep rumbling for an extra beat. This takes practice, but after a while, I think I’ve got those first two measures down.

Then I meet Gilbert for a private lesson.

He positions me near the door of his office in Avery Fisher Hall and sits at the piano so he can bang and hum his way through the overture. He tells me the Molto Allegro’s fine, but the Andante’s too plodding for my beat to stay steady. One friendly question—“Does it feel comfortable?”—vaporizes all my honed reasoning. As for that second measure, Gilbert politely deems my elaborate two-handed solution too fancy. “Just beat clearly and they’ll take care of it,” he advises.

That’s a useful though not universal commandment: Do Less. The Maestro Paradox leaves insecure conductors constantly justifying their presence: They gesticulate, point, urge, and cajole, like a castaway signaling a distant ship. Most have watched videos of Leonard Bernstein, whose style was athletic, extroverted, and dangerous to imitate. Ross tells one student not to lean toward the players, because they feel hectored. “The sound is all around and behind you. You have to gather it from there.” Ross asks him to set aside the baton, close his eyes, and turn his back to the orchestra so that he’ll listen more and insist less. “We feel guilty if we don’t bring all this energy,” he says. “But we have to realize the emotional life of the music is going to be there, no matter what’s going on inside us.”