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What Does a Conductor Do?

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The author's big moment, with Gilbert (in scarf) coaching and observing.  

One day, there’s a heightened buzz in the rehearsal room: Bernard Haitink, the great Dutch conductor, is paying a visit. In the middle of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, Haitink politely taps an overzealous student on the shoulder and borrows his baton. Then he starts the piece again, doing almost nothing but flicking the stick’s tip millimetrically. The effect is of hushed delight, until his left hand describes a single upward sweep, releasing a ferocious forte. Haitink smiles and returns the baton. “The musicians are very busy with playing,” he says. “You should not distract them!”

As I get deeper into the score, I focus on one crucial but difficult aspect of the job: preparing a moment before it arrives. Gilbert urges his students to stop living in the moment; giving a Get ready! cue just one beat ahead of a Now! creates a little shiver of panic. A conductor has to be simultaneously ahead of the music and with it, experiencing and expecting at the same time—manufacturing an extended déjà vu. When Gilbert works, you can see the pulse thrumming through his body, diggadiggadiggadigga, yet he also projects a commanding serenity. He crooks a finger at the timpanist to alert him of an impending event, flicks it a beat before the entrance, and then drops it in exactly the slot where it belongs. The musicians find the ease and clarity of these minimal motions reassuring. A good conductor is a parent who’s always ready and always right.

One section of the Don Giovanni overture that both beguiles and worries me begins at measure 157: I think of it as the No, really passage. After a dramatic silence, the strings thud down a B-flat scale, like a heavy tread on a staircase, haloed by a motionless chord in the winds and brass. The phrase sounds like the windup to a serious discussion, but it’s cut off by an outburst of twittering violins. Dour thud and insouciant chirp alternate again—and again, and again, six times in all, in progressively more agonized harmonies. No, really. No, really! My gestures need to convey at once the repetitive sameness and the escalating urgency.

“It’s amazing how beautifully we play,” a musician says, “when we don’t know what the hell the guy on the podium is doing.”.

Staring at my hands like a toddler who’s just discovered his thumbs, I try making big strokes, energetically waggling my fingers, spreading my arms. It all feels ridiculous. Surely thinking so obsessively about gesture can be counterproductive. Gilbert tells me about a crisis he went through as a student when a teacher focused so relentlessly on the precision of his gestures that he froze. “I doubted every single move, and I felt maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a conductor. It’s helpful to have a great technique, but there are conductors who have a vision of the music so powerful that you can feel it right through their technique. The limiting factor shouldn’t be your physical capacity but your imagination.” In the concert hall, I have seen conductors who look like they’re hugging pillows or digging up sod, making moves that appear barely related to the score, getting magnificent results. (I have also seen leaders of crystalline precision make dull and brittle music.)

I ask Jerry Grossman, principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, how he responds to a conductor with murky body language. “It’s amazing how beautifully we play when we don’t know what the hell the guy on the podium is doing,” Grossman answers. “We’re all listening so nervously!” Not quite reassured, I set the No, really passage aside, hoping that I’ll find a spontaneous way to communicate what’s in my inner ear.

When the day arrives, I wake up thinking of the potential for a disaster. A mushy downbeat will provoke a clamor of staggered bleats. Counting a four-beat measure in three will make a performance implode. Balking at a tempo change will sow mass confusion. But I remind myself that, so long as the basics remain in place, even an oblivious beat-keeper can make music happen, especially if the orchestra knows the work well. An experienced musician is a repository of musical data and sagacity. Stranded orchestra members will look to the concertmaster for a cue, and the principal cellist can inject missing energy. “So are you ready for your New York Philharmonic debut?” a friend has asked me. In a way, the answer is yes—because an orchestra at that level will simply ignore an incompetent conductor and go its own way. A high-caliber student group like Juilliard’s will be a truer measure of what I can, or can’t, do.

At least I can keep one of Gilbert’s mantras in mind: “Assume good will. The orchestra wants to play wonderfully for you. If you hear the perfect performance in your head, then you can just conduct along, and you’re creating the conditions for that to happen.” This ideal of collegiality is fairly new. Conductors in the first half of the twentieth century often berated orchestras, sometimes singling out musicians for public humiliation—unthinkable today, as players are unionized pros with a measure of control over which conductors get invited back. The modern maestro tries to at least simulate humility. Mine is totally unfeigned.


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