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What Does a Conductor Do?

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Lifting the baton feels a little like getting ready to push off from the top of a ski slope, in that I’ll move in the right direction whatever I do, and also because fear will cause disaster. Neither fact is comforting. My downbeat is stiff, and the great D-minor wobbles accordingly. Gilbert has me speed up the tempo slightly, give more zip to the upbeat, and plunge more decisively into the downbeat. Okay, now it’s hanging together. I try a third time, and I focus on the sound. I turn my left palm upward as if to hold an imaginary grapefruit and try to feel the baton cutting through some viscous medium, meeting resistance. Suddenly, the big chords acquire a rounded glow. Cellos and basses toll like a great bell, and the violins echo their answer on the offbeats. I have seen conductors shape music with their hands like clay, and now I’m doing it. It is a powerfully addictive feeling.

I make plenty of flubs: I scramble the beat, forget a cue, confuse the players once or twice. The Juilliard students respond with sensitivity and respect, and a desire to play as beautifully as I will let them. By the time we get to the Molto Allegro, I know what I want, and I get some of it, at least: the theme light and yeasty, the fanfare graceful and not too loud. But I can feel myself working too hard, threshing the air, and the tempo starts to drag. Gilbert takes the baton and has me rest my hand lightly on his forearm, so that I can feel the music as he does. “It doesn’t take any energy to keep the music going, but it takes a lot of energy to slow it down, and that’s what you’re giving it.” I try again. My shoulders relax, my back straightens, my elbows pull in toward my ribs, and I can feel, more than hear, the music go weightlessly scudding along.

Soon, we’re galloping toward the No, really passage. I punch the forte, but not too hard, and hush the piano, keeping the energy confined to the wrist. And somehow, as we pivot into G minor, my body knows how to convey the brooding darkness and catch the shadows that shift at each harmonic change until we get to the bruised wonder of a diminished seventh. At my shoulder, I hear Gilbert mutter a slightly startled “Good.” Later, he murmurs words I wish I could frame: “You have talent.” Where were you 25 years ago? Actually, since we were in some of the same college classes, I know exactly where he was: wrapping his gifts in expertise, laboriously acquiring his right to his honorific.

In Italian, the word maestro also means teacher. As we power toward the final cadence and I exchange glance after glance with the young musicians, it occurs to me that they are bombarding me with unspoken questions and it’s my job to convey answers. That’s what a conductor does: mold an interpretation by filtering the thousands of decisions packed into every minute of symphonic music. The clarinetist inclined to add a little gleam to a brief solo by slowing down slightly, the tuba player preparing for a fortissimo blast after twenty minutes of nothing—each will look to the podium for a split-second shot of guidance, and the conductor who meets those fleeting inquiries with clarity and assurance will get a more nuanced performance. My efforts haven’t made me a good conductor, or even a mediocre one, but they have given me the glimmerings of competence—an intoxicating taste of what it might feel like to realize the fantasy of my boom-box days.


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