What Is It Like Being a Conductor?

What does a conductor do? And what does conducting feel like? David Anderson sought to find out. In this piece in New York Magazine, he describes how he led a rehearsal of Mozart’s six-minute overture to Don Giovanni. His guides in the process: Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, and James Ross, who with Gilbert runs the Juilliard School’s conducting program. What Davidson discovers is that conducting is therapeutic, beautiful, and addictive.

A harsh perspective on the conductor (perhaps deserving no credit for his work; maybe you feel the same way?):

Audiences wonder whether he (or, increasingly, she) has any effect; players are sure they could do better; and even conductors occasionally feel superfluous. “I’m in a bastard profession, a dishonest profession,” agonized Dimitri Mitropoulos, who led the New York Philharmonic in the fifties. “The others make all the music, and I get the salary and the credit.” Call it the Maestro Paradox: The person responsible for the totality of sound produces none.

This is a wonderfully descriptive paragraph:

Not only am I letting the musicians in on my own inner life, I’m also asking them to express it for me. The idea of conducting as a kind of emotional ventriloquism helps deal with one especially thorny bit of the Maestro Paradox: Leadership requires confidence that is difficult to acquire and impossible to fake. Orchestras are psychic X-ray machines. They judge a new chief within minutes, and once scorn sets in, forget it. I’m going to have to project the sense that I am entitled to be there, and first, I must convince myself.

On the addictive power of lifting and moving the baton:

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…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.

On interacting with the musicians as Davidson is conducting:

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.

While the piece leaves something to be desired (namely, the technical details of conducting), it is gorgeously written. I quite enjoyed it.

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