In one of the best articles or essays about conducting I think I’ve ever read, New York Times Magazine music critic Justin Davidson describes his process of trying to figure out exactly what it is the conductor does–by DOING IT.
This is a wonderful piece–beginning to end, full of really good stuff, and I suspect equally edifying for conductors and non-conductors alike. (There may be some cynical brass players or 5th desk second violins who still put up their noses, but oh well.) Excellent. Some of my favorite quotes:
“I’m standing on a podium, with an enameled wand cocked between my fingers and sweat dampening the small of my back. Ranks of young musicians eye me skeptically. They know I don’t belong here, but they’re waiting for me to pretend I do. ..”
or this: ” ‘Knowing the score’—the expression implies mastery, but it doesn’t suggest the sustained and solitary study that’s required to achieve it. There are a few miles of roadway that I have driven often enough to navigate them faultlessly in my mind: I know every pothole, every deer crossing. A conductor needs similarly detailed recall of an enormous musical terrain. ..” (yes!!!)
About Gilbert: “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. ” (I want someone to say of that of me someday; it so perfectly encapsulates everything I’m working for…)
My favorite: “Staring at my hands like a toddler who’s just discovered his thumbs…” (That was me in October. Or whenever I try to get a grip on the end of the 2nd mvt. of the Brahms Requiem.)
“The modern maestro tries to at least simulate humility. Mine is totally unfeigned.”
And quotes from his teachers in this process, Alan Gilbert and James Ross–
(Ross) “A lot of great conductors are shy, even though you wouldn’t know that from how they handle large groups of people. That shyness can actually help in intimate music. You have to let people see what’s inside you, even if you don’t do that in the rest of your life.”
(Gilbert) “Your hand shouldn’t make the tempo; it should revealthe tempo.”
(Ross) “We feel guilty if we don’t bring all this energy…But we have to realize the emotional life of the music is going to be there, no matter what’s going on inside us.”
(Gilbert) “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.”
And from Davidson again, the crux of it all, stated in a way I have never heard before but instantly resonate with: “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.”
Yes. He’s got it. If I can someday conduct as well as he writes about conducting, I’ll be happy.