How To Conduct [Insert Title]?

Worry_WortIntermittently I return to the subject of whether assertions made in treatises on orchestra conducting and conducting technique are valid. I return to the subject again today.

Recognising that there are quite a number of younger conductors who follow this blog (albeit intermittent of late) I think there is a responsibility to engage in discussion about things to do with conducting that weren’t readily available when I started out in this business.

One of the recurring issues is, “Is what you read in the ever expanding subject matter of orchestral conducting reliable?” The answer is more often ‘yes’ than otherwise, but there is a growing body of literature; mostly emanating from American college and university academic conductors, that raise some concerns.

One of the nasty truisms of academia – and especially so in the performing and creative Arts disciplines – remains the concept of ‘publish or perish’. Alternative methodologies and frameworks of Performance as Research (PaR) as it is referred to in the USA or PARIP (Practice in Research as Performance) elsewhere, and other exemplars of practice-based academic enquiry regrettably remain problematic for many universities, their associated research funding mechanisms and processes of academic promotion.

Consequently, as opposed to seeing how conducting orchestras and Opera as creative production can constitute intellectual enquiry through performances, we have seen the publication of a plethora of texts on conducting technique as ‘how to’ books over the last 5 – 10 years.  These tomes tend to reflect more associations of experience from within the hallowed halls of learning than performances with professional orchestras.

And herein lies the problem: professional orchestra players learn an ‘inside the orchestra’ vocabulary of execution which negates the need to observe or follow the pedantic approaches to conducting espoused in these texts.  It’s true too, that the development of this player-group vocabulary has arisen over the last hundred years of orchestral performance practice to negate the often seen shortcomings of the person at the front of the orchestra waving the stick! It’s not a question of the validity of this reality, it just is.

It would be far more useful if the ‘academic’ conducting fraternity could, and would, use PaR or PARIP methodologies as enquiry into what conducting gestures (as they see them) actually mean to professional players in terms of what they collectively see and, as a consequence of this, what they interpret the meaning of these gestures to be. This would provide much needed feedback to determine whether what is actually being taught to conductors actually reflects what orchestral players need.

I have been referring to a couple of recent orchestral conducting treatises (or books) in recent days – one very recently published in fact – as part of the usual score preparation and general reading many conductors do. As stated above, it is my view that conducting texts that profess to tell the conductor ‘how’ to conduct passages in music are, frankly, better avoided.

Some background to this: when I was a younger conductor, I took to be an inviolate truth that what was printed in books on conducting was sacrosanct. As the years go by; and as you get better at the Art and craft of conducting, you do learn to separate what ranges from (a) old school approaches to conducting no longer consistent with current standards in orchestral performance (the whole Max Rudolf methodology of time-beating patterns comes to mind), (b) edicts written by ‘academic’ conductors who think academic music-making experiences are commensurate with professional orchestral practice, to (c) downright, utterly wrong information that perpetuates travesties of music-making by the unwary conductor.

In the intervening years, the pendulum of my thinking about many of these issues has swung farther toward prioritizing solutions that make orchestral players feel secure – and with a minimum of fuss and arm-waving histrionics – as the primary role of a conductor when pursuing a musical interpretation. There are two objectives in conducting: make clear your musical vision for a piece to the orchestra and, simultaneously, give room for the same said players to execute that vision on your behalf (preferably avoiding the endless repetition of ‘beat’ patterns).

It’s true, that as you move from the flashy flamboyance of youthful conducting to more restrained movements closely aligned to the truism that ‘less is more’ – you begin to occupy a philosophical stance that makes you ever more wary of pronouncments that such and such bars (measures) must be conducted in 4, or 2, or 1, or whatever, and, that musical notes on the page demand strict fidelity to the score.

Bosh!

So, I am studying a concerto I have not done in over 20 years; one of the finest pieces in the 20th-Century repertoire, and acutely demanding for orchestra and soloist alike. I’m not going to tell you which one it is, because that would make it a bit transparent about which conducting books I might be referring to in this post.

I could give many examples of instances in either of these learned tomes where the authors are just plain wrong, but two examples will suffice:

The concerto in question has a deceptively simple opening. One author prescribes the use of a ‘back-phrasing’ technique used by pop singers to keep the soloist in ‘sync.’ (sic) with the orchestra, and the second author (who wisely refrains from any such nonsensical approach) completely mistakes the phrase structure of the opening 32 measures. Both authors profess to be experts. Hmm?

So how do younger conductors know what actually is right?

The more affronting answer is “they don’t.” The better answer is simple but simultaneously elusive. Young conductors need to learn to be self-reliant and confident to argue against perceived wisdoms when they believe such statements to be inaccurate. Moreover, they need to acquire excellent visual score study skills which, in turn, may be derived from very well honed skills in harmonic analysis and counterpoint (all now but lost from much conservatory training in pursuit of more ‘popular’ course structures) and, not least, find a great teacher (much easier said than done!)

Take care,

Kevin

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