Conductors And Directors

Now and then, some people group together to form a team. They do it in order to set up a company, to enact a play, or to make music. They can manage by themselves as long as a family business, a play with quite a few characters or an evening of chamber music is concerned. It appears that the size limit of a self-governing group is eight. Any larger team, sociologist Robert Escarpit claims, is bound either to divide, or to structure itself hierarchically. A boss is needed, one who would prevent disruption. The experimented hostess knows that she cannot invite more than eight guests, should conversation being kept at the general level. Otherwise, a leader is needed, to coordinate the members, by devising and enforcing rules and by making the others observe them. He may pop up spontaneously, be democratically elected, or duly appointed. He could be a natural-born leader or a fake one. Either way, he is meant to act as a mediator, to create connections, to smooth tempers, to harmonize the most diverse personality types. Knowledge of psychology is a prerequisite, but not a sufficient resource. The leader's aim is to make a team out of a group, to turn energy into synergy. The latter implies that the global result of the team amounts to something more than the sum of the partial abilities of the group members. Theirs is the energy; his is the job to provide synergy. He is bound to orchestrate the various parts, i. e. to arrange or combine them so as to achieve a desired or maximum effect. The conductor of an orchestra is the paradigm of a leader. Chamber music can go by itself up to the Octuor; the Dixtuor already needs a conductor. His achievement is not individual, his talent and mind are not exposed as such, but they are merged into the team performance, like flour and butter into a cake, to provide consistency, if not flavor. Consequently, just as the stage-director has long been resigned not to partake in the glory of the leading lady, the conductor would not have hoped to enjoy the fame of the soloist virtuoso. At the most fundamental level, the conductor must stress the musical pulse so that all performers follow the same metrical rhythm. The keeping of this rhythmic beat is accomplished by a stylized set of arm and hand movements that outline the basic metre: two beats to the measure, as in a polka, three beats, as in a waltz, four beats, as in a march. In each case, the primary accent is indicated by a downstroke. For nearly two centuries, conductors favored a baton, or thin wand, in the right hand as a device for emphasizing the metrical outline, reserving the left hand for indicating entries of different parts and nuances. However, especially since the 20th century, conductors dispensed with the wand, which freed their both hands for more elaborately interpretive directions. With the removal of the baton and the elimination, through memorization, of the printed score in public performance, the conductor has been set free to use not only his hands and arms but also the movement of his torso and facial muscles to express his wishes in the execution of phrasing, dynamic level, nuance, individual entrances and other aspects of a finished performance. He embodies the music himself, his body seems to be precisely the source of it, so that the interpreters are heretofore relegated to be the keys he plays on, the grand instrument of his own ambitions. The conductors started to forget that their worth could be perceived only via the performances of those they coordinated. They were only too willing to persuade themselves that the music flowed freely out of their own bodies and that the members of the orchestra were there only to fit in the pattern they wove, the hands they needed to make their dream audible. The stage directors followed soon upon. They also came to perceive the actors as mere marionettes, subject to their will. Both conductors and directors developed an oversized self-image. Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowsky, Arturo Toscanini, as much as Gordon Craig, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Max Reinhardt, believed in their genius, and treated their teams – orchestras and casts – as mere human resources for their advanced projects. The magnificent sixties saw the climax of conductors' and directors' unquestioned power. Fellini and Antonioni reigned in the movies, Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski in the theatres, Herbert von Karajan and Sergiu Celibidache in the concert halls. One could wonder at this evolution of the conductor, from a major functionary, first among equals, whose chief responsibility had been to perform with the ensemble and only secondarily to lead it, to the tyrannical tycoon that puts himself forward and, once the performance is over, praises or scolds, in front of the enthusiastic audience, some duly selected instrumentalists. In fact, one is doubtful that a visiting conductor could imprint his personality on a well trained orchestra to such an extent that the success would be exclusively his. A French general of the First World War was once asked if he truly believed that the victory was due to his skills. Well, he said, I'm not sure about the victory, but I know for certain that, in the case of defeat, the blame would have been upon me. Thus, taking the risks of the defeat seems a sufficient reason to delight, proud and solitary, in triumph, however poorly deserved it might be. It is true that Celibidache favored the long-term engagement with a specific orchestra and, whenever invited, required extensive rehearsals. They consisted mainly in long talks interrupted by very short fragments of music, so that a sort of communion would develop between the team and its leader. On the contrary, Karajan thought that his presence was enough to electrify both the orchestra and the audience. Karajan favored the one-man-show, Celibidache preferred the synergetic approach. However, both were deeply convinced that the music actually stemmed from their own bodies and was only "acted" by the instrumentalists. Basically, Celibidache and Karajan embody the two major conceptions in conducting. The latter believes in the perfect rendering of a musical score, so perfect that the orchestra could be able to play it with a consummate precision, even directed upside-down, from the end to the beginning. The former had an organic conception of music, based on the idea that "the end is in the beginning", so that he made the process move implacably onwards, in an irreversible thrust. As a matter-of-fact, neither approach is perfect. Music is, at the same time, a structure and a process. As a structure, it has a form that may be explored from all perspectives, in all dimensions, while, as a process, it can be experienced only as a unique duration. The players in the orchestra are only too conscious of the over-estimation of the conductor. Often, they give him a try, striking purposely the false key, in order to check the accuracy of his reaction. The authoritative star-conductor, who imposes his own impulses to an obedient and mesmerized orchestra, is already out of fashion. Daniel Barenboim is well-aware of that, when he puts forward an image of another relationship, more democratic, between the conductor and the players: "If one wants to learn how to live in democratic society, one should follow the example of the musician in an orchestra. He knows best when to command and when to obey. He graciously allows the others sufficient space, but has no inhibitions in asking for a place of his own." In our postmodern times, conductors, as well as stage-directors, should take into account the fact that self-organizing teams are superior to rigidly disciplined ones, that there are no more grand schemes of success, devised by remarkable and imperative minds.

by Adrian Mihalache