This was a question asked of me over Christmas by my uncle. Admittedly he’s not someone who attends classical music concerts, but he’s not the first person to ask me this. To the uninitiated, the chap (and it is still nearly always a chap) with the pointy stick at the front is a bit of a mystery. What difference do they really make, apart from to keep it all together? Well the devil, as ever, is in the detail.
For the CBSO Chorus, this week’s chap with the pointy stick is Ed Gardner, our principal guest conductor. I’m sure he’d be pleased to know that the general feeling is that he’s one of the best conductors we have the pleasure of working with. He might be less excited to know that the other feeling among the chorus (well the ladies of the chorus anyway) is that he has great hair, but there we go. Yes, we do talk about those sorts of things.
What makes him so good? Well, for starters, his beat is clear. You would think this is a prerequisite for conductors. It really isn’t. Occasionally a conductor appears whose beat is completely mystifying. This is not always a problem. At a pinch, as long as the orchestra and choir are together it will probably be fine, regardless of what’s going on at the front. But this misses the point of what a great conductor can do. It is the ability to shape the direction and sound of the music, and to change the smallest detail that makes the difference.
Anyone observing our Spring Symphony rehearsals this week would have spotted this attention to detail. I mean, the Britten needs it. The text is difficult to enunciate clearly, particularly at lightning speed. The sopranos have been struggling with singing ‘sweet and small’ all week while the children’s chorus are doing their best with ‘chop cherry’. The vibraphone came in for plenty of attention. The lower octave wasn’t sounding loudly enough. Then the upper octave was ringing too much. The snare drum wasn’t exactly in time with the harp. The sopranos needed to be scarier on the word ‘howls’. And the tenors were getting overexcited and rushing ahead of the beat. It takes boundless energy and vision to know what you want a piece of music to sound like and to exhort several hundred performers to achieve it.
A good conductor puts their own stamp on the music. It is entirely possible to perform the same piece of music multiple times, each time with a new interpretation. Sometimes this doesn’t quite work. A university performance of Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem nearly ground to a halt as the (soon to be retiring) conductor got slower and slower throughout the last movement. Sopranos started having to sit down rather than pass out. Never underestimate the physical toll of conducting. On everybody. A last minute change of conductor wreaked havoc with a well rehearsed Mozart Requiem, performed successfully only a few days previously under a different baton. These things happen. But often, it is a new way of looking at a movement, a phrase, a bar, that is what makes working with different conductors exciting.
For a choir, a great conductor doesn’t just make music with the orchestra, they really involve the singers as well. There are some renowned (ahem, Russian) conductors who are less than keen to acknowledge the choir’s existence. In some cases this has involved communicating with the choir via our choral director only. Instead of, you know, talking to us. I’m happy to say this is a rarity. The CBSO’s main conductor, Andris Nelsons, is a joy to watch. And sometimes hilarious. When he gets really excited he star jumps on his podium. If he wants the quietest sound possible, he will crouch down underneath his music stand and look up at you pleading for pianissimo. When it’s going really well during a concert, he has been known to take a little break to lean back and survey the scene. His enthusiasm is infectious.
So, the point of the bloke (and yes, sometimes woman) at the front of the stage? They shape the music. They inspire, they demand and they cajole others to share their musical vision. They can make or break a performance. Oh yes, and they keep the beat too.
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