Saturday, October 28, 2006

Notes & Queries

A recent question in the Guardian’s Notes & Queries - Could a professional symphony orchestra play the standard repertoire without a conductor? – set me thinking. The rather abstruse role of conductor seems strangely anachronistic in today’s pragmatic world. I feel sure that his contribution and importance is widely misunderstood and undervalued – even by musicians, who often resent the high fees that the more notable maestros continue to command. Having worked with one of the top London orchestras on two different recording projects on the same day, I’m fortunate to have witnessed the astonishing impact that a change of conductor can have.

A good conductor is more than an expensive human metronome and a truly great performance is much more than the consolidation of the musicians’ disparate musical ideas. The rarefied skill of the great maestro allows him – or, less often, her – to impose their own, unified conception of a work, communicating a personal interpretation directly to the orchestral musicians – often without recourse to verbal explanation and sometimes even without any discernable gesture. I've also witnessed the great Rozhdestvenskyconducting’ the entire second movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony without so much as twitching a finger - a performance that is preserved as an unedited take on this recording. Such performances are beyond definition, which makes it all the more surprising then that the 21st century maestro has not yet been 'rationalized', out of existence.

Musically speaking, the symphony orchestra is far from being a democratic body; indeed some of the finest conductors throughout history were renowned autocratic tyrants. As Daniel Barenboim points out,

"Any professional conductor can make a professional orchestra play the way he wants them to play. But that's not music. Music is when the conductor and the orchestra breathe as from one collective lung."
Sitting in front of one of today’s great conductors can still be an intensely powerful (if not disturbing) experience: an experience from which most audience members are unfortunately excluded. Can our orchestras look forward then, to the removal of the most tyrannical maestros and the forcible imposition of freedom and democracy on the orchestral world?
picture credit Clive Barda


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