Who Needs a Conductor?

One of the longest seconds I ever lived through came just before the beginning the Dies irae from Mozart’s Requiem.

The members of the Stanford Chorus crowded onto the risers at the back of the stage of Dinkelspiel auditorium, their music open, their lungs filled. Down in front of the singers, the string players of the orchestra held their bows at the ready, the wind players puckered up, the timpanist’s mallets were poised above the thunder-making skins of her kettledrums. I was seated at an organ nestled in the corner of the stage with my back to the audience, craning my head forward and concentrating on the image in a rearview mirror placed just above my music desk. A gray-haired conductor in full battle gear—white tie and tails—held a baton above his head, having just raised it into position with a short stroke, decisive stroke. Or at least that’s what he would have called it.

Then the conductor brought his hand past the top of his head, the white stick accelerating at roughly the rate of a free-falling object. Watching the baton trace a straight line downward was like being pulled through some heavily warped space—an extraordinary relativistic effect, brought on by the nervous anticipation that precedes any first note, especially one in which a hundred people are supposed to begin something exactly together. Seen from the frame of reference of the audience, I’m sure the baton seemed to be moving in a fluid motion. But for those of us on stage—at least for me—the progress of the thin white stick as it moved past the conductor’s shoulders, past each of ruffle of his white shirt was being infinitely slowed by an intense gravitational field.

By the time the stick reached his cummerbund there was still no music. An apocalyptic scenario this, when the conductor makes—or is in the midst of—that first grand gesture, but there is still only silence, as if God goes to create the world from the void and nothing happens. Watching such impotence is a truly terrifying experience: all the musicians are unsure why no one has begun to play or sing, yet too petrified to make the first move, perhaps already having missed the proverbial moment of truth.

But at the last conceivable point of the conductor’s downstroke, reflex overrode my fear and I grabbed the opening chord on the keyboard. An indivisible instant later the orchestra and choir came in, and a performance of Mozart’s Dies irae began.  Mine was not a heroic act, but one of pure panic. It was a surreal experience, and as I played on through the movement I remained unsure as to whether I had simply imagined an elaborate crisis compressed into some part of a single second.

After the concert a fellow graduate student who had taught the choir their parts, came up to me and said, “Thanks for that first chord. You saved, the conductor’s ass.” On the way out of the auditorium I passed the maestro, who glared at me as if to say, “You came in early.”

My uncertainty as to where a baton marks its first beat begins is not uncommon. The famously vague motions of the great German conductor Wilhelm Fürtwangler demanded, as one of his musicians put it, that the members of his orchestras wait to begin “until they can absolutely wait no longer.” Uninitiated players flummoxed by Fürtwangler’s meandering baton were given various other suggestions about when to come in, among them counting to 17 from the moment he raised his arms. Another heuristic recommended beginning when the stick reached the third button of his waistcoat. That Fürtwangler was a life-long foe of musical precision, choosing instead to concentrate on the purely “spiritual” dimension of the music, provided the ideological justification for his notorious vagueness, but I’d guess that it didn’t make the decision of when to begin any less harrowing for the musicians under his command.

Beginning is the crucial musical act, demanding the most resolve, whether from an orchestra or a soloist. It is a sort of moment of conception—if you’ll forgive the highly suspect organic metaphor—in which the subsequent life and character of the piece is in large part determined. The question of Nature versus Nurture as it might relate to musical performance can be fairly confidently answered: it is almost impossible to overcome a bad start in music. When the conductor’s motions are only indirectly related to the actual beginning of a piece—as revealed in the suggestions for figuring out Fürtwangler’s downbeat—then the musical relevance of his subsequent gesticulating are tainted by suspicion.

Anecdotes abound that are meant to prove the conductor superfluous. One famous story related by the German philosopher Theodor Adorno in his classic essay “Conductor and Orchestra,” tells of the mad son of a wealthy German family who thought he had the makings of a great director. The family hired a leading orchestra to play Beethoven’s Fifth while the young man waved his arms. The resulting performance was as good as any of the orchestra’s usual renditions of the piece. Adorno himself puts it bluntly: “Among musicians it is hardly in dispute that the public prestige of conductors far exceeds the contributions which most of them make to the reproduction of music.” Adorno wrote the essay in the early 1960’s but it remains fresh every time I return to it, not least since there are few institutions as conservative as major symphony orchestras. Somewhat more recently, Daniel Barenboim, one of a handful of international conducting stars, demonstrated a self-knowledge rare in his profession, when he acknowledged, while still music director in Chicago and pulling down seven figures, that “orchestral conducting as a full-time occupation is an invention—a sociological not an artistic one—of the 20th century.”

In the late 1980’s I had two friends in the San Francisco Orchestra when Herbert Blomstedt, still going strong into his mid-90s and recently lauded in the New Yorker and New York Times, was credited with winning the group an international reputation. Both claimed that Blomstedt was incompetent and believed that he needed a hearing aid; he was not a young man even back then.  Refusing to allow that his conducting had any positive musical result and utterly dissatisfied with the quality of music making, they resigned their lucrative, tenured positions and returned to New York to free-lance. Such complaints are commonplace among orchestral players since, as Adorno maintained, they resent the conductor’s domination of them all the more because they cannot do without him.

The Soviet conductorless orchestras created in the wake of the Russian Revolution were hobbled by the purges that swept through these inherently hierarchical, bourgeois institutions. As much as I am loathe to admit it, anarchy is not often the best policy when it comes to making music. The rightly celebrated Orpheus Chamber Orchestra interprets by committee and does not have a conductor standing out front, arms waving.  But when dealing with the larger forces of a massed symphony orchestra it helps to have a leader who can mold the interpretation, since there are various questions that always arise and it is often difficult, not to say impossible, to resolve them democratically. This is done mostly in rehearsal, when the conductor, if he is to be successful, must quickly–as often there is very little time–impress his will on his sometimes intransigent charges.

Perhaps the most important matters of interpretation concern tempo, a basic and easily identifiable characteristic of any performance, and one which returns us to questions of beginnings. Felix Mendelssohn, one of the first musicians to build a good part of his music in conducting, would often lead the orchestra at the start of the piece and then simply stop conducting. It is not surprising then that Richard Wagner, the first truly histrionic conductor and one to whom many of the present-day stars can trace their origins through direct protégé—master lineage, reviled Mendelssohn for the “elegance” of his style. Mendelssohn’s must have been a modest approach very different from the hyper-Romantic antics of most conductors since him. Laying out after setting the tempo is a self-effacing move that might have some short-lived appeal nowadays as a gimmick, but would never provide the energy necessary to fuel the star whose shining image will sell the orchestra’s recordings and fill the requisite 30,000 seats a year in the hall.

Faced with the uncertain opening downbeats presented by many conductors, I’ve often wondered why it is customary to give only a short upbeat (the preparation) and then a single downward stroke (the downbeat). Though there will inevitably by fluctuations, the tempo has been decided  on in rehearsal. But this fleeting, often furious motion signaling attack still seems to me to be a literally and figuratively sketchy way to deal with so decisive an event as the beginning of a piece. Why not beat a whole measure for free, before the orchestra comes in, a practice common in the eighteenth century and one used by jazz musicians today? The answer, I think, is that it would undermine the conductor’s claim to omnipotence. In one (manly) motion, so like Zeus throwing his lightning bolt, the conductor creates a musical world with the thrill of the hands. To see this potentate of the podium beating time before the music sounds would show that his (and thankfully more often in recent years, her) hands create no sounds themselves, that the damning impotence of silence forever lurks a split second before and after even the most deafening fortissimo.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com