Guest Post: Brian Long on the Art of Conducting

Susanna Mälkki, Chief Conductor-elect, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (2016-19), photograph courtesy MITO SettembreMusica

Susanna Mälkki, Chief Conductor-elect, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (2016-19), photograph courtesy MITO SettembreMusica

What have orchestra conductors ever done for us?

For classical music devotees, conductors are possibly the second most important people in the music world, after only composers. And to judge by the relative font sizes on the covers of some CDs you might even be excused for thinking that the role of composers is to write music for conductors to perform. But what do they actually do, these gods of the podium, and why do we give them so much attention?

Let’s start with the bits the public rarely sees: preparation and rehearsals. These are actually the most important parts of the conductor’s work. Preparation starts with programming. This is an art in itself. The old recipe of an overture and concerto followed by a symphony after the interval is still popular with many audiences, orchestra managements and (therefore) conductors. But it’s not exactly imaginative today and conductors who want to stand out from the crowd may well want to break with the model. Economics is never far away. The costs of different programmes can vary wildly. Extra musicians may be required (and need to be paid). Particularly adventurous or rarely performed music may require extra rehearsal time. That costs money. Can an orchestra afford it? And this is even before we start to think about the challenges of filling seats with a particular program.

The encyclopedic conductors who conduct all periods, national styles and genres seem to be getting rarer in recent decades. We live in a world of specialization and conductors are no exception. Today, many of the A-list international conductors have established “brands” as period performers, twentieth-century specialists or experts in a particular national repertoire.

Once the program is fixed the conductor sits down to learn the scores. Many conductors play the piano and undertake score study at the keyboard. The goal is, as Gustav Mahler is reputed to have said, to ensure that the score is in the head, and not vice-versa! There is another joke among conductors that says: “conducting is easy, you only need to know two things: what you want, and how to get it!” The knowing what you want bit is what preparation is all about. Many people assume that music notation is wonderfully precise. The opposite is true. Every score is full of hundreds of grey areas that require decisions and interpretations. Tempos, relative volume levels within the orchestra, interpretations of the work’s structure and the relative prominence of its various sections are just some of the most pressing questions that conductors need to deal with long before the first rehearsal. Many, many hours of careful work have already gone into preparation before the conductor strides out before the orchestra for the first rehearsal starts.

Rehearsals; there are never enough! Rehearsals cost big money and in this case time really is money. The number of rehearsals is always a compromise between cost and performance quality. These days, three or four 150-minute rehearsals for an orchestral concert is as close to a standard as you are going to get. Many orchestras and conductors get by with fewer, five or more is a rare luxury. So conductors have to be careful time managers. The auditorium lights go down on performance night whether the conductor has got to rehearsing the finale of the symphony or not! Excessive time spent getting the opening of the overture just so may make for a nerve-wracking performance of the finale. And nothing annoys orchestral musicians more than conductors who run overtime during rehearsals. Talking too much by conductors is another bugbear among players. Music begins where words end and players expect conductors to communicate their interpretative ideas with their hands and eyes rather than with long monologues that eat up rehearsal time.

Let’s assume our conductor has survived the rehearsal period unscathed (it is not always the case!). Performance time is here. Now quite different skills are required. Now hopefully all the preparation will pay off. Trust is an essential element in a great performance. A certain excitement should be in the air, but not the kind that comes with fear that someone (perhaps the conductor) is going to slip up. The conductor wants the players to give their very best and it is his or her job to create the environment in which they can. Pretentiousness, arrogance or an aura of being the centre of things don’t contribute to such an atmosphere. And yet a certain amount of leadership, in the best sense, is also required. Professional musicians don’t generally need to be told when to play, but do want to know how the conductor wants a passage played. So a good cue does both. And good conductors realise that they are also conducting the audience. Many of those dramatic cues to the trumpet or timpani player that living-room conductors so relish are really aimed at the audience and help listeners make sense of the music.

Finally, let’s remember that the conducting profession is shaped like a triangle. At the top is a select group of stars who embody what most of us think of as a “conductor”. But further down is a much broader substructure of less frequently hailed practitioners. They conduct regional or youth orchestras. They conduct music theatre shows or provincial opera companies. They may never become household names among music lovers, but they provide the shoulders on which the greats stand.

Conducting and conductors are a source of fascination for many people. It can be a hard career. It’s not all glamour, and the glamour elements can be the most irritating. Still, as Erich Leinsdorf said at the beginning of his book on conducting, there are few other professions in which you work with genius on a daily basis.

Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony (1945)

Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony (1945)

About Brian Long: Brian Long studied music in Melbourne and Vienna, where he lived from 1991 to 2001. He teaches in the Arts and Cultural Management program at the University of Melbourne and is currently researching the efficacy of self-management in orchestras. Brian Long has also created, for anyone who would like to join, a terrific platform for classical music discussions and listening: the Great Composers Appreciation Society. Each month, we select music to listen to and discuss. Along the way, we share our concert experiences and discuss all manner of things musical.

Listening List: Conductors in Rehearsal

Leonard Bernstein (rehearsing Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt (rehearsing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5)

Additional Resources on Conductors and Conducting

Conductor Marin Alsop talks about conducting here (video).

Conductor David Bloom talks with Prufrock’s here.

Conductor Riccardo Chailly (who as a young man was assistant conductor to Claudio Abbado at La Scala) talks about conducting here (video).

Conductor Bernard Haitink talks about conducting here (video).

Conductors Alondra de la Parra and Simone Young talk about conducting here.

Conductor Sakari Oramo talks with David Nice about conducting on The Arts Desk here.

Conductor Simon Rattle in rehearsal with Berlin school students here.

Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen talks about conducting here (video).

New Additions

Conductor (and composer) Leonard Bernstein and the making of West Side Story (the studio recording) here (video). With thanks to shoreacres for noting this. The video offers a vivid example of the porous boundaries among musical genres. At the beginning of the video, Bernstein talks about how he prepared for the recording sessions—and he composed the score.

London Symphony Orchestra members talk movingly about what conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas brought to the LSO, both personally and professionally, here.

Bonus Track. The Pinnacle: Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.


Credits: The image of Susanna Mälkki conducting Ensemble InterContemporain, by MITO SettembreMusica, may be found here and that of Leonard Bernstein here.

11 thoughts on “Guest Post: Brian Long on the Art of Conducting

  1. Curt Barnes

    Sorry to be a disappointingly familiar commenter, but I just wanted to say how much more sympathetic this post can make a concertgoer to an orchestra’s repertory vs its innovative programming. And recent comments by Hilary Hahn in her eloquent liner notes to “In 27 Pieces” started my thinking along these lines; she implied that only after performing the commissioned pieces many times did she feel ready to record them, did she feel they had sufficiently revealed themselves to her. How much more so for an orchestra to play a piece several times before taking command of it, I wonder—particularly in the case of a “great” composition. I realize that routine can spoil vitality and inspiration, but what Brian points out about rehearsal limits suggest that knowing an orchestra has performed a piece several times shouldn’t be discouragement for buying a ticket.
    Also, this never occurred to me: ‘And good conductors realise that they are also conducting the audience. Many of those dramatic cues to the trumpet or timpani player that living-room conductors so relish are really aimed at the audience and help listeners make sense of the music.” I always thought they were grandstanding egotists, not that they might be seeking to provide us information. Too cynical by half!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Curt: Disappointing is not an adjective I’d associate with your comments in the least (not to mention your own guest post, which has, among other things, found its way into the music classroom to very positive effect). Hahn’s comment is to the point, isn’t it? Limited rehearsal time certainly has to be a tremendous hurdle, particularly for the presentation of new music, at least in the big halls. I do think, though, even with the barriers, that programming doesn’t need to be so hidebound. The upcoming Sibelius-Nielsen festival at the RSPO in Stockholm is just one of a number of examples of how to program more imaginatively: Another great example is The Rest Is Noise festival in London last year: And, in thinking about all of this, we can only be all the more grateful for the more nimble organizations dedicated to sufficient rehearsals for and performances of new music, which, of course, Contemporaneous is one (with its next program offering four world premieres and a piece which was its first commission). As you note, I too, hadn’t realized conductors were in some instances aiming their gestures to assist listeners. As I’ve noted to Friko, I have definitely benefited from that.

  2. Friko

    Dear Susan, I saw this post, read it avidly and, sadly, couldn’t forego adding one of my own on my blog, or rather, one of the scraper’s, much abridged. While Brian Long writes respectfully from the musicologist’s point of view and, mostly, the audience’s, mine is a lot less respectful, totally from the point of view of the members of a long-established orchestra, with experience of the greatest as well as the most pretentious conductors ever to lift a baton.

    I hope you can forgive me.

    There’s just one point: with a new piece of course the conductor needs to sit down and study the score before rehearsals start, but with an old established piece ?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: I’m delighted that you posted on this subject. It’s an added pleasure to be able to read about conducting from both the carver’s (Brian was also a conductor) and the scraper’s point of view. I will have to plead guilty to appreciating conductor cues to listeners in the hall. I’m not a fan of superfluous theatrics, but if I feel the gestures are authentic responses to the music and/or intended to assist those of us who don’t have the opportunity members of the orchestra have to see what’s going on from that vantage point, I’m grateful for it, and it adds to the experience for me. It was a tremendous revelation to me to be able to watch (on DVD) an orchestra perform from the vantage point of the orchestra –and that my first exposure to this happened to be Abbado conducting the Lucerne in Mahler’s Ninth was (and still is) thrilling. I wish more halls had seating behind the orchestra (as do Lucerne and the Berlin Philharmonie) so more of us could get that opportunity. (PS to other readers here: Friko’s post from the scraper’s view may be found here:

  3. David N

    It’s always especially valuable to have a practitioner’s perspective on some of the pragmatic issues, so thanks to Brian for this. Recently I chaired a lunch with Brunnhildes Catherine Foster and Susan Bullock, and we were all I think fascinated by the nitty-gritty (ie when can you take a toilet break, especially if you’re drinking so much water? Do you sing louder if a conductor isn’t keeping the orchestra down? Answer – no, otherwise you won’t survive to the end of the evening).

    Pace Friko, I think the posers are nearly out of the picture now (Chinese bureaucrat Long Yu being a notable exception). And yes, a conductor ALWAYS needs to sit down and study the score, however well he or she thinks he/she knows it. It has to SEEM new at the point of performance, and how are you going to get that if you think you know how it always goes? Haitink always gets an orchestra to play through a piece straight first so he knows how he can adapt to the special qualities of that orchestra.

    Delighted you put sancta Susanna at the head. I feel bad that with so few women conductors I can’t praise the likes of Marin Alsop and Simone Young more highly, and it shouldn’t be necessary to make the distinction – Malkki is a fine conductor, period – but it’s good to have someone to really shout about. ENO had two excellent ones recently (shame I can’t remember their names without resort to the programmes).

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: It was great to find that photograph of Malkki available to post–a wonderful breakthrough, and I look forward to the chance to see/hear her live. I do have particular affection for Marin Alsop, though I’ve not had a chance to hear/see her live as yet. She’s done so much for classical music overall, in commissioning new work, in education, in encouraging young women and men in their pursuit of careers in music, and in welcoming in listeners everywhere she goes. As to the two women you’re thinking of, here’s a reminder to us both: “ENO made little fanfare about producing two top women conductors in a row – Canadian Keri-Lynn Wilson handling Puccini well and Portuguese Joana Carneiro blazing in Adams.” I remember, also, your report on the Foster-Bullock panel, which was indeed full of fine insights. Your comment about a piece “seeming” new, even if it’s not, is so important, and Haitink’s approach is very interesting to note in that regard.

      1. David N

        Thanks, Sue, it seems I can always rely upon you to be my archivist. That may have seemed a little mean re Marin. Like Rattle, she’s such a fabulous force for the good as ambassador of classical music to children and the world it large; it’s just that with both I can sometimes be disappointed by the actual conducting. Will never forget her Bernstein Mass, though, with big youth input at the Festival Hall.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Well, in this case, I was already familiar with Carneiro, so that jogged my memory vis-a-vis your review. On Alsop (and Rattle), I thought your view fair comment, and I certainly don’t have sufficient basis to judge. I would love to see and hear her most of all on a Bernstein work, under whom she studied. There are some wonderful photographs of her and Bernstein on her site–let’s see if this link will get us to one of them: Could it be a little like Rostropovich conducting Shostakovich vs. other works, I wonder?

          1. David N

            Well, of course, Slava knew Prokofiev and Britten just as well, and then all the others like Lutoslawski, Dutilleux etc whose cello works he premiered or played. So he had rather a few hotlines to genius. But I admire him for being absolutely definite that Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich were the three gods.

            1. Susan Scheid Post author

              David: Love the phrase “hotlines to genius,” which reminds me of that wonderful photograph of him with Oistrakh, Britten, and Shostakovich. I realize my comment was more than a little opaque–and probably not so pertinent, in the end, but just to clarify: my intended point of comparison with Alsop/Bernstein was vis-a-vis Rostropovich in his role as a conductor thought by at least some commentators to be at his best in conducting works by Shostakovich.

  4. Susan Scheid Post author

    Friko’s post engendered a comment from someone who went to The Proms and was able to see the conductor from the orchestra’s view. Here’s his wonderful description, in a post he wrote at the time, about conductor Gianandrea Noseda from that vantage point, which I thought exemplified Brian’s and the scraper’s observations regarding conductor cues:

    “Noseda had a gesture and a move for every mood and detail he was trying to evoke: stern, dreamy, nonchalant, decisive, precise, straining, imploring, a hand outstretched at thigh-level as though supporting the sound, a chop or a double-handed backhand or a thumb-to-index circle indicating the degree of emphasis he wanted from a section, sometimes the fingertips crumbling pastry or spinning threads in the air, sometimes seeming to shoo invisible pigeons away, his shoulders raised and his feet moving as though through treacle, or arms raised and hands floating, his feet almost on tiptoe as he swayed the rhythm. And all at a take-no-prisoners tempo. No wonder he looked exhausted at the end.”

    The complete post, which is a delightful read, may be found here:

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