Conductor’s perspective

May 12, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

Imagine how it must feel to stand in front of one hundred musicians at the ready. You’re just slightly elevated by the podium. Music gushes forth in a barrage of sound at the drop of your outstretched hand. The one hundred moving-part-machine dances to your every whim: louder now, then hushed to a whisper. Faster now, then slowed to a walk.

But wait!

You leap into the air—Leonard-Bernstein-style—and they, in turn, respond with an ear-splitting crescendo.

What power! What command!

Is the conductor playing to the audience or is it more personal than that? For whom are the loudness levels set?

Every conductor has been an audience member, and every audience member has wished to be standing on the podium.

I suspect the answer to the question is obvious. The conductor demands and coaxes from the orchestra that which he or she wishes to hear: that what comes out pleases the conductor’s ears first, the audience second.

It sure as hell would be what I would do standing atop that podium.

You?

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26 comments on “Conductor’s perspective”

  1. Nice. Today’s post almost reads like a metophor : the manufacturer designing his speakers/electronics the way he wants it to sound.
    And for me the conductor of the PSA orchestra does an excellent job. Keep up the good work for many years to come.

  2. Is it the way the conductor wants the orchestra to play the piece or the way the conductor thinks the composer wants it to be played ? I always thought it was the latter.

    1. There is no definitive answer to that question, because one would have to be inside the brain of the conductor, but because of the results that anyone can feel, one can believe that the conductor directs the work as he imagines the idea conceived by who composed the work, having his integrity, as a sine qua non condition.

      A case that anyone can verify is the difference between the executions of the 9th. Symphony of Dvorak performed by the Romanian Sergiu Celibidache and the Hungarian Antal Dorati in the handling of the tempo, which allow the listener to enjoy how the musicians draw the sentences with an exquisite calligraphy, as Celibidache conceives it, while in the Dorati, that person can feel a fiery presentation of that masterpiece.

      Free will is present, when reading a partiture.

    2. Not Leopold Stokowski! He re-arranged pieces to suit his tastes, shortening and lengthening them and using widely divergent tempi and accents. You will find his picture in the Dictionary of Music for the entry “heavy-handed”.

  3. Conducting is only the final crescendo of a long symphony of preparation. Before the conductor steps to the podium there is the selection of musicians, arranging each part, and hours of trial and error to achieve perfection.

    Similar in many ways to building an audio system.

  4. The conductor’s job is to interpret the composer’s intent. We’ve had this discussion here many times. Music cannot be written down. The sheet music pages are a guide, not a precise prescription. It lacks the human element. If it were music we could replace musicians with machines. This is a mistake many would be musicians in the far east make. They see technical perfection as being a slave to the written down notes as the goal. Some have spectacular technical prowess yet what comes out is not music because it lacks the human element that lies at the essence of what music is, communication between one human being and another. This is why no two conductors of any worth conduct the same piece of music in precisely the same way. In fact even in Bach’s time improvisation was common, that is the performer creating some of what he played himself on the spur of the moment. Where would jazz be without improvisation? Even some of the notes called blue notes can’t be written down because they lie between the notes that can be written down in our system of notation.

    The conductor does not hear anything like the sounds that the audience hears. He’s not listening for the same things. But music is composed and performed for an audience. The effect of being at a distance in a place where the room itself plays a major role in what the audience hears will affect the sound that reaches each listener for better or worse. What comes from a recording is much closer to what the conductor hears than what the audience hears. Just look at where the microphones are located. They are much closer to where the conductors is located with respect to the musicians than they are to where the audience hears it. This is not a desirable goal to reproduce anymore than what the recording engineer in his control room hears through his junky little monitors in his isolated little room. Those are not the sounds you pay to buy tickets to a concert to hear. That is why the sound from recordings using current technology is a pale and poor facsimile of what real music sounds like. Canned music hardly begins to describe how unsatisfactory it is for concert goers who are lovers of adult music but it’s what they have to live with when they can’t hear live performances. OTOH for children’s music, it’s good enough.

    1. I could not agree with your first paragraph more nor your second paragraph less.

      When I was going to Blues and Rock concerts, I would always try to sit close to the mixing desk, because that is the feedback point. No matter how much effort the sound mixers put into making the sound good everywhere, they will always favor the location of their own ears.

      Likewise musicians only have their own ears, the example of the first chair and the gesticulations of the conductor to modulate their playing; and the conductor issues those instructions based on what she hears. With all the complication of real time performance, they can’t possibly imagine the differing sound at all the seats and strike a compromise that is satisfactory to all – and even if they could, it robs the audience of much detailed information which can’t be transmitted to the nether regions. My goal is to hear as CLEARLY as the conductor, and I usually place my microphones ion the first or second row.

      My bottom line is that rooms larger than roughly 500 seats do not produce enough articulation in the back rows to comprehend fast or dense passages. 600 seat Zankel Hall has the articulation, 400 seat Weill Auditorium does not. Nearly all recordings have TOO MUCH REVERB, or sometimes merely the difference between physical room reverb and artificial reverb obscures the musical syllables the way a chorus blends consonants into vowels until the words disappear.

      Our brains grow neural circuitry to decode speech and music in reverberant environments, but the circuits only work if the reverberation has parameters we have encountered many times before. My brain has circuitry grown in response to reverb springs and EMT plates as well as various room reverbs, but statistical digital reverb confounds my brain and motivates me to turn it off.

      I have heard good sounding artificial reverb, but it was produced by elaborate cross-matrix systems with dozens of microphones and speakers in every wall section, tuned by a conservatory trained pianist using a Steinway grand for a source. This system also works for recording like my stage systems.

      I have also enjoyed convolution reverb, where an impulse response was recorded and used as a process on live music. Anything less coherent is obviously fakery.

      1. According to Beranek’s paper comparing 59 concert halls which sadly is no longer available for free, there is an 80% negative correlation between reverberation time and clarity. In fact this was what prompted Wallace Sabine to investigate sound and acoustics on a scientific basis in the first place. Reverberation Time of over 1 second is poor for intelligibility of speech. This resulted in complaints at Harvard University’s Fogg lecture hall where listeners couldn’t hear what the speaker was saying with any intelligibility.

        My ears are tuned to high reverberant sound fields which I was exposed to frequently as an infant, in fact several times a day in several different places. It took a long time, until I was 25 years old to understand the physics and math of reverberation and a few more years to figure out how to create and control artificial reverberant fields from recordings that are completely convincing. The difference changes every aspect of the perception of recorded sound. When that field is turned off it’s like the music died.

        Of the top concert halls in the world, Von Karajan preferred Boston Symphony Hall over Vienna’s Grossesalle Muskiverein because it has an RT 10% shorter, 1.8 seconds at 1 khz versus 2.0. This allowed him to conduct faster without losing clarity. Yet the unscientific poll showed Vienna was preferred slightly over Boston and they were rated #1 and #2.

        This tradeoff between reverberation and clarity is the reason music written for large churches and cathedrals is invariably slow. Fast playing would result in a blur of notes as late arriving reflections would arrive fairly loudly at the same time as directly arriving and early arriving reflections creating new harmonies and dissonances while masking initial transient attacks. At the opposite end are opera houses whose optimal mid frequency RT is said to be between 1.4 and 1.6 seconds to allow for higher intelligibility. The further back in the hall you go, the greater the ratio of reflected to direct sound becomes because the direct sound falls off at 6 db for every doubling of distance while the reverberant field loudness is quite uniform throughout the entire room. Bose measure that 16 feet from the performing stage at Boston Symphony Hall the ratio of reflected sound to direct sound was 89 percent to 11 percent and there was a graph in his white paper that showed the ratio of reflected to direct kept increasing as you went further back in the hall. Beranek’s favorite listening location was the center of the first row of the first balcony.

        Without these reflections, particularly lateral reflections you can’t get the sense of envelopment of live music you expect in a good concert hall. Both Beranek and Floyd Toole came to the same conclusion independently and now it is an accepted fact that this is what most people prefer to hear. This is the reason fan shaped concert halls are usually a failure and the shoebox design is far more preferable. Yet hi fi systems including those in the recording engineer’s monitoring rooms do exactly the opposite. They focus sound like a laser beam in an cone which shrinks in angle with increasing frequency. To my ears this is horrible. No sound system no matter how expensive having these characteristics is something I wan’t to listen to. Despite all of the things Bose 901 did wrong, creating strong lateral reflections was at least one of the things he got right. This alone is one reason why the product was so successful IMO. No highs, no lows, a large hump in the FR of the upper bass, it got the sound out of the box, spread over the wall and gave good lateral reflections when properly installed. Non audiophiles preferred eliminating this distortion while audiophiles prefer the other type. Neither types are good but you have to give credit where credit is due. This is why re-engineering Bose 901 was a worthy challenge for me. To correct the shortcomings audiophiles don’t like without sacrificing the characteristics non audiophiles found so attractive they bought them anyway. From my point of view it was a silly argument audiophiles raged on about for decades based on a lack of understanding. BTW, that shrillness you get from your speakers you try to correct with different wires, amplifiers, and whatever other expensive paraphenalia merchants can sell you is the result of this awful design error that has become the most desirable design the market wants. With metal dome tweeters you get it in spades.

    1. It’s thought that the swine have nothing to contribute to the pearls being created. It’s top down all the way. Pandering to the audience is selling out or watering down the intent of the genius. The structure of Western art music with a solitary conductor/king commanding his orchestra/machine/subjects is a metaphor of the social structures that gave rise to this music form. Think how different the small jazz band is or better yet an African ensemle playing for the village where participation through call-and-response and dancing are the norm. Very different organization of music making for differing cultural ideals.

  5. Musical performance is at its peak when it is 100% consensual – the expectations of the composer, conductor, players and audience align, the dozens to hundreds of fingers modulating the air in ways both assuringly familiar and strikingly novel to the hundreds or thousands of ears. The people on stage thrive on applause, and not the knee jerk social programming or even perfunctory applause of politeness, but the undeniable urge to clap, jump up, stamp and shout in response. This differentiates them from “parts in a machine”, even the 2,640 moving parts in a piano.

    This direct entanglement of emotion requires reciprocal acoustics where the audience hears every player in the same balance as the conductor, and with good articulation so the musical syllables are defined by the subtleties of notes starting and stopping according to traditions of luthiery and performance practice and also the acculturated rhythms analogous to verbal communication. These same acoustics transmit the audience reaction to the musicians in realistic detail.

    Friday we immersed in the highly evolved acoustics of Zankel Hall where the practical considerations of construction aligned serendipitously with the imperfect art of architectural acoustics; and the economics of live acoustic music aligned with the size of the sophisticated Manhattan audience at 600 seats. Conductor Jonathan Cohen was hidden in the back of the five piece version of his Baroque ensemble Arcangelo because he was playing Harpsichord and Positiv (a small portable acoustic organ), but his influence pervaded because the continuo (rhythm section with gambist Jonathan Manson and lutenist Thomas Dunford) were the stars of the evening.

    The program was North German: Handel, Bach and Buxtehude but Soprano Joelle Harvey was subtly off the mark. She had lovely tremelo, elegant melismas, stunning dynamic control, excellent projection, flawless vibrato free pitch in North German temperament, good timbre, and a long pedigree in Historical Performance but still did not connect. The instrumental sonatas between the arias drew at least double the applause because the conductor and players hooked the audience and took them for a journey. The Zankel audience has heard most of the world’s best Baroque Ensembles and Sopranos so they were looking for a new plateau beyond mere perfection, creativity and meaning in between the notes in the page, a story both 250 years old and fresh as the instant – and they participate in the search for new musical meaning, inspiring the best performers with rapt attention and audible feedback.

    This is fundamentally different than playing for microphones and later listening to that same performance repeated. Despite following centuries old graven scores, no two performances are ever the same and this is the essence of music. I don’t watch movies twice, hopefully avoid having the same conversations repeatedly and don’t listen to recordings twice. When we go to see the same play or hear the same music, we expect it to be different because time is an arrow and if you don’t use memory crutches like recordings or Google/Wiki, then your mind retains more ability to recall.

    If I am standing on the podium or designing speakers for the stage, my strongest desire is to connect and SHARE with the musicians and audience. Musical taste comes from your lifetime of listening. If you hear Bach and Mozart often, you grow Bach and Mozart neural circuits. What I have learned working with the avant garde of contemporary composers is that most of them still listen to Bach, Mozart and some to Machaut and Hildegard in addition to their more immediate predecessors like Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Feldman and Cage.

    The conductors I love are also great listeners and scholars as well as generous givers, from stars like Gergiev, Rattle, Tilson-Thomas and Dudamel to less famous names like Noseda, Bickett, Christie and Gardiner and the hard core Baroque underground of Savall, Haim, Marcon, Pluhar, Podger and Mealy – who all play while they conduct.

    1. Some of them even sing while they conduct. Not much to sing about when conducting Cage’s 4′-33″. “Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt.”

  6. Has anyone heard of a stone deaf conductor conducting an orchestra with acceptable results ? It is the conductor who decides what the performance should sound like and this is based on how it sounds to him. What sounds right to him is what the public hears. That is why the same piece performed by different conductors sound different. The public has no say in the matter. Regards.

    1. In his later years Beethoven was stone deaf. I think in those days they conducted by rapping the end of the handle of a pitchfork on the floor.

      1. The public votes with its money. If performers are not pleasing to an audience they will stop buying tickets and going to concerts. Performers who cannot draw an audience usually have a short grim future in their profession. In the end, for the performers it’s a business just like any other.

  7. The comments above are rather disparaging of conductors. Principal conductors are effectively musical directors, responsible for selecting personnel, music programming, scheduling and touring, establishing a relationship with the players, learning the scores, rehearsing and finally performing. A conductor will have assistant conductors to help with rehearsals, learn their trade and very occasionally step in for a performance. Ozawa mentioned above was apprenticed to von Karajan and then Bernstein. There are many other facets of the job, such as financing, PR, you name it. To suggest an audience member could just step up to the podium and take over from the conductor, like they are some form of performing monkey or that anything is really left to chance when it comes to the actual performance, is rather misconceived.

    p.s. crescendos are hardly likely to be ear-splitting, they involve a gradual increase in loudness, and I don’t know what this obsession with loudness is, it’s rarely something that crosses my mind in concerts.

    p.p.s. You can’t demand and coax from someone at the same time. It’s one or the other.

    p.p.p.s. You could learn a lot from Bernstein. He was one of the greatest communicators and teachers. He did lots of work for the TV and children, well worth watching, for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCSv0YcqWow I seem to remember he did explanatory concerts with the NYP, I think on Thursday nights. Plus he was a great composer. I bow down to the guy, not step in his shoes.

  8. Despite Lawrence Welk’s band never being able to follow his spasmatic baton, there are examples of where orchestras instantaneously followed the conductor’s every move–maestro conductors Victor Borge and Bugs Bunny come to mind.

    Seriously, a good conductor is always a fraction of a beat ahead of the orchestra in his movements. Otherwise, the orchestra would not have time to react to his direction. If you see the conductor’s motion in perfect sync with the orchestra, you know he is not leading and the orchestra is just proceeding on its own as it rehearsed. Try pretending you are a conductor and stay a fraction of a beat ahead of the orchestral music–it’s very hard to do. A church organist has a similar challenge during a hymn. He has to stay slightly ahead of the congregation or the music tends to bog down.

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