I’ve been asked about the interaction between orchestra members and conductors, whether we all know the pieces so well, we could play it without a conductor, and what we gain from different conductors.
Well I suppose the simple answer is yes. I suppose we could play repertoire without a conductor. It’d be an interesting exercise – more difficult when the orchestra is in the pit and there are singers on stage. There are operas we know better than others, and can play from memory, and know roughly what speeds they go, and where the singers are likely to need time, or want to breathe, or just want to be musical…
But whilst a conductor deals with the basic logistics – setting the speeds and keeping orchestra with stage, and.. well, keeping the orchestra with itself and rehearsing and practical matters, he or she has a role to play which is more important than that; one of crafting a cohesive musical intent, or offering a vision for how they want the music to go – in other words, how they want us to play, how they want the singers to sing, how to interpret the music. It’s about inspiration. If they weren’t there, everyone would have their own ideas about how to interpret the music, because everyone has a different personality, and responds to the music in a different way.
So, for example, La Boheme can be a very distinctly different experience with 2 different conductors. We have an Italian conducting it at the moment who seems to breathe life into the score, whilst allowing the singers the time they need, but keeping the flow in the music so it doesn’t grind to a halt, whilst creating the most stunningly beautiful moments where you could hear a pin drop, and you hardly dare breathe. However I’ve done other versions in the past which I have not found quite as joyous to experience.
Diffferent conductors have different approaches – some are former players, and so have more to say about their former instruments. Some like to speak in poetic pictures and give you an image to “play”; some are all about the sound, and how that should be a living thing; some speak about how the relationship between orchestra and conductor should be a two way thing – that players can offer up their interpretation, and the conductor’s viewpoint may be influenced by it.
Mostly I find that as long as a conductor can show me what he wants, then I get something from it; perhaps a different viewpoint that I hadn’t considered – a way of playing that hadn’t occurred to me, sometimes a passage of music that hasn’t made sense to me before will come alive and fall into place with a particular conductor due to the way he or she explains it in gesture. The conductors who have to explain everything – talk at length about what they want – in other words telling me rather than showing me, those are the ones that are less inspiring.