The magic and mystery of conducting

“You see: they don’t need me. They do perfectly well by themselves,” says Leonard Bernstein, as he strolls away from an orchestra that blithely continues to play Brahms’s First Symphony. So begins one of his legendary Omnibus episodes, entitled “The Art of Conducting,” in which he provides a (so to speak) unbeatably clear guide to the practicalities of conducting an orchestra, from how to read a score to how to beat in time.

So, then. Why does the orchestra need him, when they can apparently get by—even in a large-scale work like the Brahms—on their own? The young orchestra Spira Mirabilis has recently shown that it is indeed possible to perform orchestral pieces without a conductor. And even conductor Daniel Barenboim, writing in his book A Life in Music, comments that, “If you were to ask a first-class orchestral player, he would say that few conductors have any influence on the orchestra.” So why bother with them after all?

Uncanny powers

You won’t be surprised to learn that both Barenboim and Bernstein go on to suggest that a conductor can, indeed, add a great deal. Take a look at Bernstein conducting the famous opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—and see how much more he does than simply indicate the tempo.

While most musicians can become technically adequate conductors, Bernstein suggests, “only a rare musician can be a very good conductor”—the sort of conductor who not only has insights into the score, but also possesses “uncanny powers of communication.” Barenboim elaborates brilliantly on just how subtly a conductor can communicate:

With a good conductor, musical contact can be so strong that the musicians react to the slightest movement of his hand, his finger, his eye or his body. If the orchestra is at one with the conductor, they play differently if he stands up straight, or bends forward, or sideways or backwards. They are influenced by every movement.

(If you’re annoyed by all of those masculine pronouns, by the way, you’re not alone. Conducting has long been a male-dominated field, although—fingers crossed—times are slowly changing.)

A mystery

Barenboim’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, is quite different from Bernstein’s:

It’s slower, for a start, but that’s not all: he links together the first two phrases, whereas Bernstein allows a moment’s silence between them. The effects are completely different, Bernstein’s brusque and stern, Barenboim’s grand and expansive—yet neither is right or wrong. A good conductor will find an interpretation unique to them. John Mauceri, a conductor mentored by Bernstein, puts it pithily: “All great conductors are different. The mediocre ones are more or less the same.”

Mauceri’s recent book Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting is an illuminating look at this strange art. “Conducting is a mystery,” he writes—and this after half a century of doing it professionally.


Of course, good conducting often involves something quite unmysterious, too: technique. As Bernstein explains in his documentary, there is a common set of conventions: most rudimentary of all, a conductor should beat down for the first beat of the bar, and up for the last. Sir Georg Solti beats Beethoven’s Fifth quite clearly, as you can see below.

But look—if you dare—into his eyes. And, as the music goes on, consider which moments he chooses to beat most vociferously. They’re not always the most obvious highlights—as in the second phrase, where he gestures elaborately during the orchestra’s long, held D. Technique aside, he is hinting at something profoundly unobvious, at an aspect of the music it would be all but impossible to put into words. His gestures are also likely influenced by the orchestra itself: he’s adjusting his interpretation in response to what the orchestra has played, and ensuring that together they shape the music in exactly the way he wants. It’s a dynamic, thrillingly unpredictable process.

Mauceri isn’t the only writer to use the term “alchemy.” Tom Service’s 2012 book Music as Alchemy is a detailed look at the working practices of six of the world’s top conductors and their orchestras—many of whom operate in drastically different ways. The frenetic scheduling and spontaneous approach of Valery Gergiev, for instance, is a huge contrast to the careful planning of Jonathan Nott. But these two figures, though seemingly almost polar opposites, both produce thrilling results.

The golden thread that runs through Service’s book is that every orchestra-conductor relationship is somehow unique, and, further to that, so is every performance. Something alchemical takes place. “There is something that happens between the music, the conductor, and the musicians that is, in performance, greater than the sum of its parts,” he writes.

In performance

Those two words of Service—“in performance”—are key, and not just because some conductors, such as Gergiev, use the extra pressure of live concerts to their advantage. The performing environment can hugely alter how conductors choose to operate.

Watch Sir Simon Rattle conduct the Verbier Festival Orchestra below. Strikingly, Rattle starts before the audience has finished applauding. Is that a purely musical choice? More likely, he’s responding to the particular—rather unusual—circumstances surrounding the concert.

Rattle had been called in on just a few days’ notice after a last-minute withdrawal, and was making his Verbier Festival debut—and hence also his debut with the festival orchestra. With the always-special atmosphere of Verbier heightened by the extra anticipation surrounding this concert—it’s a coup to get such a big name to step in at short notice—Rattle perhaps chose to capitalize on the extra buzz of excitement in the air, and shock his audience with an abrupt start. In a more conventional setting, it might all have gone quite differently.

Loud silence

Claudio Abbado, Rattle’s predecessor as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmoniker, waits for total silence before conducting the Berliners in Beethoven’s Fifth. Then, he seems to simply throw himself at the first beat. There’s no upbeat to speak of—so how does the orchestra know how fast to play?

Service describes a similar problem in his book, when Abbado is rehearsing the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in “Fêtes,” the second of Debussy’s three Nocturnes. Abbado does give an upbeat—but one that results in “a chaos of different interpretations,” with the orchestra failing to grasp the correct tempo. But rather than modifying his gesture, Abbado simply tries again multiple times, until the orchestra gets it. “It was strange that it didn’t work immediately,” Abbado later reflects. “But I was never cross with them.”

Abbado’s preternatural calmness likely stems from his complete trust not only in his own abilities, but also in his orchestra—a group he hand-picked from the very best musicians he had ever encountered. Similarly, by the time of the Beethoven concert above, he had been conducting the Berlin Philharmoniker for a decade. But even in general, Abbado was someone for whom conducting was not so much about technique, as about fostering the close, hypersensitive bond between all of the musicians on stage.

Two words crop up time and again when you read about Abbado: “listen,” and “silence.” “There is such a thing as a loud silence,” writes Service of the end of Abbado’s Lucerne performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony—this was a performance of such intensity that orchestra and audience remained in rapt silence for several minutes after the final note had faded away.

And bang!

“How can I describe to you the magic of the moment of beginning a piece of music at a concert?” asks Bernstein in his documentary. 

There is only one possible fraction of a second that feels exactly right for starting. There is a wait while the orchestra readies itself and collects its powers, while the conductor concentrates all his will and force onto the work in hand, and while the audience quiets down and the last cough dies away, there is no slight rustle of a program book, the instruments are poised, and bang! That’s it.

One of the reasons it’s so hard to articulate exactly what a conductor does, is that they do something different each time. As Bernstein describes, every performance is a reaction to specific, slightly different conditions. It’s also—always—something spontaneous and surprising. Magical, even.

Magic, alchemy, uncanny powers… so often, when describing conducting, writers end up hinting at the supernatural. It’s not so different, really, from how we talk about music in general, that strange yet strangely comprehensible language without words. How does it communicate so directly to us? How come we seem to know what it means?

Perhaps what conductors are really doing up there on the podium is ensuring that, whether or not the orchestral players could play the music on their own, there is always a sense of wonderment and strangeness about the performance—always someone gesturing towards music’s unknown, unknowable element. Conductors are the embodiment of that mysterious power that music has over us all, performers and listeners alike. What conductors do is what music does: communicate with uncanny directness, without uttering a word.


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