About a year ago, I was stuck on a plane for many hours, so I decided to watch the movie Whiplash. I had heard about this movie, and some people recommended I watch it. It’s about a famed conductor at a prestigious New York music school; I’m a conductor, and I went to a prestigious New York music school. The parallels are not too hard to spot. I had resisted watching it because I knew I would feel about it the same way I assume doctors feel about ER and lawyers feel about Law & Order. But a transatlantic flight is long, and my options were limited.
In the movie, there is an excruciating scene in which the conductor throws a chair at one of the musicians because he can’t play the right tempo. It does make you wonder, does this really happen? Are rehearsal halls one of the last bastions of sanctioned abuse, all in the name of our holy art? Well, in a word, no. But the movie does raise a better question: just what is a conductor for?
The conductor is a relative latecomer to the game. Orchestras until Mozart’s time were small enough—around 30 players—that the notion of a conductor was never even considered. But orchestras kept expanding, and before too long the average size of a band was closer to 75 players. (Mahler’s gargantuan Symphony No. 8, nicknamed ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ requires 120 players!) Out of sheer practical necessity, the conductor was born.
With the centralizing of power increasingly laid in the hands of one (almost always) man, an unfortunate archetype emerged: the tyrant-conductor. The great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini used to snap batons and hurl his scores at the orchestra. Other egregious examples are the stuff of orchestral musician lore. Luckily this era has passed. The best music-making these days is a genuine collaboration between conductor and players; and for this, I’m thankful.
In the broadest sense, it’s the orchestra’s job is to communicate; and, as is the case with any group, someone has to coordinate the efforts. The decisions I make about dynamics (how loud or soft), tempo (how fast or slow), and phrasing (the aural shapes the music makes) are intended to bring the intentions of these master composers to you, the listener. It may seem mysterious and incomprehensible, but the Harry Potter-like gestures a conductor makes are chosen precisely to maximize the emotional impact of any given piece.
My hope is always that when the orchestra I’m standing in front of plays a piece of music, whether it’s Beethoven or the Beatles, the listener feels something. I’m not that particular about what you feel, as long as this feeling moves you to a different place than where you were. If I’ve arranged things with the orchestra so that we accomplish this together, then my job as conductor has been successful. Rest assured that no chairs have been thrown in the process.