The Daily Telegraph music critic Ivan Hewett dares to confront the question so many have quietly pondered: Are orchestra conductors really much more than “overpaid martinets”?
Pop down the pub after a concert, he says, and chances are you’ll hear a damning verdict from the players: “the petty tyrant who delights in bullying players, the aged maestro with a tremulous beat like a flagpole in a stiff breeze, the greenhorns who come garlanded with competition prizes but still have to be nursemaided through the music by the players”.
Or, even more unkindly, try this joke from a Guardian reader:
What is the difference between a bull and an orchestra?
A bull has horns at the front and an arsehole at the back.
Despite the temptation to dismiss the conductor as an ostentatious, glorified metronome, Hewett comes down on their side. “It’s simply a fact that showmanship and emoting are part of a conductor’s job. It’s hard for an audience to follow the twists and turns of a big Mahler symphony, or a Strauss tone-poem, and they look to a conductor to tell them what to feel.”
It’s also true that, before all else, a conductor is a timekeeper. But let no one think this function is either straightforward in principle or easy in practice. A musical pulse is a mysterious thing, with only a superficial similarity to the mechanical exactitude of a drum machine. It’s a living, breathing thing, varying minutely from beat to beat. It might imperceptibly gather speed and energy as the melodic line moves to its climax, or ease back as the music’s energy ebbs away.
All the more, he adds, when you factor in the task of melding “a large number of players, some with instruments with a sharp attack like a high clarinet, some with a soft, cushioned sound, such as the string section. Then add in the composer’s numerous written indications for speeding up and slowing down, and historical conventions about tempo (such as the ‘lilt’ of a Viennese waltz), and suddenly the business of simply “keeping time” in orchestral music seems almost impossibly complex.”
The greatest conductors, Hewett concludes, possess a quality that cannot be taught.
… At bottom, there is something deeply primitive and instinctual about the ability to make 70 people breathe, move and feel as one. It’s a gift: you’ve either got it or you haven’t.
Mind you, some might argue a three-year-old could do it.