On February 10th, 2006 I took advantage of a pair of free tickets to the National Arts Centre Orchestra, which I am wont to do. As the ticket indicates the concert featured violinist Vadim Repin, who played Shostakovich’s first concerto for the instrument (the concert also included a Bach suite and a Haydn symphony), but contrary to the information provided on the stub this concert did not include NAC music director and principal conductor (and pretty fine violinist in his own right) Pinchas Zukerman. In his place a Dutch conductor named Kees Bakels was wielding the baton.
But what difference does that make, right? It’s not like the conductor is playing any of the notes, and the musicians are clearly good enough to get through the music without someone standing in front of them emotionally flapping their arms about, right?
Wrong. These guys hold some serious power; it’s not just a matter of setting the pace and keeping time. Not by a long shot.
Though I was well-convinced of the importance of the conductor by the time I picked up my music degree, I’ve seen a lot of first-hand conducting in the intervening years thanks to my nearly two decade stint working with the NAC orchestra. I’ve worked plenty of rehearsals and performances and from my perch in the control room organizing the live video feed I have a direct, face-on view of the conductor. I can see what the musicians see and I think many people would be surprised at the variety of conducting styles that exist and how each conductor can make the music sound so very different than another.
First of all, the conductor knows the music inside and out – everyone’s parts – and usually all of it is from memory. Watch closely next time; they often turn page after page without once looking down at their score. I recently called the conductor of a show I was working on. When the conductor answered I could hear a lot of ambient sounds; it turned out he was walking down the sidewalk on his way to his hotel. I told him that I had a question about one, single bar in the two-hundred page Stravinsky score that I was working through and suggested he call me back when he had the score open in front of him.
“No, that’s fine,” he said, “what’s your question?”
“Well,” I answered, “in the third bar of section 161 there is a little trumpet flourish. When I listen to a recording I hear the flourish repeat three bars later but in the score I see the trumpets have rests marked in that bar.
“So my question is: on page seventy-eight, in the sixth bar of section 161 do the trumpets repeat the flourish from three bars before, or not?”
Without missing a beat he said, “Do you mean the part that goes like this?” and he sang me the trumpet flourish using Solfège syllables (“Do-mi-la-sol-sol-re-la-do…”).
“Um, yeah…that’s it,” I said, quite shocked.
“Yes, the phrase repeats at bar three-hundred and eighteen,” he confirmed confidently. Wow, the man knows that score! I should add that I’ve worked with this guy dozens of times and we’ve never done Stravinsky before. I’m pretty sure he knows all the music that he conducts just as well.
And did you know that conductors freely cut bars, repeats, and sometimes entire sections from a score? Oh yeah, sometimes they will take out everything from page eighty-three to page one hundred and twenty-five. Which, of course, dramatically changes the pacing and the energy (to say nothing of the length) of a piece.
One big difference between conducting styles that flummoxes me to this day is the ones who keep the beat a half a second ahead. Though most conductors I’ve seen drop their batons directly in sync with the music It’s quite common to see a conductor who actually stays just exactly ahead of the beat the whole time. And the weirdest thing is nobody has to tell the musicians. They all seem to instinctively know when a conductor is doing this, and they all seem to detect en masse the exact amount of time he is ahead.
It’s weird and I don’t get it. I think I’ll ask a conductor about it sometime.
Anyway, this concert was great, and while it would also have been great if Pinchas Zukerman had been there as advertised it would have unquestionably been different. Maybe vastly so.