On a basic level, the conductor is the person who makes sure an ensemble, choral or instrumental, plays together and starts and finishes at the same time. On a more complicated level, however, it’s the conductor who puts his or her own stamp on an ensemble.
Over many years, conductors can mould musicians to achieve the sound and balance they want, and in rehearsals pour over the minutest of details to ensure they achieve their desired interpretation of a symphony. The best inspire confidence in their musicians, getting the best from them, both in concert and rehearsal, while some prefer to break down characters and build them up again. Any conductor adopting the latter approach today, however, may find HR knocking on their door. Many principal conductors are involved in every part of an orchestra’s life, from auditions to fundraising – in the US, it’s expected that maestros will wine and dine wealthy patrons on a regular basis. Exhausting.
When did conductors start appearing?
The notion of a conductor is relatively new – they only started to appear regularly in front of orchestras from the 19th century onwards. Before then, symphonies, concertos and the like were directed either by the concertmaster/leader or by the soloist. But as composers started writing more demanding music, with more complex instrumentation, thicker contrapuntal textures and frequent tempo changes, so the need arose for one person to take control of it all.
As time went on, the conductor became the one who took all the glory – and the money – while everyone around them continued doing the donkey work. So it’s no surprise some are somewhat demanding. The great 20th-century conductor Herbert von Karajan loved the limelight and was something of a control freak. The Italian Arturo Toscanini was a formidable firebrand. Sir Colin Davis was too, in his younger days, although grew into a more avuncular figure in his old age. The Polish-American Artur Rodzinski was rumoured to conduct with a loaded pistol in his pocket. Thankfully, most of today’s conductors prefer to inspire and lead by example.
Many, however, conductors take on a multitude of posts – guest conductor here, principal guest there… Is there a danger that many can’t spend the time getting to know their ensembles well enough to put their stamp on them? Perhaps. But post-COVID, our musicians may fly less and making music more locally. We may find ourselves returning to an age when orchestras had strong individual characters – which only a conductor can produce…