Jeffrey Blair asks: Are conductors really necessary?

~posted by Jeffrey Blair, KMFA morning announcer

I recently came across this article in the LA Times, pondering the need for conductors in today’s symphonies:

It’s funny that this question seems to come up every couple of years or so;  heck, I even asked the same thing when I was knee-high to an armadillo. I remember I was just a young radio geek in training and I thought it must be pretty cool to be the conductor. Standing up on this little podium with your back to the audience (it must be tempting to make faces at the orchestra and try to get them to crack up), waving around this little stick, telling the orchestra what to do with the slightest crook of your little finger. And then after the performance you get to acknowledge all the applause. Yep, that’s the life for me.

 Then I started recording orchestras and going to rehearsals other than the final dress. I quickly found out that conducting is HARD WORK. The part about standing up in front and waving the baton around is actually the end of a long and grueling process that is just as demanding if not more demanding than giving a solo recital. It’s been said that violinists play the violin and pianists play the piano, but conductors play the orchestra. From what I’ve picked up from various conductors, this is absolutely true. Conductors tell the various segments of the orchestra when to get loud, when to get quiet, when to come in, when to play vigorously, and when to play with great emotion. It all has to match what they think the composer wanted, what the audience expects, and what his or her interpretation happens to be. That’s a lot of plates to keep spinning at the same time.

 The L.A. Times article spells it out much better than I can, with conversations with Leonard Slatkin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Colin Davis, and others, but they all agree that a conductor brings his own interpretation to a score. Sometimes it’s good…sometimes it’s not so good, but its the conductor’s job to figure out phrasing, emotional direction and balance. Then they have to convey all of that to the musicians in such a fashion that they can bring about the desired reaction from the audience. Imagine someone translating Beowulf from Old English and then telling someone else who then tells you, but you still expect to get the full emotional impact from the original story. It’s a tough job and I’ll leave it to the professionals!

 I still want to stand with my back to the audience and wave the baton around. That part would be fun. 🙂

Jeffrey Blair is KMFA’s weekday morning announcer, Production Engineer, and host of the weekend show,
 Choral Classics. Tune in Sundays at 10am and 5pm to hear Choral Classics, right here on KMFA, 89.5

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