Concert energy

What makes sense about conducting is that you are really in the best position to evaluate what the musicians are doing as they play. 

What doesn’t make sense about conducting is that you are in the worst possible position to evaluate what you are doing as the musicians play. At least the musicians can hear themselves, if not how they sound in the context of the whole group. On the other hand, the conductor is the only person in the building who doesn’t know what he or she looks like when they are conducting. 

Of course, there are other things that are extremely difficult for the poor conductor to judge. It occurred to me after my concert on Saturday that every time I conduct a Sibelius symphony in concert I am extremely, extremely tired afterwards. This could mean that it is very emotionally intense, draining music, it could mean that it is music that requires a degree of physicality and theatricality to bring to life, or it could (I’m reminded of Strauss’s comment that conductors should never sweat) mean I’m working too hard. 

I think it is a matter of common sense, physical survival and good etiquette that the conductor should “save something” for the actual concert. However, it’s not helpful if the conductor suddenly transforms from David Banner to the Incredible Hulk when the audience shows up. I’ve seen conductors whose rehearsal demeanour was way too chilled out, who could turn a rehearsal of the end of the Rite of Spring into a big nap-fest and those who just beat the poor orchestra to death in the rehearsal with too much intensity, exhausting everyone even rehearsing a Haydn minuet. There was one young conductor I often watched who used to only rehearse the really, shall we say climactic, bits of pieces- musicians always said they felt dirty and somehow violated at the end of his rehearsals…. 

Likewise, there are conductors who keep you thinking they’re going to really turn it on at the concert, but their idea of turning it on is smiling when it’s over, and there are those who go completely berserk. Some of the most famous disciplinarian, by-the-book, rehearse-every-dot-and-dash-by-rote-till-it-is-%100-predictable conductors were notorious for going off on mad flights of fancy in concerts and causing huge train wrecks. Then there are the ones who, whether on purpose of due to nerves, actually chill out a lot in the concert. Players who have thrilled to the energy of rehearsals look up and see nothing but dishwater in the concert.

Most, of course, strike a pretty good balance, because the one that don’t do so don’t get work so they don’t stay in the field. It has always seemed to me that you can’t just decide to “emote” in the concert and have anything good happening. Your whole approach to the concert should be a result of how you feel about the music when you’ve freed yourself from the practical concerns of keeping track of mistakes, planning what to do next and watching the clock. Rather than turning it on, you should be just tuning yourself in to what you believe about the piece.

Anyway, I know I couldn’t have conducted the end of Sibelius 3 at the level of intensity we did it on Saturday more than once in a day without seriously harming myself. Did I give too much in the concert? Not enough in the rehearsals? Was I in the Goldilocks zone, getting it just right? I don’t know. The other funny thing about conducting is that you never get unbiased feedback- the people who like you or want something from you come racing up to tell you you were wonderful, and those who don’t like you probably just work in secret to get you fired. At least the audience clapped long and loud, and the orchestra really outdid themselves. Still, when you have to get up at 6 AM the next day to go to another rehearsal for another program in another city, you can’t help but think “surely I could have worked a little less hard….” 

 c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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4 comments on “Concert energy”

  1. A.C. Douglas

    It seems to me you’ve answered your own question concerning whether you were in the “Goldilocks [Z]one” for that performance. You wrote:

    “At least the audience clapped long and loud, and the orchestra really outdid themselves.”

    In terms of a performance, isn’t that the ultimate measure of whether the conductor was in the GZ for that performance or not?


  2. Kenneth Woods

    Well, I wish that it followed, but all to often orchestras outdo themselves in spite of the conductor, not because of. Still, I’m happy to move ahead in life assuming for now that you’re right!

    Thanks for the note

  3. A.C. Douglas

    Well, I wish that it followed, but all to often orchestras outdo themselves in spite of the conductor, not because of.

    Much as I hate to put myself in the position of contradicting a practicing professional, Quite impossible. With a Sibelius-size orchestra, that is.


  4. A.C. Douglas

    Oops. Hit “Submit” too soon (used to having a message preview button).

    My Parthian shot was supposed to be: Especially when playing a Sibelius symphony.


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