Noble sentinments on the art of conducting

Charles Noble has a very interesting post on conductors and conducting– specifically, it is a list of ten things conductors would be wise to keep in mind when they get in front of an orchestra, which includes this week’s Quote of the Week-

“…this is not the time to beat as though one is folding egg whites while listening to Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy.”

I found his post both encouraging and slightly depressing.

Encouraging, because I agree completely with everything he says, except for this-

3-                 If we’re playing a tricky ensemble passage but it’s a bit too loud and there are some agogic accents, don’t stop and berate us – we’re doing this to hear each other and to play together. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in a undifferentiated wash of indistinct sound, please continue with whatever you were about to tell us.

I understand what Charles is getting at, but I actually believe very strongly that phrasing is almost always the solution to rhythmic problems. *  Playing against the musical character with lots of false accents tends to make things worse. In the short term, you might avoid a train wreck, but every time you do it that way it gets less likely you’ll every make the thing sound effortlessly together. Also, balance has a big role to play in fixing ensemble problems, and playing something too loud only makes things worse. Chances are, in the unlikely event that the violas are playing too loud, they are doing so because they can’t hear themselves because someone else is playing too loud.  As long as one section is playing out of balance, there will be another section that can’t hear what they need to in order to play together. That said, I don’t thing berating is ever the solution. Let me re-phrase that- berating is never the solution.  In my experience, if the conductor is really combing a clear sense of pulse with an unmistakeable sense of musical shape, you almost never need to resort to the too-loud/accented system of ensemble triage. If it is really a problem, better to simply tackle the rhythmic issue from a totally technical standpoint, that is sort out the problem once and for all, rather than playing it wrong in context. Still, if it’s the Oregon Symph doing what Charles describes, my advice is just keep going and it will probably be fine the second time.

Slightly depressing, because I can’t believe there is a conductor on earth who doesn’t understand and agree with everything Charles is laying out here. Everything he says (except possibly no. 3) is %100 bare minimum, basic, common sense good practice. Surely there can’t be anyone making a living at this who doesn’t know this and work according to the principles Charles so clearly lays out.

Okay, wait a minute…. I did make my living as an orchestral cellist for more than half of my life. I take it back.

So the truly depressing question is…. Who hires these turkeys? Karajan might not be availble for every concert, but someone competant and knowledgeable is. I know so many gifted, caring, inspiring, competent, respectful, efficient, musical, professional and agreeable conductors who are totally dedicated to music. I could give you a long list, but I don’t want to lose work to them. Trust me, they’re out there. Musicians should never have to see a fraud.

* One of Ken’s laws of conducting is that you can be musical but not clear and still have the orchestra play together, and be better and tighter than if you are clear and not musical. If you are clear and musical, it should be fab. On the other hand, if you are not clear and are “musical,” everyone is out of luck….. (actually the correct descrption of everyone’s state when a conductor is “musical” rather than musical is the past tense of a word that rhymes with luck).

c. 2007 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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