Young Concertmasters Guide to the Orchestra, Part III. It gets complicated.

Where it gets complicated-

Remember how we discussed the difference between preparing a recital and an orchestra work? The key difference is that in one case you are aiming for a coherent artistic vision (yours!), and in the other one you are preparing to be able to execute all kinds of artistic visions. This need for tremendous flexibility extends to all aspects of your work as leader. We already discussed how you may have to adjust your leadership style and communication skills not only from orchestra to orchestra, but from player to player. This kind of flexibility extends to musical leadership as well.

You should expect yourself to be just as able to be effective with a conductor who might be a pianist or wind player and has few if any strong ideas about technical execution of string writing as with a conductor who is an accomplished string player. One week, all decisions about bowings, bow strokes and note lengths might be left with you, while the next, you are looking at the conductor’s own bowings, which might not be your first (or even 10th)  choices. You should be just as happy and effective in either situation.

I suppose I am one of those string-playing conductors of the second school, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Often, a great deal of thought and trial and error has gone into a bowing that might seem a little uncomfortable at first. I wouldn’t expect any principal to feel trapped by a bowing that doesn’t work, but often, if a player takes a few moments to think “what was he after with this” the problem goes away. George Szell wasn’t a string player, but he had very strong ideas about bowings. His bowings aren’t always very idiomatic, but there wouldn’t have been a Cleveland sound without some of them.

However, if your job was as simple as blindly following the instructions of conductors with strong and grounded ideas about bowings and filling in the holes in the knowledge of non-string player conductors with your own bowings and ideas, life would be pretty easy and the word “complicated” wouldn’t really apply to your job.

Instead, when dealing with a non-string player on the podium, you want to make sure the bowings you are suggesting are the right one’s for her vision of the piece. Listen carefully when he or she sings passages- can you come up with a bowing that sounds like their version of it? Can you ask the conductor about the musical execution they want in a way that leads you to the right bowing?

Likewise, a string-player conductor’s bowings are always a work in progress. I want my bowings to get better over the years, not to just be stuck where they were 5 or ten years ago. Again and again, I have been hugely grateful for the insight of a player who has come up with a better way of getting at something in the score. Funnily enough, this works best when you treat the string expert and non-string expert in the same way. Ask yourself- what is this conductor trying to achieve? Is there a better way of getting it? When they sing it, does the bowing on the page look like the best way to get it?

A good exercise can be to study the more unusual bowings of composers we know had experience or expertise in bowing. Mahler and Elgar are the two best examples- some of their bowings can seem pretty bizarre on first encounter, but if you live with them to understand why they are there and practice them long enough that you can do them in the way the composer intended, they work to achieve very specific and interesting musical results.

This kind of process guides you away from worrying about how a bowing feels to how it sounds. Bowings shouldn’t be predicated too much on comfort, but on musical result. It’s up to you as an artist to make sure your technique is at a level where you can make a somewhat tricky bowing work if it makes for a good musical result.

Solos

It should be clear by now that there is often a naturally occurring difference of opinion between conductors and concertmasters about matters of tempo, execution and style. Well handled by mature and humble artists, this makes for better performances- the presence of more than one strong personality can only be a good thing.

I suppose the relationship can be more fraught where solos are involved. It needn’t be so- I love working with compelling and imaginative soloists, whether in concertos or within the context of orchestral works. The extent to which I go with you or you go with me has to do with all sorts of things. At one extreme, I would say a solo like the one in Heldenleben is a situation in which the conductor treats the violin soloist with utmost deference- it is your show! One the other hand, there are moments like the end of the 2nd Mvt of Brahms 1- everyone calls that passage a violin solo, but in reality it is for solo violin, solo horn and solo oboe, and it consists entirely of material we’ve heard before. In that case, the violinist has to be prepared to come up with something that works with the other soloists and with the conductor’s interpretation of the movement as a whole.

It’s worth remembering these examples in your study. Try to know where the musical ideas in your solo come from in the piece, and where they return. You might find it is just as important that you be able to adjust to the ideas of a clarinet solo 30 bars before yours as it is to adjust to the conductors whims and wants. Even in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, there are moments when the soloist, regardless of fee, has to follow the orchestra.

At the end of the day, there are solos where you can really cut loose and do what you  like, and others where you are simply a part of a relatively tightly organized musical narrative and need to play with the same level of discipline and restrait you do when playing with the whole section. Knowing the difference is a matter of experience, study and humility.

Where it gets much more complicated

I suppose it won’t surprise readers that much of this essay has dealt with how to help a conductor communicate effectively and get the interpretation they want- the importance of being able to follow a beat, understand an interpretative goal, bring to life a color, read a mind or execute a bowing. Remember, however, that the reason this is so important isn’t because we want a world of happy orchestras, but that this is the best approach for making sure you are playing in a great and unified orchestra

However, the most difficult, and in some ways the most important part of your job, is knowing when not to follow a conductor. Many years ago, I was watching a gala performance of Carmina Burana. One movement is basically a soprano cadenza- the orchestra plays a chord, she twitters about for a a bit, the orchestra plays a second chord, she floats off to a high note and we go on the next movement. That night, the conductor clearly and decisively cued the chord change way too early. The concertmaster had her eyes on him like a laser and all the other string principals and didn’t move a muscle. Somehow, she just held the orchestra there until the right moment, where they all changed together. I’m sure it was a memorably awful moment for the poor conductor, but he must have been very, very grateful to her for saving the performance.

Some years later, I had the reverse happen while I was on the podium- the orchestra was holding a chord while the piano soloist played some virtuoso stuff, then we had to change chord. At some point the concertmaster decided enough was enough and she went an tried to change the chord. In that case, she was wrong, and having the first stand of first violins playing a different harmony to everyone else wasn’t a pretty sound. The difference in these examples is that one concertmaster knew the solo part perfectly, the other didn’t. Concertmaster No. 2 didn’t make a mistake by ignoring me- her mistake was not learning the solo part properly.

Of course, up until a split second before, the concertmaster wouldn’t have known that mistake was coming. In any rehearsal, any performance it is possible at any moment that a leader might have to step in and drop the hammer for the good of the music. Perhaps a conductor just slightly guesses wrong when following a soloist and commits to a beat while the pianist hesitates at the last second- in this case, it’s less even a question of a mistake by the conductor as a bit of eccentricity from the soloist, but you can make the minute  adjustment so that the orchestra is perfectly with the soloist. Maybe a conductor has gotten nervous about a late horn entrance and starts to rush a bar, just one in a long symphony, out of concern. It is the leader who says to the orchestra- never mind the horns, we’re playing in tempo.

But in that same moment, the right decision could be to follow the horns, even if it makes a momentary tempo lapse. It takes experience to know, in the moment, which is right.

A mature conductor knows that this is probably the most important and pressurized part of your job, and we are grateful for all a leader can do to re-establish unity when someone else, be it conductor, soloist or orchestral colleague does something unpredictable or just plain wrong.

The difficult question is when to act and when not to. When and why do you over-rule a conductor?

I’d give a young concertmaster the same advice I give conductor’s about following soloists- it’s not your place to decide whether or not someone’s interpretation is in good taste or makes sense. I may think pianist x takes the last movement of the Schumann too fast, but I should do all I can to keep up. I may thing pianist y plays Chopin with too much rubato, but I should try to accommodate their interpretation to the best of my ability as a musician. Likewise for the concertmaster- try to let go of your sense of whether this rit is too much or that tempo is too fast. It might be, but leave it to the critics and the players’ committee to hold the conductor to account.

It is supremely damaging on many levels, if you intentionally take a slower tempo than a conductor gives simply because you think their tempo is “too fast” on aesthetic grounds. On the other hand, if a nervous conductor takes off in a concert at an unplayable tempo, it is your job to avert disaster by insisting on something slower. Your job is to know whether to do something risky you may not believe in or to stop something happening that will lead to disaster.The moment of truth usually lasts a fraction of a second. Remember the message I suggested you try to project to the orchestra at all times “anything that can be done, we can do.”  In the first case, if a conductor is going too fast for your taste, tough cookies- overruling her is likely to send the message that you think the orchestra isn’t up to the job. Conductors have to accept crazy tempi all the time from soloists and try to make them work- I feel your pain. However, if it is not something that can be done, do your  best to make it happen, whether you think you are going to like the result or not.

This is why humility is such an important part of a concertmaster’s job- you have be able to set aside your instincts and beliefs about the piece- and these will be beliefs that you may have developed over many years. No good conductor wants a blank slate- we like working with engaged and passionate musicians with ideas and opinions. I like it when I feel a strong sense of intent from a player. I can always sense it when it is there.

When I’m conducting and I feel any disconnect between what I think I’m showing and what I’m getting, I quickly ask myself- are they saving me from a mistake? Am I doing something in poor taste? Do they just have a better idea than I did? Am I not listening? I try to set aside my interpretative goals long enough to make sure that I’m not the problem, or that I’m not missing an opportunity to learn. However, I have a responsibility to make sure that I’m true to what I’ve learned and discovered in my study. If I don’t go with the orchestra, it’s not that I don’t value the input, it’s hopefully that I feel like I have to go with what’s in the score instead. This is when I need the leader to trust me and come along

So much about conducting has to do with conviction and projection- conductors need to trust their instincts and be able to follow them in concert. A good leader empowers a conductor to feel flexible, decisive, spontaneous and connected to the performance. They also empower their colleagues in the orchestra to feel that they can take a performance absolutely anywhere. Sometimes, I’ve seen a leader who was sceptical about an interpretation become totally convinced by the concert. Deciding “this rit is too much” at the first rehearsal is not your job- although it is perfectly fine (even much appreciated) to mention your concern at a break. Deciding the conductor has dropped a beat, however, is your job.

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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3 comments on “Young Concertmasters Guide to the Orchestra, Part III. It gets complicated.”

  1. bratschegirl

    I couldn’t help but notice that you referred above to a) conductors who are not string players and who have few strong ideas about bowings, b) conductors who are string players who do have such ideas, and c) George Szell, who wasn’t but did. I’m all for giving strange-sounding ideas the benefit of the doubt, but one does encounter those maestros who don’t have a string background, who nevertheless have strong ideas about bowings… and Senator, they’re no George Szell and simply aren’t interested in hearing that a fortissimo off-the-string stroke really can’t be executed with 2 inches of bow at the very tip.

    This has been a most interesting and informative series! Glad i came over from Noble Viola to check it out.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    @bratschegirl

    Many thanks for the comment. Of course, as a string player with many decades experience playing in orchestras I know exactly of what you speak. One has conductors who are string players, conductors who aren’t but still know what they want, and, sadly, nitwits…..

    On the other hand, I often see principal string players marking out original bowings by composers like Mahler and Elgar that do look a bit perverse on the page and might take a bit of thought without really thinking about how they might work or why they’re important. I had a nice experience last year with a great orchestra and a somewhat famous concertmaster doing a standard rep piece. Just before the rehearsal he said to me “Bowings….. when I got your parts and first looked at some of the bowings, I thought you must be crazy. Then after looking at it for about an hour, I realized you must be a genius. But this one bar in the 3rd movement- can we try something else?” I was so grateful he’d spent enough time with my parts to realize that even though there were ideas that were a little new to him, they were thought out and tried (with several orchestras!) and worked. I was glad for the suggestion, too.

    But what to do when you have the nitwit conductor who asks the ridiculous and won’t listen to reason?

    I’d get rid of him/her….

    Thanks again for the comment!

    Ken

  3. Ian de Jong

    Hi Kenneth,

    Thanks for this great post.

    What is the best way to follow a concerto soloist as concertmaster? What I learned in school was that the conductor listens to the soloist, and the orchestra in turn follows the conductor. It will be a mess if everyone tries to interpret the soloist’s tempo. Is this a good basic principle, even if the conductor sometimes misses the soloist’s direction by a fraction of a second?

    Thanks,
    Ian

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