Magicians of the Orchestra (Rabbit and hat not included)

Recent features in New York Magazine, the New York Times (additional video here), the Sydney Herald (in conversation with my former teacher, David Zinman) and a return of BBC2’s “Maestro” would all seem to be evidence of some kind of moment of curiosity about the true nature of the conductor’s art. No doubt, some of these projects have proved more enlightening than others.

This Sunday, I’ll be offering my own window into the world of conducting at the always-staggeringly-interesting-and-innovative Two Rivers Festival in Birkenhead (the last concert there, by pianist Clare Hammond, might have been the most interesting recital in Britain this year, with five world-premieres in celebration of the Debussy anniversary). This event, calledMagicians of the orchestra: revealing the conductor’s art” begins with a short chat from me about how conductors shape sound, with some interesting video samples of a few great masters of the past. Then, three exciting young conductors take their turn conducting the Orchestra of the Swan in masterclass on Brahms’ Serenade no. 1 in D major (as arranged for nonet by Anthony Bousted). Finally, after some Q&A and the chance for a few brave and curious amateurs in audience to try their hand, I’ll step up to the plate, ready to take it all on the chin, and conduct four movements of the Brahms, which we’re also recording that day for a new SOMM CD.

Once you get past any simplistic parallels regarding the waving of magic wands, the comparison of conductor and magician is surprisingly apt. After all, a great magician is a mixture of engineer, technician, and performer, who must not only have a relatively deep practical understanding of what he or she is doing, but also a profound psychological understanding of how their audience perceives it. We call modern magicians “illusionists,” but it would probably be more honest to call them “impressionists.” After all, the performance you experience is real, not an illusion- your eyes don’t lie- but it creates an impression of something more “magical” than what you are really seeing.

So it is in all forms of music making, but especially in conducting- the most awe-inspiring fortissimo in a Mahler symphony is not any louder than a household power tool, but it creates the impression of something of super-human scale. When we speak of the conductor as an “interpreter,” we’re talking about that part of our job in which we judge how to create impression- how the performance is shaped and paced, and how we convince the listener that the pianissimos are magically (that word again) soft, the fortissimos overpoweringly loud, the passagework impossibly fast and the legato flawlessly seamless. Of course, achieving a literal realization of any of those effects is just as impossible, and un-desirable, as sawing a woman in half.

Like the magician, a conductor makes an impression on the audience, but unlike an illusionist, the primary audience for the conductor is the orchestra onstage, not the punters in the house (although some of us are more fixated than others on playing to the crowd). The basic tools of gesture are simple- one can beat slower or faster, bigger or smaller, higher or lower. Ultimately, the difference between the tiniest possible beat and the largest manageable one is infinitely more limited than the range between the most hushed pianissimo and the most volcanic fortissimo. Between the two, also, there must also be a near-infinite range of varieties of colours, articulations, intensities and dynamics. Really accomplished conductors are fascinatingly adept showing or evoking a huge range of sounds. How one creates that range of expression is where one’s musicianship, technical understanding and showmanship come together.

It’s hard to guess where the discussion will lead on Sunday. I’m sure we’ll find the chance to explode a few misconceptions, like “most of the conductor’s work is done in rehearsal.” I’m sure audience members will be fascinated to see how the orchestra’s performance changes entirely the moment a new conductor gives an upbeat- no rehearsal required.  We all work hard in rehearsal, but conducting, for all its limitations (which can be maddening) is something that very much happens in real time.

I’ve got a pretty vast library here of historic footage of important conductors at work. I haven’t yet decided which conductors to feature- it all depends on what, at the end of the day, I decide are the most important, or illuminating things I can focus on in a relatively limited time. How a conductor uses their eyes? How one shows intensity? How to get incredible precision? If you had to pick one bit of film of a favourite conductor that all practitioners could study and learn from, what would it be?

The Two Rivers Festival was created in 2008 by Andrew Thomson and Peter Davison to bring performers of international quality to Wirral. Since its inception, the festival has gained a reputation for presenting informal concerts in intimate settings, attracting high-calibre artists such as The Tallis Scholars, Martin Roscoe, Natalie Clein, Noriko Ogawa, Emily and Catherine Beynon, Dame Emma Kirkby and Craig Ogden. Details of the 2013 Festival will be announced in the autumn. For further information about future events, please speak to one of our staff or leave us your contact details. Information is also available via our website or call (0151) 651 3095.

About Magicians of the Orchestra

 In this afternoon’s comprehensive examination of the art of conducting, we will ask the question, what do orchestral conductors do? Are they wizards with magic wands or overpaid time-keepers? How do we know if they are good, bad or indifferent? What musical techniques must they master? Is success down to personality or skill? During the afternoon, Kenneth Woods, principal guest conductor of the Orchestra of the Swan and founder of the Rose City International Conductors’ Workshop in the USA, will discuss the great conductors of the past, before putting a group of aspiring conductors through their paces in a masterclass. Afterwards, there will be a chance for several members of the audience to try conducting for themselves. The event will conclude with a performance of the first four movements from Brahms’ Serenade No.1 in D, which will also be recorded live by SOMM for a commercial CD, offering a unique opportunity to glimpse behind the scenes of the professional musical world.

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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

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