Where possible, once I’ve learned and digested a score and forgotten everything I’ve ever heard other conductors and orchestras do in concert and on recordings, I like to do some serious comparative listening. It’s always interesting and often incredibly helpful see what conclusions other performers have come to about the piece at hand.
Video is often even more instructive. One can see what the conductor was actually doing: this is usually very helpful and interesting, and occasionally rather terrifying. Video also gives one a chance to see what bowings the orchestra is using, and how the players communicate with each other. It’s not at all unusual to listen to an entire performance I find wrong-headed, disappointing or sloppy, only to stumble on one idea, one bowing or one moment that makes the whole process worthwhile.
As I look ahead to recording the last installment in my Schumann cycle with the Orchestra of the Swan on December 2nd and 3rd, I came across two videos which I thought made for an interesting comparison, so I’ve decided to share them here. One is a performance (alongside a bit of rehearsal footage) of the group Spria Mirabilis, who play (very well) without a conductor.The other is by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin.
The reason the comparison is interesting is because the two groups are of similar size and share a number of the same players (most importantly Lorenza Borrani, who leads both groups) and the two performances were recorded only a couple years appart.
I’d welcome your reactions and comments- especially if we can get beyond “I liked the ________ one better.”
For me, the two performances raise some very interesting questions about what a conductor does or does not bring to a performance, how players listen and watch with and without a conductor, how an orchestra’s sense of line and meter changes with or without a conductor, and so on.
I normally avoid any discussion of living colleagues here, but in this case, it’s clear that these are both very good performances at a high professional level- what really struck me is that not only are the two performances quite different, the relative strengths and not-strengths are so different.
I think if you take in both performances attentively, you’ll find that it’s not possible to say “it’s better with/without a conductor” but you’ll certainly realize it’s different. For the conductor, it’s a chance to see what the players do when you’re not there than you can encourage the to bring to your rehearsals and concerts, and for the musicians, it’s a chance to see and hear what a conductor can bring to a performance and to think about how you can keep those qualities when you work without one.
Spira Mirabilis (performance starts about 10 mins in)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe