Thursday, April 29, 2010

What it Takes to Step Up to the Podium

Every BSO musician has his/her own ideas about what makes a good conductor. Here's what I think is needed, both personally and for the BSO, having been a part of so many concerts over the years:

Anyone auditioning the other day had to 1) show she/he understands the music being conducted, and 2) show that she/he can communicate that understanding to us BSO musicians. Neither of those criteria is as easy as it sounds. And in the case of the BSO, I have noticed that we respond well in general to rather extroverted conductors, the ones who can really "put it out there" for us to see and respond to, so to speak.

When a conductor "understands" the music, they know which tempos actually work, both from technical and from musical perspectives. They must show (sometimes in anticipation) changes of dynamics (loud and soft, decreasing and increasing) and changes of tempo very clearly so that all musicians execute those changes in the same way. They understand when their job is to be "traffic cop" and keep us together, and when to go slightly off the beaten musical track to provide an interesting detail we hadn't considered before.

Communicating the music might be the toughest part. I am amazed sometimes at how much conductor's facial expressions influence how we perform music, and how we sense that conductors are communicating with us. It is important to show that you are involved with the music, that you don't meet every different section of the music with the same poker face, smile, or grimace. On the other hand, too much emoting and even smiling can be off-putting. Dirty looks, even for an obvious mistake, are an absolute no-no.

I also like conductors who use their whole bodies to conduct, as opposed to standing very still and mostly using their arms. When you are a musician toward the back of the stage, it helps so much to see the conductor's movements peripherally. You frequently can't take your eyes of the printed music, or even your instrument at times, to look directly at the conductor, so her/his movements need to be big enough to see, and of course, they have to convey the appropriate musical signals.

I'm curious. As an audience, what do you look for in a conductor?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

BSO Assistant Conductor Auditions

This afternoon BSO musicians and Marin will perform an interesting task: we have invited 5 conductors to an audition to be the BSO's Assistant Conductor next season. The Artistic Advisory Committee, on which I have served for the past 4 years, will poll BSO musicians on their preferences after seeing each candidate for about 20 minutes of conducting. In many cases 20 minutes is hardly enough to make absolute decisions, but you can often tell quite a bit in that length of time.

Should be interesting...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Music with Mena

The orchestra really enjoyed our concert last week with Juanjo Mena, one of our favorite guest conductors. We played an unfamiliar piece, the Fourth Symphony of Carl Nielsen, along with a violin concerto by Rodrigo (Jon Carney was the soloist) and Ancient Airs and Dances by Respighi.

Being a really good conductor requires so many talents; maybe it is like being the president. The conductor has to know the music as well as anyone else on stage, and then translate that knowledge into body motions and facial expressions that convey to the musicians just how to perform it. He/she has to know when to exert strong leadership, and when to let the orchestra go a bit on its own. In rehearsal, she/he needs to be showing/teaching us the piece and listening carefully at the same time to know where to stop and rehearse. (This is where some conductors fall short; they may have good ears, but it seems they almost forget that we still need them in rehearsal for difficult entrances, tempos, for the character of the music, etc.)

The nice thing is, if you missed Mena last week, you get another chance to hear us with him in mid May. We will be performing Brahms 3rd Symphony and Strauss' Don Juan along with the Schumann Piano Concerto on May 13, 14 and 15. Come see a really great program with one of our favorite guests!

Funny story about Don Juan: when I was in college, learning the piece with the Eastman Philharmonic for the first time, our conductor, David Effron, said about the attitude needed at the beginning of the very virtuosic piece "be glad you're a violinist!" I always think of that whenever we play this exciting, difficult piece, and it makes me smile.