Guide me, Maestro!

A person waves his arms around in front of an orchestra. He stops his movements. He looks into the score, he gives directions to a specific group of musicians. The orchestra plays the passage again, the conductor waves his arms. He has to direct the musicians on how to play the music. How fast, how slow, how loud, and so on. Trouble is, many good musicians have their own ideas about how to play the piece. They are not easily convinced by what conductors have to say.

Conducting us is like swimming in a pond with piranhas.”

Götz Teusch, former member of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

This story is about how conductors successfully communicate their vision of music to an orchestra and navigate around getting bitten by piranhas.

Except for those who practice it, few people know about the murky, yet electrifying communications that go on during an orchestral performance. They can tell us how communication can work in a world that is increasingly less able to communicate at all.

The Body Language of Conducting

Now, let’s have a look at the basics of this process. Sophie Lücke, principle double bass at the prestigious Gärtnerplatztheater Munich, takes us behind the scenes of conducting.

The conductor can also ask for significant corrections for specific groups to play quieter. This can look different from conductor to conductor: From very explicit gestures to a simple lowering of the hand.
Photos: Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Berliner Philharmonie

The open hand and expression suggests an invitation for more animation in the interpretation. “You can’t plan a performance. That’s the beauty of it. Everything is up for change, even on the night,” says Lücke.
Different conductors express this differently…

Photos: Lucerne Festival, Stephan Rabold.

Focussing on particular instrument groups “happens during every performance. When that group has a solo or the melody, the conductor has to be more attentive to them,” says Lücke. This can look very different with different conductors.
Photo: Roman Zach-Kiesling, Monika Rittershaus

The remarkable music is transmitted through these kinds of gestures. But who has the right to transmit what? What is the power dynamic between conductor and musicians? Sophie Lücke has a clear opinion: She believes that “while the conductor is central to all goings on, we musicians also have a right contribute. Most conductors value our input, and that is important. Bear in mind, there is an overall positive atmosphere that we have to create here. That doesn’t work if the conductor decides everything.”

Nicolas Mansfield, artistic director of the Netherlands Reisopera, offers a different opinion. Mansfield insists that “in most cases, the conductor is the instigator. In the end, he is also the one who stands responsible for the interpretation of the music. Towards the public and the critics, it is him who has to answer. That way, he has more responsibility to bear and has to have a certain authority in his communications.”

What looks like a black-and-white issue between democratic and authoritarian approaches is actually much more complicated. Conducting has undergone significant changes in the last 20 years. In the 1900s, there were still conductors like Herbert von Karajan and Arturo Toscanini, who ruled with a tyrannical approach. They were known for shouting at their orchestras and authoritarian behaviour at the rostrum. Karajan once said: “I have the power, and I will turn the screws until everyone bows down before me.” 

But here too, a second look yields an unexpected picture. Sophie Lücke explains that, while conductors today are generally less authoritarian, the musicians had freedoms in the past too, and were not as controlled as the atmosphere would suggest: “Old colleagues of mine at the Berlin Philharmonic [Lücke played there as an Academy member for two seasons] told me that Karajan may have been authoritarian in negotiations and rehearsals, but under no one could you play as freely on the night as under Karajan.”
There are many possible paths towards great music. This episode shows that even in this unexplored channel of communication, there is immense diversity and individuality.

The example of conductors giving feedback to the orchestra shows this individuality. Conductors have different ways of doing this. Giving Feedback to the orchestra is vital, it can be both positive and negative, but it is a vital communication process. “Good music needs honest and open feedback,” says Sophie Lücke.

Photos (clockwise): Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Roman Zach-Kiesling, Monika Rittershaus.

Musicians as Individuals –
“We blow our souls into this”

Looking at her French horn, Sarah Willis (3rd horn at the Berlin Philharmonic) says: “We blow our souls into this.” This reveals another paradox in orchestral music-making: The tone that comes out of one’s instrument is only an individual product.

It’s the conductor’s job to make choices, binding all individual forces into one coherent whole and building a coherent interpretation of the piece at hand. These choices can look and sound very different, from conductor to conductor.

Conductors are just as individualistic as musicians, they too have their specific views of a piece. Listen to these two sound files of two different conductors (Russian Kirill Petrenko and German Christian Thielemann) conducting the same piece (the Prelude to Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) with the Bavarian State Orchestra and Vienna State Opera Orchestras respectively:

The difference between the two interpretations is staggering. Petrenko uses a much brighter, in-your-face sound, with a greater emphasis on the brass. Thielemann uses the brass too, but looks for a round, mellow and overall darker colour pallet in the orchestra. Among many other differences, the tempi are wildly different: Petrenko takes eight minutes and 34 seconds for the prelude, Thielemann goes on almost 90 seconds longer, nearing the 10-minute mark. The articulation of the woodwinds in the middle solo passage is much more elaborate and legato-style (bound, longer) with Thielemann compared to Petrenko's shorter, marked staccato-style.

Now that the interpretation is formed, the tough task is to convince the orchestra that all musicians should commit their forces to following it.

At that moment, when an orchestra believes in a conductor, he can do whatever he wants with them."

Werner Resel, former member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.


If you can’t convince me, then you can know as much about the music and conduct your marvellous technique backwards and forwards- your conducting will be bland. People aren’t following you."

Alexandra Ionis, Mezzo Soprano, currently singing at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin.

This marks a completely new dimension in the communication process. The convincing part can take ages, sometimes until the last concert, sometimes not even then. But when it does work, unforgettable music happens.

Creating that special moment.

What happens when the orchestra and all involved are convinced by the conductor’s work? We have looked at the basics, now we come to that special moment that happens when 100 people follow the music to form a single binding unit. When it all works and comes together, something magical happens. 

Dear God, let me die now, I am as happy as I possibly can be.”

“Then we all pull at one end of the stick, regardless of what was before."

Götz Teusch, former member of the Berliner Philharmoniker

A culmination of energy, a feeling of insane togetherness. Making it all worthwhile. 
It can happen at specific moments in pieces. Or it can happen when an orchestra develops one ethos, one singular focus and goal throughout a performance. So it happened (for example) with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, during a performance of Schumann’s second Symphony in 2012. I talked to Sarah Willis, horn player at the Berlin Philharmonic, about this experience. She tells me:

Leading? Following someone somewhere without question? Once again, that connects conducting to being an authoritarian profession. I asked Alexandra Ionis, a young opera singer, whether she agrees to this:

After an example of this communication process succeeding, watch this clip of what happens when things don't go too well...

Watching a conductor is one of the most exciting vantage points for any concert. It gives a bird's eye-view of how the communication process between an orchestra and a conductor works.

“I’m Happy to be a Junkie to the end of my Days,” says conductor Sir Simon Rattle, when he talks about his job. This article gives a glimpse into that great mystery of communication and its extraordinary results.


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