Since my wife joined the Peninsula Symphony in the Bay Area this past year as a violinist, I’ve had the good fortune to attend several of their performances. They really put on some fantastic performances, here’s their schedule for 2010 which includes performances with Taylor Eigsti playing Gershwin, a performance with the legendary Red Violin (yes- that one from the Academy Award winning film) and a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 5th. They are led by conductor and music director Mitchell Sardou Klein, who is renowned for service and excellence in his field in the Bay Area.
Now, as one who isn’t that versed in symphonies and the inner workings of them, I’ve been fascinated but a bit confused on the role of the conductor and how he or she leads the orchestra. What exactly is their role and if they weren’t even there, wouldn’t the orchestra be able to complete the piece perfectly since each musician in the orchestra has their individual music in front of them and knows their sections and timings very well? My wife quickly will correct me and say of course the conductor is needed, he sets the tone and the direction.
From this blog posting by Trevor Halliwell, I found a good description of the role of the conductor:
In a nutshell, they direct the musicians in a manner that they feel the music should be performed, both in tempo (speed), style, mood, and volume. With their direction they pull the music too and fro to give it a sense of character rather than a computerised performance. A conductor, therefore leads and stamps his or her own character in a performance.
So, if that is the role of the conductor, my next question is how does the conductor lead the symphony. What do all of those gestures mean and why is it so different when you look at different conductors.
For insight into that question, let’s look at this entertaining TEDtalk by Itay Talgam, a noted Israeli conductor. This speech walks through some different approaches that conductors have used to lead their orchestras. Talgam has made a name for himself by applying the process of how a conductor leads to a broader discussion to leadership and organizational behavior as a whole.
Here is a link with blow by blow summary of Talgam’s points. While it doesn’t completely quench my thirst for fully understanding exactly how a conductor leads and how the orchestra responds to him, it does give me a much greater appreciation of the nuances of conducting and the leadership principles involved.