The best conductors know when to get out of the way. They have an intuitive sense for those rare moments when the music is cooking along on its own and they allow it to blossom. Expressive power grows from economy. The big gesture means more when it’s reserved for the right moment. On one level, conducting involves a mysterious “give and take” between the ensemble and the person on the podium. In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is defined as:
an object or type of material that permits the flow of electric charges in one or more directions.
In many ways, a similar process is occurring with a musical conductor, except with a different type of energy.
Fritz Reiner, the legendary music director of the Chicago Symphony in the 1950s and 60s, was famous for a small beat pattern, as this excerpt of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony shows. In Chicago, the result was laser precision and attention to the smallest detail.
Recently, I ran across this humorous clip of Finnish conductor and composer (of 270 symphonies and counting), Leif Segerstam leading the Gothenburg Symphony in the Alla Marcia from Jean Sibelius’s Karelia Suite. Watch what Segerstam does around the 0:28 mark and listen to the joy and freedom in the sound and phrasing of the orchestra. It’s a great illustration of the power of trusting and letting go:
5 thoughts on “When Less is More”
I believe that a conductor has a vision of the meaning of a score and that he/she seeks to bring out the best from each musician to produce, in accordance with that vision, a great musical experience. To continue with the electrical metaphor: there are many conductors in a computer, but without a CPU to coordinate the energy flowing on them, you have chaos.
One of my favorite conductors was Leonard Bernstein. YouTube has a clip of a Conducting Master Class he gave in 1982 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q38ZLodjvwg
There is also a clip on YouTube of Bernstein directing the overture to Candide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZPF5mPIpXU He looks like he is having so much fun! Hard to believe that Lennie was a student of Fritz Reiner.
Thank you for the great insights and examples, Ron. I agree that a compelling vision of the score is essential along with the ability to inspire musicians.
He certainly has a unique conducting style, but gets exactly what he wants from the orchestra. The result of practicing his craft is an enjoyable performance for the audience and the freedom to create well from musicians who enjoy playing under his direction.
Karl Bohm also conducted with great economy of motion. At times he could be very expressive within a very small gestures.
Thank you for bringing up Karl Bohm. Here he is conducting Schubert’s “Great” 9th Symphony: