Thursday, March 13, 2008

Are conductors necessary?

A mention on the radio draws my attention to The Times pontificating about the need for conductors in the wake of an interview with Nigel Kennedy (are we back to calling him Nigel now? A couple of years ago he declared he wanted to be known as "Kennedy", presumably in imitation of Morrissey, Madonna, God, and other single-monikered celebs). It's an interesting question.

My own band probably wouldn't get through an extended piece unscathed, but we're operating on a different level to, say, the LSO, who I daresay could quite easily get to the end of a symphony without it falling apart. (Whether the performance would be worth hearing is another matter.) Plus KSO's purpose is in part educational, to broaden the knowledge and appreciation of music for both the players and our audience, which means that our conductor is working in part as a teacher as much as a baton waver.

Conductorless orchestras do exist; from what I gather the main difference is that because the approach to the music has to be decided amongst the band rather than being imposed by a single coordinator, it takes longer to rehearse. I suspect this is why stickless bands are unlikely to have much of a future beyond the relatively small forces involved in pre-(and indeed quite a lot of post-)19th century music, simply because the arguments between 30 people are going to be resolved much quicker than between 80. So, the argument in favour of conductors is essentially efficiency: it's more efficient to have one person in charge of rehearsing and shaping a piece than a group of people discussing it. And of course a pair of ears outside the band is useful, to make sure everyone's balancing well.

(Nigel) Kennedy's someone I've got a lot of time for - it's easy to forget that beneath the eccentricity/twattery lies a very fine musician - but I think he's over-stating the case. As the Times article points out, he's struggled to find anyone he can work with since Klaus Tennstedt.

(Incidentally, I'm disturbed by the comment on Radio 4's Front Row last night that (Nigel)'s (conductorless) new recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto is slower than his old one with Tennstedt, which was so slow it's a wonder it's not still going on. Maybe he's hoping to make a breakthrough in physics by playing so slowly that time actually starts going backwards.)

The question of whether a single view of a piece or a collectively agreed one is better is a question worth pondering. Of course this does all tie in with the very idea of "interpretation", which is to a greater or lesser degree an excuse to justify playing the same old stuff over and over rather than finding something new for our ears, which goes to the heart of what the classical music industry's all about.

There are conductors who do bring something special to the table, but in truth they're rare birds. Mark Elder's a good example of someone who's worked with one band over many years (the Hallé) and has the kind of relationship with them now where he presumably knows them well enough to work with them rather than at them. Then there are the superstar jetsetters like Gergiev. And of course the huge numbers of journeymen who frankly do bugger all. The trouble is, there's a culture of insisting in so-called classical music that everything is the peak, the absolute elite, when the fact is there's a hell of a lot of the mediocre.

Could you put on a Mahler symphony without a conductor? I don't know. It'd be interesting finding out, though.

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