what's the point of an orchestra conductor?

Discussion in 'After Hours Lounge (Off Topic)' started by Ted Lee, Feb 25, 2004.

  1. Ted Lee

    Ted Lee Lead Actor

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    yep, i'm bored today...

    what exactly is the job of the conductor?

    i mean ... the players have the music sheet right in front of them. it's not like they don't know what to play. :b

    and how the heck does his waving his arms around like that influence the orchestra?

    just curious i guess....
     
  2. Kirk Gunn

    Kirk Gunn Screenwriter

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    I'm no orchestral musician, nor do I play one on the internet, but music has a lot of emotion. The conductor sets the tone with his antics.

    In addition, I believe some advanced notes/rests basically mean "hold this note until the conductor signals you to stop".

    Also, a lot of musical effect is timing, and that is what he controls.... Sinatra was a master at timing his vocals to get a unique effect. But I'm sure there are much more skilled folks in Afer Hours that will pontificate wildly on this subject !
     
  3. ThomasC

    ThomasC Lead Actor

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    The job of the conductor is to keep everyone on the same beat (in tempo), and to tell certain sections of the orchestra (woodwind section, violin section, etc.) to be louder or softer. There's probably more, but I don't know what it is. I'm in a college choir, and we performed with a professional orchestra last week. We rehearsed on Friday night with concerts on Saturday night and Sunday morning, and Friday night was the first time they rehearsed it together. My choir conductor said that they all sight read it, which if true, is absolutely amazing. I would've thought that the individual members would've rehearsed on their own beforehand. As a result of apparently reading the music for the first time on Friday night, the orchestra was louder than it was supposed to be.
     
  4. John Watson

    John Watson Screenwriter

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    He/she is the one who gets fired when ticket sales go down?

    [​IMG]
     
  5. Leila Dougan

    Leila Dougan Screenwriter

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    Notes on a sheet of music is only a small part of music. The rest of it is interpretation, style, tone, etc. The conductor's main job is to interpret and keep everyone together, but it's much more than that. The conductor has the abilility to influence every part of the music, from volume, to speed, to style, to mood. This is accomplished through small signals, facial expressions and body language. Without the conductor, the band/orchestra would truly be 100 people playing their music independently (and it would not sound good). Even in small groups such as quartets where there is no official conductor, there is still a lead. If you watch close enough, you'll see the lead influence the others by moving their instrument and body.

    You can kinda liken it to a sports coach. During a football game, one might ask why the coach even bothers showing up. While the coach is not actually playing the came, he/she has a lot of influence. Without the coach, the players wouldn't be as an effective team.
     
  6. Jason Harbaugh

    Jason Harbaugh Cinematographer

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    Come on, haven't you seen Bugs Bunny conduct?! It's all in the subtlies. [​IMG]
     
  7. Tony Whalen

    Tony Whalen Producer

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    LEOPOLD!!!!

    [​IMG]
     
  8. BrianW

    BrianW Cinematographer

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    A conductor is to a symphonic performance what a director is to a movie. When an orchestra performs, they are performing the conductor's - and no one else's - interpretation of what that music should be.

    And, just like a director, the conductor has a very big job to do before the performance. He's the one who spends weeks or months yelling at the musicians until they can play a piece exactly the way he wants it to be played.

    Another interesting thing to note is that conductors tend to have longer lifespans than people in any other profession. But before you mistakenly think that conductors live so long because of the soothing effects of constant exposure to music, you should be advised that the profession in second place for longevity is - get this - socialist dictator. I think it has something to do with telling other people what to do.
     
  9. NickSo

    NickSo Producer

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    heh, anybody remember the seinfeld act where he questions this exact question?

    But yeah, the conductor is VERY important in keeping everything in time, the tone and feeling of the music, like everybody else had just said [​IMG]
     
  10. Greg_R

    Greg_R Screenwriter

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    Professional musicians do not need weeks to learn a piece of music. Often, things are sight-read on the spot during a practice before a performance. The conductor interprets the musical score and relays that to the orchestra through his/her 'arm waving'. As an (amateur) performer, I can tell you that many musicians can become inspired by the conductors various gestures. It also increases the pleasure of watching a live performance (IMO).

    The best show I've seen about conducting was a BBC episode of 'Faking It' where they took a punk rocker and turned him into a symphony conductor. During a rehearsal of a Rossinni piece, they had him put down his baton while the orchestra was playing. The orchestra finished the remainder of the piece w/o any direction. This was to point out that the orchestra is capable of playing by themselves (taking their cues from the concertmaster / 1st chair violin). The conductor adds the 'icing on the cake' during a performance and lets the orchestra know what he/she wants during particular segments of the performance.
     
  11. Dave Poehlman

    Dave Poehlman Producer

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    I think they absorb moisture.








    No, wait. That's silica.
     
  12. Paul_Sjordal

    Paul_Sjordal Supporting Actor

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    Exactly. All the audience sees of the conductor is what he or she does during the performance, but that's really the least important thing the conductor does. The really important work a conductor does happens while the audience isn't around.

    A conductor isn't a leader because of the arm-waving he does on stage, he's a leader because of the discussing, arguing, cajoling, yelling and inspiring he does during rehearsal.

    PS: the NY Philharmonic is notorious for giving conductors a hard time. Somehow that fits considering the city. [​IMG]
     
  13. Ted Lee

    Ted Lee Lead Actor

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    thx guys ... makes sense.

    i guess if i thought about it for a second... [​IMG]
     
  14. andrew markworthy

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    A couple of other things:

    (a) the conductor only became necessary during the 19th century when orchestras reached their present size. Orchestras during Mozart's time and earlier were much smaller and the musicians could hear each other quite easily, so keeping in time, maintaining the right volume, etc, wasn't difficult. Orchestras had a 'concert master' who basically kept a beat [and might play a continuo part (usually on a harpsichord) but that's another story] and was responsible for rehearsing and hiring the musicians. As orchstras grew in size during the 19th century, orchestral players found it much harder to hear what was being played by the other musicians, and so the role of conductor became more important. He (it was almost invariably a 'he') would be required not only to keep the beat but signal to the various instrumentalists if they were playing too loudly or softly within the overall 'mix'.

    Nonetheless, the conductor's job might have been a glorified traffic cop had it not been for the fact that also during the 19th century, music became far more about emotional expression than before. This gave leeway for *interpretation* of the music. Although this is something of a generalisation, the aim previously had been simply to play what was on the page as accurately and with as good a technique as possible. That was still the aim, of course, but now was added the idea that the performers might adjust the tempi, the relative prominence given to different strands of the music, etc, to suit their feelings about the piece being played. Now in an orchestra quite obviously individual players couldn't do their own thing, and so the job of interpretation fell to the conductor. And from there the prominence of the conductor rose dramatically.

    (b) Orchestras, as have already been noted, can play the basic piece without a conductor, but whether they will play it *well* is another matter. Nonetheless, there is often antagonism between players and conductors. There are some orchestras who are legendary for being unpleasant to conductors, and likewise conductors who are legendary for being unpleasant. This doesn't necessarily create good playing. E.g. I've several friends who are orchestral players who have told me tales about how they will wilfully do things against the conductor's wishes in a performance if the conductor has been rude during rehearsals.
     
  15. Yee-Ming

    Yee-Ming Producer

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    Reminds me of the episode of Boston Public where Guber wins a prize of an opportunity to conduct the Boston Pops (I think); he intially wanted to play it safe with an "easy" piece (Mozart?), but finally decided to take a chance with a difficult piece by Dvorak, which he did with gusto, such that at the end the orchestra applauded him.
     
  16. John Watson

    John Watson Screenwriter

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    That's a very interesting point, from Andrew, about the size of the orchestra.

    Did that size lead to better perforance of better music? Sounds like an interesting question for the Music forum.
     
  17. Seth--L

    Seth--L Screenwriter

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    A conductor does most of their work during rehearsal. A score tells musicians what notes need to be played, and it's the job of the conductor to decided how they should be played. The conductor has a vision of how he wants the score to sound, and must communicate that to the orchestra. So, during rehearsal he'll determine the bowing style of the strings, set the various tempi, and change dynamic markings to achieve a better balance. This is particularly important because each concert hall has different acoustics, and thus in each, certain instruments will be heard better than others. For instance, a conductor may find that because of the hall the orchestra is performing in, the clarinets (or whatever instrument) are not coming through as clear as the composer wants them to. The conductor would then make the choice to have the clarinets play louder in certain parts than what the score calls for, or he may even double the clarinet part.

    During the actual performance, a conductor pretty much just beats time and cues performers. Most world class orchestras could get away without having a conductor at the actual performance most of the time (in fact, when orchestras don't like what a guest conductor wants them to do, they'll often ignore the conductor).

    If you're really interested in the role, there are a number of documentaries available on DVD and CD.

    The best "behind the scenes" look at conducting is Bruno Walter conducting Mozart: Symphony No.36. The complete rehearsal session was recorded, and Walter pretty much goes note by note, telling the orchestra how each one should be played. It's particularly superb because Walter lets the orchestra play a few bars without any instruction, he stops them, tells them how he wants them to play it, they then play the few bars again, and it becomes extremely clear the impact that he was on how the music sounds. Unfortunately the 2 disc set is out of print:

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg...ce&s=classical


    Coming out in two weeks is an all-time classic:

    George Szell - One Man's Triumph / Cleveland Orchestra

    Szell was one of the two or three great conductors of the 20th C., and this is a rare look behind the scenes at his legendary intense rehearsals (he would never throw fits, but would fire players on the spot for tiny mistakes). You'll be able to spot a young James Levine during it taking notes.

    Another excellent looking at what a conductor does is:

    In Rehearsal with John Eliot Gardiner

    It's a 60 minute look at Gardiner preparing his orchestra and choir to record Bach: Cantata BWV 63.
     
  18. chris_everett

    chris_everett Second Unit

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    A larger size certinly lends itself to a wider dynamic range, and more volume generally, which was of course critical before the advent of amplification. Try to imagine something like the 1812 overture with a 20 piece orchestra.

    I'll second everything Seth says, that is a great post.
     
  19. John Watson

    John Watson Screenwriter

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    Without amplification, playing the same note, and other conditions being equal, can 20 violins be heard from further away than one violin ?
     
  20. Scott Pierson

    Scott Pierson Stunt Coordinator

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    Interesting question. Since sound is created by the movement of air and volume of sound is determined by the amount of air moved, and if the other conditions could truly be equal, then yes, 20 violins would be louder than a single violin, since there would be more instruments moving air. However, the difference in volume would not be as large as you may be imagining. At least for violin...one trumpet versus 20 trumpets-now that would be a huge difference. The biggest difference is in tone quality of the note produced. There is a big difference in the tone of a solo violin and a violin section.

    Which leads back to the original question. Conducting started, as others have pointed out, as orchestras got bigger. Haydn was the first person to regularly stand in front of the orchestra and conduct. Previously, the first violin would lead from his chair, or stand and play to lead the orchestra in starting and stopping together and setting tempo (speed).

    Haydn is known as the father of the modern symphony because he standardized the string and wind sections, and the four-movement structure that is most common. Mozart kept his basic structure, but lengthened each movement. Beethoven lengthened it still, and added instruments to the orchestra. As instruments were refined, composers would utilize them more frequently in the orchestra. As the wind and brass sections and later percussion sections got bigger, more strings were needed to balance the sound.

    Music also became more expressive by the use of tempo changes within a piece of music. Most music up to Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven was basically one tempo for each movement. Beethoven began to change all this, and composers after him in the 19th century added lots of expressive devices. As others have said, the conductor is the one who decides how much expression the orchestra will play with. And as the orchestra got bigger, there would be no possible way to keep the players all together through various changes.

    In the late 19th century and early 20th century, size got to be extreme in the cases of Wagner, Mahler and Richard Strauss, who utilized huge orchestral forces. Mahler, especially, was continually inspired by Beethoven's use of voices in the 9th Symphony, and used solo and choral forces in several of his symphonies, culminating in his 8th Symphony, dubbed "the Symphony of a Thousand" because the first performance had nearly 1,000 people on stage--a huge orchestra, three full choirs, and soloists. Steady tempo happens rarely, and without a conductor it would obviously be chaos.

    A couple more brief points:

    Conductors today in the professional realm are rarely the taskmasters they used to be in terms of yelling and ranting at the orchestra. Musician's unions won't put up with it.

    Second, the point about conductors living long lives is true. Not because he gets to tell people what to do, but because the physical act of conducting is very aerobic, and doing it for several hours a day keeps the heart pretty healthy.


    Sorry for the long ramble. (Can you tell I teach music?)
    :b
     

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