Some orchestras have grown famous under theirs, others perform without them. What does a conductor do, and what makes them different?
Along with opera stars and instrumental virtuosos, conductors feature highly whenever the great musical maestros of the past are remembered. But for those of us who just see them waving their arms around on the concert podium, their elevated stature may appear somewhat overrated. Surely all they do is help the orchestra keep time?
Marin Alsop, a multi-award winning conductor and Southbank Centre Resident Artist who appears several times this season, explains. ‘I think that maybe people don’t really understand the role of the conductor. What does a conductor really do? It’s a little bit like being a director. What I do is study the creator’s words or the composer’s notes and I try to become the voice of the creator. Then I bring his or her work to life through the musicians. The analogy is sort of like actors bringing words to life. That’s really the basic role of the conductor: to be the messenger and the advocate for the composer, and to try to get that narrative across to the audience.
‘The goal for me is to always try to inspire and encourage people, and create the environment for musicians to be the best they can be. So it’s sort of like part coach, part captain. A lot of it is of course technical, because I’m speaking to them through gesture. But it’s a far more complex role than most people would just see by sitting there watching someone move their arms.’
Barbara Hannigan, principally known as a worldclass soprano, is also making a name for herself as a conductor. She comes to Southbank Centre on 10 February 2013 to perform in and conduct Stravinsky’s chamber opera Renard. Being a singer herself, does this give her an edge as a conductor when it comes to producing opera?
‘I can see and feel just like I could if I were singing with them. For example I can see [if] the bass is not as grounded as it was in the rehearsal; or I can see they’re not feeling completely comfortable here – let’s move through this line so they have a time at the end to clear their throat. You know, these kinds of little things? But they’re more technical.’
She continues: ‘I think most instruments of the orchestra are hoping to sing. We want the violin to sing. We want the clarinet to sing. We want the horn to sing. Many of my instrumental colleagues say, "Yes, I’m just trying to be a voice”. Together we’re trying to give this moving organism, the orchestra, the most human quality possible. We try to make it sing.’
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