Bravo! Vail Backstage Access column: What do conductors do?
The orchestras at Bravo! Vail are led by the top conductors in the world: Jaap van Zweden, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; Yannick Nezet-Seguin, with The Philadelphia Orchestra; and Alan Gilbert, with the New York Philharmonic. In addition to these venerable music directors, there are six additional conductors on Bravo’s podium throughout the summer. Every symphonic orchestra has a conductor, so we know that role must be very important. But what exactly does a conductor do?
Much of a conductor’s job is done before we ever see the performance. First, the conductor works with an organization’s artistic team to determine the repertoire and soloists for every concert. Decisions about what music to program for each concert are made months and sometimes years in advance of the concert date.
Interpreting the music
Once the music is selected, the conductor must study the piece of music and make many decisions — or interpretations — about how the piece should be played. These decisions include tempo — how fast or slow the music is played, volume and phrasing. Conductors spend months, years or a lifetime interpreting a piece of music. They study and often mark their ideas in their personal copy of the score, the giant book of music that includes every note that every instrument plays.
Once a conductor has lived with a piece of music for an extensive period of time, his familiarity with it may transcend the need to look at the music at all. Sometimes, you will see a conductor on the podium for a concert without any music on the music stand because after months of study, he has memorized it.
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The conductor then rehearses the music with the orchestra and explains — through words and through gestures — how he envisions the piece of music should sound. The conductor is now playing the role of collaborator with the orchestra. In some cases, the orchestral musicians have played the piece of music before, and they may have their own ideas about how the music should sound. It becomes the conductor’s job to inspire the orchestra to come together to play the music according to his interpretation.
Coordination with all pieces
If there is a concerto on the program, the conductor will have meetings with the soloist prior to rehearsing with the orchestra. For example, Yefim Bronfman, soloist for Franz Liszt’s 2nd Piano Concerto on Sunday, July 24, will meet with the conductor, Juraj Valcuha, prior to the rehearsal to coordinate their interpretations of the music.
Interestingly, the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” on Saturday, presents a unique job for the conductor, Timothy Brock. He will match the orchestral performance with the images on the film screen. To do this, Brock will look at a computer monitor that indicates when each beat in the music needs to be played in order to match the action in the film. He also has an option to listen to an audio click track through an ear monitor.
When we attend an orchestra concert, we are experiencing the end of a musical journey — the performance. We see the conductor waving his arms and gesturing, which communicates the tempo, phrasing and his overall interpretation of the music to the musicians and also to the audience. Conductors also use facial expressions, although since their backs are to us, we rarely see them.
The conductor uses the right hand for showing the rhythm and tempo, while the left hand is typically used for showing the length and motion of a musical phrase, defining the color or mood or showing a musician when to enter.
The next time you attend a Bravo! Vail orchestra concert, pay close attention to the conductor. He is communicating as much to you as he is to the orchestra.
Jennifer Teisinger is the executive director of Bravo! Vail. The Bravo! Vail music festival runs through Aug. 6. For more information about the season and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.bravovail.org and call 970-827-5700.