O sweet mystery of life

…or one of them at least – is what conductors actually do. I thought it was all about the hair; Justin Davidson thinks it’s more than that:

“Knowing the score”—the expression implies mastery, but it doesn’t suggest the sustained and solitary study that’s required to achieve it. There are a few miles of roadway that I have driven often enough to navigate them faultlessly in my mind: I know every pothole, every deer crossing. A conductor needs similarly detailed recall of an enormous musical terrain. In the weeks I spend fussing over just my six minutes of Mozart, Gilbert conducts Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande; symphonies by Mahler, Brahms, Dvorák, and Beethoven; and assorted pieces by Webern, Bruch, Berg, Bach, Corigliano, Dutilleux, Haydn, Sibelius, Wagner, Janácek, and Mozart—dozens of hours, millions of notes, pieces he has performed for years and pieces he’s never seen before. During one session, Gilbert demonstrates for a percussionist how to get the right sound on the triangle, corrects a bowing in the violin part, sings the bassoon line, and points out a subtle harmonic shift—all without glancing at the score. “I haven’t looked at this piece in five years,” he says, “but it’s still in there somewhere.” If the entire symphonic tradition were incinerated, a team of conductors could write it all out again.

I don’t think it’s that. Memorizing a score (which very few conductors do, at least in the sense of being able to write it all out from memory) has little to do with getting an orchestra through a score, much less making music out of it.

As for that second measure, (Alan) Gilbert politely deems my elaborate two-handed solution too fancy. “Just beat clearly and they’ll take care of it,” he advises.

That’s a useful though not universal commandment: Do Less. The Maestro Paradox leaves insecure conductors constantly justifying their presence: They gesticulate, point, urge, and cajole, like a castaway signaling a distant ship…

One day, there’s a heightened buzz in the rehearsal room: Bernard Haitink, the great Dutch conductor, is paying a visit. In the middle of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, Haitink politely taps an overzealous student on the shoulder and borrows his baton. Then he starts the piece again, doing almost nothing but flicking the stick’s tip millimetrically. The effect is of hushed delight, until his left hand describes a single upward sweep, releasing a ferocious forte. Haitink smiles and returns the baton. “The musicians are very busy with playing,” he says. “You should not distract them!”

That’s more like it. Obviously part of conducting is the visual bit. That doesn’t mean that everything needs to be signaled.

In Italian, the word maestro also means teacher. As we power toward the final cadence and I exchange glance after glance with the young musicians, it occurs to me that they are bombarding me with unspoken questions and it’s my job to convey answers. That’s what a conductor does: mold an interpretation by filtering the thousands of decisions packed into every minute of symphonic music. The clarinetist inclined to add a little gleam to a brief solo by slowing down slightly, the tuba player preparing for a fortissimo blast after twenty minutes of nothing—each will look to the podium for a split-second shot of guidance, and the conductor who meets those fleeting inquiries with clarity and assurance will get a more nuanced performance. My efforts haven’t made me a good conductor, or even a mediocre one, but they have given me the glimmerings of competence—an intoxicating taste of what it might feel like to realize the fantasy of my boom-box days.

That’s getting warm, I think. But I keep coming back to what the great French conductor Pierre Monteux once told a student. “Conducting is like riding a horse,” he said (or words to that effect): “most of the time, the horse is fine without your help. You’ve got to know when the other times are.”

Of course, all of that focuses on the sexy part of the job – the bits where the tossed hair gets noticed. Most of the real work of a conductor is what, in the real world, is known as “coaching.” We call it rehearsing, but it’s much the same. Very few conductors do it well. Sadly, even fewer both rehearse and conduct well. And, of those few, fewer still have much to say musically.

If we have structural deficits in our field, that one might be the biggest.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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