Cavalcade of baby conductors

My orchestra had auditions for assistant conductor today. We saw six candidates for about 30 minutes each. It was an interesting experience, although not very enjoyable. A few I liked; a few I didn’t. But what struck me most was what always strikes me when dealing with young conductors; their failure to follow my two cardinal rules for baby conductors. (No, the first rule is not that we don’t talk about baby conductors; this isn’t Hollywood.)

Rule #1: Don’t talk

No one ever became an orchestra musician because they enjoyed hearing conductors talk. And no conductor ever led an orchestra in a great performance because of his/her ability to communicate verbally. That’s not to say that some verbalizations aren’t useful; phrases like “too loud,” or “not together,” or “start at Letter ‘A'” come to mind, although the young conductor is advised to phrase them a little more tactfully than that. But not much more tactfully; conciseness is far more valuable than almost anything else when a conductor speaks.

I think orchestra musicians especially don’t want to hear young conductors speak. It’s hard enough to be so obviously subordinate to one’s Music Director, but at least that person generally has some basis in experience or achievement for authority over the musicians in the orchestra. Most young conductors have no such basis; they have neither the musical maturity, the knowledge of the predictable issues that occur with standard repertoire, or the ability to identify technical problems that the musicians do who play for them do.

That’s not to say that most orchestra musicians aren’t willing to do their best to accommodate whatever requests come from a baby conductor; it’s our job to do so, after all. But we don’t need to hear the musical rationales for such requests; in fact, it’s positively annoying. If the conductor is asking the orchestra to do something I like, I already know and approve of the reasoning. If the request is something I find musically appalling, nothing the conductor says in explanation will do anything other than piss me off. It’s bad enough having to do do something I think is musically stupid; having to listen respectfully to a long-winded rationale of such stupidity is worse than a waste of time. Let us play. It’s more fun than listening to you talk, and generally more productive as well.

We once had an assistant conductor who was prone to talk rather a lot; generally by rephrasing what he said several different ways. It was all very polite, and even coherent. But, at the end of one of these minute-long explanations, I would turn to my standpartner and say “too loud,” or “winds were not together,” or whatever it was the conductor was circling at considerable length. We probably spent between 10 and 15 minutes every rehearsal listening to what could – and should – have been said in about 2 minutes total.

If I were King, I would limit young conductors to a diet of ten words for every minute of rehearsal, not including such things as “louder,” “softer,” “not together,” and “start at bar 24.” Better yet would be if young conductors pretended they didn’t speak the native language of the orchestra, except for those kinds of words. Conduct with your body – not your mouth.

Rule #2: No clever ideas

Any professional orchestra a young conductor is lucky enough to find himself/herself in front of will have heard all possible permutations of phrasings, tempi, and weird dynamic concepts. None of them will strike us as good ideas; certainly none of them will strike all of us as good ideas. Young conductors don’t know enough to have good interpretive ideas. And if a young conductor hasn’t fully realized what the composer wrote by getting the orchestra to play accurately what the composer put on paper, there is no basis for going to the second step of interpretation.

One of our audition excerpts today was the opening of the Beethoven 5th symphony. Not one of our candidates today (and, to be fair, very few of the non-baby conductors we’ve seen over the years) managed to get the winds to come in on time in bar 18. Not one managed to differentiate between the forte in bar 19 and the fortissimo in bar 22.

It’s a lot easier to go along with a conductor’s interpretation when 1) the composer’s interpretation has been realized, and 2) the orchestra is playing well. Get those things right and then you can talk to me about your brilliant and never-before-conceived phrasing for the violas’ big tune.

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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