Question: What is the role of the conductor?
Botstein: In the most basic sense, conducting is the art of
organizing music through a kind of pantomime. Using your hands, your
face and your eyes in order to shape and control and deliver a musical
performance that requires a lot of people. When there are a lot of
people on stage, each of whom knows his or her part, are terrific
musicians, they have to have some sense of coordination because the
piece that they’re doing involves so many different moving parts, you
need one person to try to keep it all together. So there’s a basic
traffic cop part of being a conductor. The most obvious place where
conductors are needed is in an opera pit. So you have the conductor in
the opera pit, you’ve got musicians in a pit, that’s the orchestra.
you would maybe have an off-stage band. You’ve got a chorus on stage.
You’ve got a bunch of people in costumes shouting at each other, running
around, going crazy and you have to keep all of this machine, it’s a
very complex machine, keep it going where everybody comes in at the
right place, gets out at the right place. Everything happens in an
organized way. That’s the traffic cop part of conducting. That’s why so
many great conductors come out of the opera pit. Because that’s the
place where coordination of things is very important. The other area
where conducting is very important is in music that doesn’t in a way
seem very easily understood. So let’s say a complicated piece. In the
20th century would think of “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky, where
it’s complex rhythmically, there are a lot of things happening at the
same time but not in the same place. Let’s say the “Fourth Symphony of
Charles Ives,” which has many different rhythms like a geological layer,
one on top of the other. So, you know, how do you keep track of your
Well, you need someone there who, again, is organizing the
traffic cop part of it. But the traffic cop part of it is the most
basic aspect of conducting. And it’s needed just for efficiency’s sake.
In other words, you could, there have been histories, in the Soviet
Union, for example, there was a very famous orchestra that had no
conductor that did some of the Prokofiev premieres. It was a communist
idea, you know, it was a collective. There would be no boss, no owner,
no, no guy in front who was going to tell them what to do. So it was a
collective experience. First of all, everything took 16 times as long to
prepare because they couldn’t agree. They argued and debated and
disputed and so one point of view never won.
You know, it was
kind of a mish mosh. And Prokofiev describes these endless rehearsals of
trying to figure out who is right, who is keeping the right rhythm, who
is with the other person. And so he wished suddenly for a conductor to
help it out. Orpheus today is a very fine ensemble that works without a
conductor, but it needs much more rehearsal time, so there’s an
efficiency issue. And then finally the most sophisticated part of it
probably is an interpretive issue. So, you need someone who comes in
with a point of view who shapes an argument. It’s like a director in a
play. You could ask the same thing. You’ve got a bunch of these actors,
they come out on stage. There’s “Hamlet,” there’s “Romeo and Juliet,”
and they know their lines, they’re literate. What do you need a director
for? But we think they need a director, even though the director is
In this case, because it’s a different kind of art
form, the director is visible. Now, the most important part is that
conducting is about communication with a bunch of people about a work of
music. Now there’s a lot of nonsense theater in conducting. A lot of
dancing around, a lot of show and tell, a lot of Hollywood biz, which
has nothing to do with conducting. There’s a lot of marketing
personality stuff. There’s a lot of fakery in conducting. The reason
conductors are always help in suspicion is because if you are going to
the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and you’re doing a
Mozart Symphony, they probably don’t need a conductor to get through the
piece, so the conducting becoming decorative, supplemental. It becomes a
cult of personality. So in a certain limited arena, there is a lot of
bogus conducting. You know, someone plays the piano, plays the violin,
it sounds out of tune, they don’t play very well, it’s hard to fake.
pianist, you know, he can put the petal down, but you really can’t get
away with not being able to play. So conducting is a little more elusive
because it doesn’t appear to make any sound.
Is there any room for the conductor to insert his or her own artistry?
Botstein: I think there’s a big misunderstanding. Some people
think, well, the composer wrote the music. Well, that’s true. And
there’s a score. But depending when the score was written, the number of
indications of what to do are very few. So in the 18th and 19th
centuries, you know, first of all before conducting was a profession,
conducting didn’t exist until somewhere in the mid 19th century in an
independent way, the score tells you a minimum number of things.
Consider a map, right? You can buy several kinds of map. You can Google
several kinds of maps. One kind of map tells you just where everything
is, but very little in between. Another map gives a lot of details.
Another map tells you where the restaurants are.
There are all
kinds of maps. Some maps can tell you how crowded the roads are. But the
map won’t tell you actually how to drive. It may tell you where it’s
going, where to go. It doesn’t tell you what to do when it rains. It
might tell you when that windy road, you might have elevation, so it
might show you that it’s going to be a long time to get from here to
there, even though the two places look very close together. The score is
a map. It doesn’t tell you how to drive, how well to drive, how to take
the turns. It doesn’t tell you how to make the trip. It only tells you
where you’re going. So the score is a minimum number of instructions.
Toscanini, after the Second World War invented a marketing ploy. That
marketing ploy was I only do what the composer’s intention. Who knows
what the composer’s intention? The composer’s dead. First of all, his or
her intentions may not be the most important. He may have misunderstood
his own music. There are a lot of composers who had strong ideas about
their own music, which really were at odds. It’s like writing a book.
Is the best interpreter of a novel by Tolstoy Tolstoy himself? No. In
fact, it’s much more interesting to hear what other people say about
Tolstoy. Tolstoy wrote the book, but he doesn’t own the interpretation.
the fact is that this hype about doing only what the composer intended
is a nonsense because nobody knows what the composer intended. And the
composer can change his minds. For example, Beethoven wrote a bunch of
symphonies before 1817. In 1817 he fell in love with a gizmo called a
metronome. So he said, well, I’m going to put metronome markings on the
compositions I wrote ten years ago. Well, he changed his mind. Schumann
reedited music he wrote when he was younger and changed his mind about
it. So intention is not a stable thing. Maybe he thought this way about
it. Later he thought another way. So putting a piece of music on the
stage is always about intention of the interpreter. It’s never really
about an honest historical representation of what the composer intended.
That’s a marketing ploy.
Question: What are the keys
to good leadership in conducting?
Leon Botstein: The
first is you have to know what you want to say. Most important thing in
music, as in everything else, is having a point of view. Knowing the
text and having an argument. So you’re going to play “Hamlet,” you’re
going to turn him into a cranky Midwesterner? You’re going to turn him
into a kind of a new-age adolescent? You’re going to turn him into a
disappointed former evangelical choir boy? I mean, whatever are you
going to turn him into, you have to have a point of view about the
meaning of the text and the meaning of the role. The second thing is you
have to have the technical capacity without speaking, just with your
hands to realize that intention so it’s read by the musicians.
is an international language, which means a good conductor can go
anyplace in the world, get on a podium, not say a word, and give a down
beat and conduct a rehearsal or a performance and get what he or she
wants done, done. You have to have the technical capacity in your hands,
your eyes and your body to communicate how you want it to go. And the
third thing is you actually have to be a persuasive person. You have to
win the respect and the affection of the players in front of you. They
have to say this person isn’t wasting my time. Musicians are very highly
trained and intelligent people.
And they sit in orchestras
where their individuality often is suppressed. They really can play
their instruments, and here’s this person up there, often incompetent, a
narcissist, an arrogant person, telling them what to do, and their
attitude is, "Wait a minute, I can do that better." You know, it’s as
if, in a religion you had a bishop conducting a bunch of priests. Well,
the priests think I should be the bishop. Or you’re a rabbi giving the
speech and there are rabbis in the audience. All the rabbis think, well I
should be up there talking. So you’re always dealing with people who
are competent, sometimes maybe more competent than you in certain
respects, so why should they listen to you? You know? Why should we
listen to the president of the United States, even though we elected
him? You know, somebody says I’m smarter than the president of the
United States, why should I listen to him? I know more about foreign
policy than the President of the United States, why should I listen to
So his or her powers of persuasion are terribly important.
And that leadership function, to win the affection and respect—not only
the affection. Many conductors, because there’s a tension between
players and conductors, go overboard. Leonard Bernstein early in his
career wanted everybody to call him by his first name. Not call him
Maestro or Mr. Bernstein. Lenny. You know, he was friendly with
everybody because he wanted to break that barrier. You can go overboard
in that as well. Curry too much popularity, but you have to also demand
and gain respect.
Question: What is one of the more
challenging pieces you’ve ever conducted?
One, the most challenging things to conduct is the thing you’re working
on now because all the anxiety about getting up on stage and doing it
is located in that one piece, so the piece you are learning is always
the uppermost in your mind. The other two very important challenging
things in conducting are new music, so music that’s never been played.
Music that doesn’t have a reputation. Music that nobody's heard before.
So the question is, what do you make of it? You’re sort of the first
person to put it on stage. And as the first person to put it on the
stage, the question becomes how do you give this piece its best shot,
its best chance?
Its best chance when it is maybe the first
performance, or the first performance in a long time, a revival. And the
third probably most challenging one is a very well-known piece.
Recently I did, for example, with Dawn Upshaw here in New York, the
Fourth Symphony of Gustav Mahler with the Bard Conservatory Orchestra.
And it was a challenge not only because it was a young orchestra, very
gifted young musicians with a great soloist, who has done the piece many
times, but also because we are doing in New York a piece which has been
done over and over and over again. And the question is, the burden of
such a long tradition of interpretation is a very heavy one, so either
you give in to it or you try to break it.
And if you break it
you can make enemies. You can anger people because most people come to a
hall with well-known repertory already in their ear. They’ve listened
to the same record over and over and over and over again. They don’t
know that there’s actually a little book, a printed notated book that
has the music. So it’s really like “Hamlet.” So you look at “Hamlet.”
You read “Hamlet,” I read “Hamlet.” We can have a discussion for days
about what you think Hamlet is about, what I think “Hamlet” is about.
But if the only thing we had was a video of Jack Nicholson playing
Hamlet, you know, then somebody else shows up, you know, Leonardo
DiCaprio plays Hamlet, suddenly we’re comparing John Gielgud and
Leonardo DiCaprio. We’re not talking about Shakespeare anymore.
know, because in our minds eye we have a mental picture of John Gielgud
as Hamlet. So I’m offended by Leonardo DiCaprio? I don’t like it
because I have in my ear somebody else’s voice. So most people come to a
concert with their favorite recording or two recordings of very famous
works, so if you do it differently you can anger them. For the audience
member who realizes that there’s no standard interpretation, there’s no
right interpretations, there are different interpretations. None is
better or worse, and that you could respond differently to the same work
in different ways. You would want to hear it differently. I don’t want
to hear it the same way.
But in the classical music business,
because of recording, people get used to hearing it the same way. It
gets slower, then it gets faster. They’re used to a certain tempo. And
they’re used to it because they’ve listened to it, they’ve learned it by
repetition, not by learning the text, but by having in their ear in a
way imprinted one version of it, and that audience is very hard.
Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman