The Art of Conducting Music

Putting a piece of music on the stage is always about intention of the interpreter. It’s never really an honest historical representation of what the composer intended.
  • Transcript


Question: What is the role of the conductor? 

Leon 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. 

Then 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 part? 

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 invisible. 

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. 

A 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. 

Question: Is there any room for the conductor to insert his or her own artistry? 

Leon 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. 

Now, 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. 

So 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. 

Conducting 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 him?

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? 

Leon Botstein: 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. 

You 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