What Makes a Great Conductor?

Question: What qualities separate a great conductor from a mediocre conductor?

Alan Gilbert: It's\r\n kind of... it's like the duck:  you know it when you see it.  It's hard\r\n to describe a duck, but when you see a duck you know it's a duck \r\nbecause that's what a duck is.  A great conductor is someone who can \r\nwork with musicians and stand in front of them and bring out the best in\r\n them and create a musical experience that communicates to the \r\naudience.  And it's hard to say what it is because there are conductors \r\nwho are very clear and show the tempo in a very precise way and help the\r\n musicians play absolutely together, but something is missing.  The soul\r\n is not there; the spirit is not there.

And then there will be \r\nmusicians or conductors who have no obvious technique and seem scrappy \r\nand all over the place, but something happens.  So what it means to \r\nconduct, actually, is sort of the basic question.  The idea of showing \r\nthe tempo to help musicians play together is basic, but it's so much \r\nmore than that.  It's about inspiring them and making the musicians feel\r\n that there's something in the music that they want to express.  And \r\nit’s, I would say it's very hard to put your finger on what exactly \r\nconducting is.  A conductor is the person who stands in front of the \r\ngroup and moves his or her arms.  But how to get the musicians to be \r\nable to play their best, but also even more importantly to want to play \r\ntheir best and communicate something to the audience. That's all part of\r\n the equation.

How critical are you when you attend a performance where someone else is conducting?

Alan Gilbert:  Well, it's hard to shut off the critical \r\nfaculty because what we try to do as musicians is create the best \r\npossible musical line, and it involves many, many choices that hopefully\r\n don't sound like choices at the end of the day.  But when I listen to a\r\n piece that I know very well, it's impossible for me to avoid comparing \r\nit to how I feel about the piece.  Sometimes, in the most fortunate \r\ncircumstances, listening to a concert I am able to forget about what I \r\nthink about how I would do the piece and just join the party, as it \r\nwere, and just allow the music to unfold.  That generally means that I \r\nthink "Wow."  At the end of the concert I can think, "That was totally \r\nconvincing.  That was a beautiful performance, and that really made \r\nsense.  And the depth of feeling, the depth of meaning and the music \r\nreally came to life."

There’s so many layers on which to \r\nappreciate a performance.  There's the way the interpretation goes, as \r\nwe were talking about.  But there's also how it's played, how much \r\nbelief the performers have, how much technical skill they are able to \r\nbring to it, if there are mistakes, if there are things that don't go \r\nperfectly together, I mean, things like that can happen.  When I listen \r\nto the New York Philharmonic, whether I'm conducting or just listening \r\nin the audience, I can marvel at the amazing technical level and the \r\nability of the players to operate their instruments.  That's a very \r\nexciting level in and of itself.  There are certain pieces that are fun \r\nfor that reason, almost primarily.  You can just admire the way it's \r\nplayed.

I have to say it's sometimes hard for me to hear concerts\r\n because a lot of the music I hear I tend to have done myself, or know, \r\nand I try to leave my preconceptions and my prejudices at the door, but \r\nit's not always possible.

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

The idea of showing the tempo to help musicians play together is basic—but conducting so much more than that. It's about inspiring them and making the musicians feel that there's something in the music that they want to express.

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