What Makes a Great Conductor?

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.
  • Transcript


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

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

And then there will be musicians or conductors who have no obvious technique and seem scrappy and all over the place, but something happens.  So what it means to conduct, actually, is sort of the basic question.  The idea of showing the tempo to help musicians play together is basic, but it's 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.  And it’s, I would say it's very hard to put your finger on what exactly conducting is.  A conductor is the person who stands in front of the group and moves his or her arms.  But how to get the musicians to be able to play their best, but also even more importantly to want to play their best and communicate something to the audience. That's all part of 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 faculty because what we try to do as musicians is create the best possible musical line, and it involves many, many choices that hopefully don't sound like choices at the end of the day.  But when I listen to a piece that I know very well, it's impossible for me to avoid comparing it to how I feel about the piece.  Sometimes, in the most fortunate circumstances, listening to a concert I am able to forget about what I think about how I would do the piece and just join the party, as it were, and just allow the music to unfold.  That generally means that I think "Wow."  At the end of the concert I can think, "That was totally convincing.  That was a beautiful performance, and that really made sense.  And the depth of feeling, the depth of meaning and the music really came to life."

There’s so many layers on which to appreciate a performance.  There's the way the interpretation goes, as we were talking about.  But there's also how it's played, how much belief the performers have, how much technical skill they are able to bring to it, if there are mistakes, if there are things that don't go perfectly together, I mean, things like that can happen.  When I listen to the New York Philharmonic, whether I'm conducting or just listening in the audience, I can marvel at the amazing technical level and the ability of the players to operate their instruments.  That's a very exciting level in and of itself.  There are certain pieces that are fun for that reason, almost primarily.  You can just admire the way it's played.

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

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman