The Tao Of The Conductor

James McConnachie, in a review of Christopher Seaman’s Inside Conducting, gets to the heart of the question: What do conductors actually do?

Getting started is one answer — and it’s about more than just giving a big downbeat (in the right bar). ‘Your whole personality (especially your face and eyes) has to give the sense of assurance and expectancy that inspires an orchestra to play.’ Controlling tempo and dynamics is another answer. Baroque ensembles can get away with having no conductor, Seaman argues, but the 80-odd musicians of a modern orchestra could never agree on the shape of a Romantic rubato (‘robbed time’, a kind of lingering that’s paid for later) without a conductor to describe it in the air for them.

The conductor’s work is not often discussed in such plain detail. Conducting is ‘like riding a horse not driving a car’. A tighter grip on the baton produces a harder tone. Keeping the arms moving upward very slowly can restrain an audience’s desire to rush to clap after a quiet ending. In a revealing chapter (the chapters are very short) on why orchestras can seem to play late, rather than with the baton, Seaman asserts that the opening chord of Mozart’s Magic Flute overture ‘has more majesty and radiance if I allow an orchestra to place it slightly after the beat’.