SCO Violinist Rosenna East writes about playing without a conductor.
Conducting can be a dangerous business. When French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully decided to have a go beating time for his orchestra, he got so carried away in concert that he stabbed himself through the foot with his over-large baton, developed gangrene from the wound, and died.
Safer, you might think, to leave it to the players to get on with it by themselves. On Tuesday (St Cuthbert’s Church, Edinburgh, 6pm), the Scottish Chamber Orchestra will demonstrate that it’s more than possible to manage without the Maestro, and not just as a cost-cutting measure. No, when Tuesday’s programme of Haydn and Mozart was written, conductors hadn’t been invented.
Mozart’s violin concerto (K211) would have been directed by the soloist, probably the great man himself, and in other works the leading role, previously taken by a composer at the harpsichord, was moving into the hands of the first violinist. Either way, no conductor.
If that was good enough for Mozart, it’s good enough for me. I love playing without a conductor. My student experience, directed by the unforgettable violinist Gordan Nikolitch, made me certain that the chamber orchestra, rather than symphony orchestra, was where I wanted to be. Playing with an instrumental director, rather than a conductor, is no free-for-all. You’re still watching one person for key signals; they’ve just got an instrument in their hands, not a baton.
The first difference, to be boldly political, is that a director is a player. He or she is not – as conductors can be – revered as a member of a separate species: demi-gods hovering only halfway to earth on the Mount Olympus of the podium, magic wand in hand.
“Generalship on the battlefield of music” is how the Oxford Companion to Music describes conducting. Frankly, that just isn’t very appealing. What musicians love about being directed rather than conducted is the greater sense of individual responsibility. Orchestras seem to me just that little bit more on the edge of their seats with a director. It’s up to us – if we don’t make it happen, no-one else will. No-one stands between us and our audience.
Playing without a conductor is more challenging. You have to listen extra carefully, know your part and how it relates to the others more thoroughly. No-one will indicate in performance that you must alter the balance of your part to another – you must judge for yourself. In rehearsals there will probably be more bilateral discussion with a director than with a dictator, sorry, I meant conductor.
And funnily enough, with that increased responsibility comes a greater sense of freedom. When everyone is in a heightened state of alertness, in the flow of the best live performance, anything’s possible. You are connected with each other, interacting directly. Collectively you’re in a zone where magical things can be communicated wordlessly from player to player. Not all my colleagues agree with me. Some think that playing without a conductor is a case of just about managing without them, perhaps barely getting away with it. Sometimes even directors have their doubts. I have come off stage to hear a celebrated pianist, having just directed the concert, mutter that perhaps, after all, “conducting is a real job”.
After the last two weeks of joyful concerts under the baton of Robin Ticciati, I cannot entirely disagree. When we in the SCO are lucky enough to be inspired by a conductor, whose love for the music and freedom within it matches our own highest aspirations as musicians, beautiful things happen.
But – whisper it quietly because I’d hate to upset the Generals – sometimes it’s just great to do it without them.
This article first appeared in The Herald on 29 January, 2011.