Are conductors necessary?

Haydn’s last visit in 1794-95 [to Great Britain] had marked both the climax of London’s public concert life and the beginning of its decline. The founding of the Philharmonic Society in 1813 by a group of professional musicians was a rare flash of light in an otherwise sombre scene. Although it helped to make London the kind of city that musicians such as Weber, Spohr and Mendelssohn wanted to visit, the concerts were handicapped by the lack of rehearsal time and the absence of a conductor…

(The Triumph of Music, Tim Blanning, p. 156)

The idea that concerts could be successful without a conductor seems unlikely in the early 19th century, yet performances before this often relied upon not one non-playing musician who directed from the front of the ensemble but leadership from within by players. It seems accepted that the conductor is an indispensable component of the large ensemble; their role not only one of ensuring the sometimes vast size of ensemble remain together (but it is questionable whether they can actually do this perhaps) but perhaps one of ensuring the bigger picture – the interpretation – is communicated with clarity to the players and conveyed to the audience. Well, this is what I thought they did.

Attending an ‘Insight Club’ organised by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment this morning – lead by a musicologist/conductor and of the orchestra’s co-leaders Margaret Faultless – sparked questions about the role of the conductor. Focussing on repertoire being performed in concerts next week, they explored in depth the processes involved in performing without a conductor. I was impressed by how well the speakers engaged with a diverse group of people, ranging from professional musicians to keen music enthusiasts yet they never ‘dumbed’ down the content to make it relevant for a particular group. Throughout the session rather sophisticated issues of interpretation and the subtleties in the delivery of the opening bars of Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 showed that there is a strong case that certain repertory can succeed without the need for a leader from the front, in fact it was suggested that a conductor could cause more harm than good in certain situations. However there was balance in the discussion, and this was not an attempt to sell the concept of conductor-less orchestras, but to suggest that authenticity for certain repertoire (particularly 17th century and 18th century) predates the concept of a conductor, and as such was never written with a conductor in mind.

What makes conductor-less performances the even more exciting for me, is that all players take ownership of the interpretation and the delivery; different passages require different players to take the lead, and even if there is no conductor one player or a small group still are required to direct the bigger picture, or what the speakers referred to as the ‘landscape’ of the work. Exploring the orchestra practically during the session, by spacing the audience out like a classical orchestra, gave us all an insight into the concept that as a player we can never get this landscape as well as a conductor – we can never hear the whole picture, or indeed process the whole work while playing one’s own part and connecting that with certain other players around us. Without a conductor there still needs to be leaders/directors – there can never be a democracy in the performance of larger ensemble works due to logistics but this does not necessarily predicate a conductor.

The session left me questioning who creates the performance – conductors or performers? Conductors get so much credit for performances yet as Faultless said “they make no sound”. I left with a renewed sense of admiration for the players and a sense that there is indeed nothing like a ‘rank and file’ player in some orchestras…

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