Conductors: When to Conduct and When to Let Them Play

This is an important discussion for conductors. When do you lead musicians and in a sense force or ‘compel’ them to play into your phrasing or your tempo, and when do you give them the floor and follow them instead’

These are subtleties that many audiences wouldn’t realize exist but they are very strong communications on the stage. The musicians always know when they have been given flexibility to make music of their own accord onstage, and they always appreciate it when it happens. (Nothing is spoken, but it becomes clear by how the conductor either becomes passive or overt in their motions).

But a conductor has to shape the music overall, and has to know when to let go. It can’t happen always because we often need to perform together with a unity of purpose and sound, but whenever it can happen – it’s the best for the music. Last night was a case in point. After the concert last night, principal trumpet of the Toronto Summer Music Festival orchestra, James Gardiner (member of TSO), came to me and said ‘Thanks for letting us play’. He was talking about Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue and he was talking specifically about the jazzy solo moments in the first trumpet part (and the trombone part as well). Many conductors would dictate the tempo and phrasing of these parts. Many others wouldn’t.

I fall into the latter category and I am glad that I do. I think it is important to know when to control the sound and drive the tempo and when to let go. The benefits are awesome when it is done right.

Last night we created, together, an extraordinary and fresh version of Gershwin. I pushed the orchestra to explode in some great moments of really driven tempos. And these contrasted beautifully with piano soloist John Novacek’s spontaneous and surprising (to us in the orchestra especially as he had not unveiled any of his plans in rehearsal!) jazzy and improvised interpretations of the Gershwin solo parts (exactly as it should be).

The orchestral moments (when things were firmly pushed or controlled by me as conductor) contrasted greatly with the stylistic and freely played trumpet solos of James, the clarinet solos of Yao Guang Zhai, the trombone solo of Charles Benaroya. I’m a firm believer in stirring up trouble in a good way, making something exciting and fresh. All music is made to be a new piece of art each and every time we perform.

It doesn’t take much to find whatever ways possible to create chamber music whenever it is possible in the music. Conductors need to inspire a great performance but to realize that they are only one part in making a performance great. The best results happened last night when everyone – soloists, conductor, orchestra – all conspired to make something special happen.


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