THE LOQUACIOUS CONDUCTOR ............ Arthur Butterworth
Orchestral players the world over, whether professional or amateur, have a way of sizing up conductors. Like any other commanding figure: a president, prime minister, trade union leader, headmaster, foreman, sergeant-major, hospital matron, sales manager or whatever, the conductor is looked upon as "the boss". A figure to criticise, feel contempt for, blame, be envious of, derisive of, but in spite of a sometimes grudging respect for, one to be beware of for one reason or another. Audiences are generally only aware of a conductor's good points: the inspiration he brings to musical performance; they rarely see him at work in rehearsal: the oft-times cajoling, brow-beating, all-too self-important, opinionated autocrat, fond of his own voice. By the time the public performance comes around he is silent and apparently as mute as a swan. There used to be a one-time fairly well-known opera "La Muette de Portici" - The dumb-girl of Portici - (otherwise known as 'Masaniello') by Auber, but I don't think by any stretch of the imagination she could have been a conductor, since the very idea of a mute conductor seems to be a contradiction in terms.
So what does it matter to the listener, or to the ultimate concert performance, it the conductor does talk too much under the prosaic conditions of rehearsal. Is that not part of the job? - to explain, give orders, generally co-ordinate a body of executant musicians to be of one mind ? That would be fine if only this were the case. However, there appears to be a growing practice of conductors not being content to direct the performance by silent gesture, but insisting on explaining to their listeners what the performance is all about. Of course, some lighter kinds of musical entertainment have traditionally had the services of a compare or master of ceremonies, Old-tyme music hall could hardly have existed without an extrovert, witty and larger-than-life figure to introduce the artists and what they were to perform. This was all part of the fun. But what of 'serious' music? Most concerts of this kind: chamber music, Lieder recitals, organ recitals, symphony concerts and performances of such nature are either of sufficient familiarity as to programme content and intention as to require no explanation, or what is more likely, they are well provided for by fulsome and carefully-prepared programme notes, especially of music that is unfamiliar.
However, there now appears to be trend in many quarters for the conductor so assume the extra role (probably an ego-satisfying one) of commentator in addition to that of actually directing the performance. For the most part this becomes tedious to an audience of cultured and sophisticated listeners, well able to read the programme notes for themselves.
In some situations it might justifiably be claimed that the audience is not likely to be sophisticated or knowledgeable, so that some kind of spoken introduction is a good thing: putting them at their ease - especially if they have not been to a concert before.
Brass band concerts of the more familiar, lighter kind still cling to the old - often rather vulgar - style of music hall, where the conductor will tell funny stories, quite irrelevant to the music to be performed, or regale the audience with 'behind the scenes' secrets of how the players travel to rehearsals, the sacrifices they make in doing so, twee stories of the band's personalities, their foibles, and generally milking the audience for sympathy and applause for the players even before they have played a note: This can be nauseatingly maudlin in approach, old-fashioned and totally inappropriate to the business in hand: that of performing music. The art of performing music is - or should be - a noble and lofty one. To demean it by fatuous remarks that merely bring forth polite but embarrassed laughter is a dis-service to the object of performance, the prime purpose of which is to bring about a corporate experience of some emotional significance - like a religious service. This easy-going, casual approach would not be at all out of place where the substance of the music itself is light and purely for entertainment, but the same approach is often made at concerts on a higher Intellectual plane; it leaves the sensitive listener embarrassed and uncomfortable because the emotional context is incongruous.
On the other hand pop concerts are probably better attuned to the nature of the audience, so that the manner of presentation is not at all out of keeping with the mood of the listeners. In other situations the objection comes about on account of the inappropriate mixing and confusion of mood of the occasion.
Some orchestral conductors, even distinguished professionals, have lately been tempted to adopt this a11-too-familiar approach: talking down to their audiences. They seem not to realise that this in some measure deflates the mystique of great musical performance, sometimes to the extent of trivialising it. The great conductors of the past did indeed seem to their audiences to be lofty and remote, but this very remoteness inculcated an aura of awesome wonder and sense of taking part in a rite out of the ordinary humdrum day to day experience.
Not many conductors - especially in the brass band movement - have a good diction when it comes to the art of public speaking. Often there is almost an inverted snobbery in using a local, down-at-heel vernacular, as if by employing this dumbed-down approach, being seen to be casual, easy-going, they seek to ingratiate themselves with the lowest assumed level of mental capacity of their audience. Public speaking, even when used merely to introduce an item of music to be performed, needs to be as clear, well-modulated and beautiful to the listener's ear as that of a great and consummate actor. All who would aspire to speak in public should have some - however brief - lessons in elocution. So that, for instance, when quoting a poetic description of the music they do not read it in the flat kind of voice they would use when reading out a list of spare parts on a trader's invoice. They need to have their speech 'produced' much in the same way that an actor on stage has his or her lines directed in matters of emphasis or intonation by the producer of a play. Local dialect and usage can be mis-heard by all except those locals who speak it.
Allied to a good speaking voice (if conductors feel they simple must communicate with their audiences in this way) is the necessity of good deportment. In this respect probably most conductors of experience and stature, do express through body-language, their sense of authority and natural leadership, but some less experienced in this art tend to give themselves away by unseemly haste in their approach to the rostrum; often hurrying on like a comedian or circus clown, tails flapping in their wake, head wagging from side to side, an inane grin to the adulating audience, giving cause for some derisive, if unspoken response on the part of the members of the audience. Some physical gestures, just as much as a grating voice, can be a turn off for a sensitive listener.
Return to index