Nothing unusual about today's column. I had a chance to talk to a conductor, and leapt at it, asking some questions I, and hopefully others, have wondered about.
Only one member of the orchestra is mimicked with any regularity. The average guy doesn’t tape empty soda cans together and pretend to play the bassoon, or sit on a chair and saw away at an imaginary cello. Nobody plays the air flute.
But who has not picked up a pencil and pretended to conduct? You hear some rousing Beethoven symphony, you almost have to. At least I hope you do and it isn’t just me.
Either way, I’ve always wondered: what, exactly is the conductor doing? I’ve always meant to ask Sir Andrew Davis, conductor of the Lyric, “What are you doing with the stick?” But if divas are stars, conductors are superstars, and the chance to ask him anything has never arisen (well, once, I saw him smoking a cigarette outside the Civic Opera House, but it struck me that a considerate person would leave him be, so I did).
But when Chicago conductor Anthony Barrese offered to stop by my office and talk about what he does, I jumped at the chance. My first question was: Explain this waving-the-baton business. Musicians seem fairly intent on their music — they aren’t necessarily even watching you. What’s going on?
“By the time you get to a performance, the great amount of work is done,” he said. “Any conductor who is jumping around, flailing about and wildly gesticulating during a concert, that’s for show. The orchestra is not really paying attention. The real work is done in rehearsal, which you don’t see. By the time you get to a performance, you’re still guiding, you’re still shaping the architecture, musically. But it’s sort of in the hands of God at that point.”
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