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Do we really need conductors?

Tuesday, 14th July 2015 | 4 comments

When we play music alone, we are of course, alone – in the sense that we are setting our own tempo and making our own interpretation of the music. When we play with a small group, for example a string quartet or even playing solo with an accompanist, one musician typically takes a lead when it comes to the count-in, at least, but all the performers share in the musical interpretation. At some stage, however, as ensembles increase in size, a conductor appears, and it's perfectly normal to see symphony orchestras led by a conductor.

Is the conductor just there out of practical necessity – to start each section of music off at the same tempo, and to keep the numerous performers from diverging at their own speed? Or is the conductor's job to impose a single musical vision over the interpretations of the performers? Does the presence of a conductor – and often, the conductor is the "star" of the orchestra, and the most highly paid in professional ensembles – actually preclude any musical interpretation from the performers?

Perhaps most intriguingly: is there any fundamental reason why an orchestra must have a conductor at all?

The answer probably isn't anything to do with the complexity of the music or the number of tempo changes. Watch this video, in which the brilliant violinist Daniel Rowland performs Spring from Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (not to be confused with the famous Four Seasons by Vivaldi!) Clearly Daniel, as soloist, is leading the interpretation of the music, but you can also see the first violinist (with black hair and a black dress, to Daniel's right / our left) dealing with more practical matters, ensuring the ensemble come in together:

In history, it only became normal in the 19th century – as orchestras began to get much larger – to have the kind of non-playing conductor we commonly see today. Since then, various orchestras in history have reacted against convention and tried to play without a conductor, for different reasons. In Soviet Russia, for example, the orchestra Persimfans (formed in 1922) performed without a conductor in support of a Communist ideology. More recently, there is the New York-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the Italian orchestra Spira Mirabilis have become well-known for their brilliant and daring performances without conductor. They have even developed a spiral seating arrangement to enable the performers to have better eye contact with each other – they no longer all need to sit facing the conductor, of course!

During the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival, Spira Mirabilis flash-mobbed a marketplace in Ipswich: watch the video, and look at how the players communicate to perform together. The first violin leads some of the time (having the most elaborate part, this is quite natural), but at other times the players seem to have developed a collective instinct, almost seeming to read each other's minds.



Tuesday, 14th July 2015

Not sure I could keep in time without a conductor - I find it difficult enough even with one!


Wednesday, 15th July 2015

I am going to try this during my band practice this weekend. I'll let you know how it goes!
Has anyone else tried it?


Saturday, 18th July 2015

How did it go, oscar?


Sunday, 19th July 2015

Hi WTLCharlotte,
Well... it went ok actually! It takes quite a bit more concentration because you have to listen closely to all of the other instruments to keep in time. I'm used to just concentrating on my own part especially when playing a particularly tricky part but this makes you much more aware of the piece as a whole. I think we'll do it again as it was quite fun and revealed how little we were listening to each other!
Has anyone else tried it yet?

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