Magazine article The Spectator

Waving, Not Drowning

Magazine article The Spectator

Waving, Not Drowning

Article excerpt

Inside Conducting by Christopher Seaman University of Rochester Press, £19.99, pp. 268, ISBN 9781580464116 Conductors love telling stories, especially stories about other conductors, and every chapter of this otherwise determinedly pragmatic book begins with one. Perhaps the most telling concerns a 'famous conductor' who mistakenly gave a massive downbeat in a bar that was supposed to be silent. The orchestra, reading the score correctly, did not play. Voice from the back of the violas: 'He doesn't sound so good on his own, does he?'

The anecdote illuminates the driving question behind this book, the one we've all wanted to ask while fearing to sound ignorant: what do conductors actually do? Some are sceptical. The Polish pianist Andre Tchaikowsky told Christopher Seaman that he never looked at conductors 'because he couldn't understand what any of them were doing'. Others find it a hard question to answer. In 2012, the music journalist Tom Service interviewed six great conductors about 'how they do it'. It was fascinating, but you walked away from Music as Alchemy almost as mystified as when you walked in.

Now Christopher Seaman, who is renowned for his teaching work at the Guildhall School of Music, and has conducted at the highest level, provides a barrage of straight answers. Most are directed towards real wouldbe conductors, rather than bedroom-mirror amateurs, but there's plenty for the outsider looking in.

Getting started is one answer - and it's about more than just giving a big downbeat (in the right bar). 'Your whole personality (especially your face and eyes) has to give the sense of assurance and expectancy that inspires an orchestra to play.' Controlling tempo and dynamics is another answer. Baroque ensembles can get away with having no conductor, Seaman argues, but the 80-odd musicians of a modern orchestra could never agree on the shape of a Romantic rubato ('robbed time', a kind of lingering that's paid for later) without a conductor to describe it in the air for them.

The conductor's work is not often discussed in such plain detail. Conducting is 'like riding a horse not driving a car'. A tighter grip on the baton produces a harder tone. Keeping the arms moving upward very slowly can restrain an audience's desire to rush to clap after a quiet ending. In a revealing chapter (the chapters are very short) on why orchestras can seem to play late, rather than with the baton, Seaman asserts that the opening chord of Mozart's Magic Flute overture 'has more majesty and radiance if I allow an orchestra to place it slightly after the beat'. …

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