Recently, the long-time conductor of one of the orchestras I play with retired, so this season the orchestra's board is having a variety of different candidates conduct the orchestra as part of their search for a new conductor. After each concert, orchestra members rate how well they think the candidate did. It's a curious position for an orchestra musician to be in, rating conductors, since for the most part, it's conductors who rate us. Yet, completing these surveys on conducting candidates has made me think about what makes a good conductor, and what a huge difference a conductor can make in an orchestra's sound and musical interpretation. So what ultimately makes a good conductor?
While every musician no doubt has his or her own preferences, I definitely prefer conductors with high standards and a clear idea of musical style and expression. I know it can be tempting to pick a conductor who's willing to "go easy" on the orchestra, with relaxed tempos and undemanding repertoire, but that's not going to build a great ensemble. Besides, that gets dull quickly. But high standards become an exercise in frustration without a strong command of musical style and a sensitive, thoughtful understanding of musical expression. After all, high standards mean little if they don't serve the music. Sometimes musicians and conductors alike get caught up in the pursuit of technical excellence. Technical expertise is only a tool that we use to better express music; it's not an end in itself. A thoughtful conductor must study the music--its history, its composer, and its score--and find within these things the power and beauty that make up this particular piece, then communicates his or her discoveries to the orchestra.
This brings us to another essential quality to a good conductor--they must be excellent at communicating with both the musicians of the orchestra and the audience. A conductor who can't get his or her ideas across to the people who will actually play the music is doomed to frustration, and one who can't build good rapport with an audience is doomed to empty halls. Communication is a tricky subject--some conductors speak fluently to audiences and fill rehearsals with charming anecdotes, while others command rapt attention with their baton alone. I think respect can be a crucial part of good communication. While most conductors I've worked with behave in a professional manner and treat their musicians with appropriate respect, and few bad apples have been known to disregard the musicians they work with. In addition to creating an unpleasant atmosphere for everyone, a lack of professional courtesy creates huge barriers to musical expression. No one can play their best, or express themselves fully, without feeling safe enough to take risks and play with passion and energy. The best musical expression requires mutual cooperation, and that takes mutual respect.