Copyright © Markand Thakar, 1998
Commentary for National Public Radio, Performance Today
First Aired, May 27, 1998

What Makes a Great Conductor?

A friend said to me recently, "Markand, I think you're really a great conductor." This piqued my interest, so I continued to listen. "So tell me," he went on, "What makes a great conductor? It's something I've been confused about. Okay," he said, "I look at this guy, or gal, and I figure first of all he's got to be one heck of a leader -- he has to get all these musicians to do what he wants. And he's communicating something. But what? And how? Some conductors are very pretty to watch, and others, well it sure seems that their motions have nothing remotely to do with the music. But the superb ones definitely have some kind of poetry, or magic, or inspiration or something. So what is it exactly, and how do you do it?"

"Let me understand," I said to him. "You're not sure what makes a great conductor. You're guessing that a great conductor is a real leader, has some sort of inspiring, magical poetic vision of the music and has the ability to communicate it." "Right," he said. "But," I continued, "it often doesn't seem to be with his body or gestures." "Right again." "So your question is what is a superb conductor doing, and how?" "You got it," he said.

Well I thought about this for a while, and then I figured instead of me answering this from the conductor's point of view, let me see what the people who get paid to watch us have to say. So I asked twelve of my colleagues in the New York Philharmonic just this question, "What makes a great conductor?"

I began with Carter Brey, principal cello:

(34:56 - 35:11)
["It has to be someone who through the force of his or her personality can impress upon a group of very disparate musicians, perhaps 105 of them a unified concept of how a piece has to sound."]

Then I spoke with Jon Deak, associate principal bass, who said:
(08:29 - 08:32)
["in a word, leadership"]

Added Phil Myers, principal French horn:
(46:44 - 47:03)
["it's got to be somebody that has the personal dynamic of being a leader of people, in much the same what that a sergeant has to be able to lead his platoon."]

Well it seems you're absolutely right about a great conductor being a leader. But everyone agreed it's more than just a leader.

Principal Timpanist Roland Kohloff told me,
(10:42 - 11:03)
["Well, I'd like to go back to what my teacher/mentor Saul Goodman said many years ago -- he was principal timpanist Markand for 46 years. And he said a conductor that knows his stuff. In other words, who really knows, not only knows but understands the music and in addition can communicate this to the orchestra."]

Donald Whyte, of the violin section, added,
(1:05:17 - 1:05:31)
["There are some people that are special, you know, like Leonard Bernstein, if they have that kind of genius for communication, both verbal and visual, that makes them in a special group, I think, that doesn't come along very often."]

So you're on the right track: there is some kind of communication." Yes," said concertmaster Glen Dicterow.
(30:09 - 30:26)
["I've tried to put this into words many times, but I really think it's the ability to communicate valid musical ideas, and to have a group of 103 musicians respond with a certain magic and cohesiveness at any given time."]

But how does this happen? Is it true that the gestures are not important, as it seems? What about the "choreography," this thing we call stick technique?
(30:57 - 31:36)
[Dicterow: "I don't think it's all that valuable. I used to think it was the most important thing in the world to be able to communicate the rhythmic ideas and to keep the orchestra together. But it's not necessarily a prerequisite for symphonic excellence. As a matter of fact we've had some guest conductors who come and conduct in a very, what's the word I want to use without being insulting -- ineffectual as far as the stick technique, but amazing effects take place otherwise."]

Jacques Margolies, who first joined the violin section in the forties, gave an example:
(23:53 - 24:08)
["Bruno Walter had no technique at all. I'll never forget when I first came to the orchestra when he went from three to six I got lost. I mean, because I just couldn't follow him. But that has nothing to do with it."]

Joseph Robinson, principal oboe, agreed.
(40:42 - 41:14)
["I think one of the most inspiring conductors I ever worked with was Pablo Casals at Marlboro, and he had no stick technique at all. I don't know if he had a stick. I remember one afternoon at Marlboro he came out and he couldn't see. It was just one of those things that day, so he put his glasses in his pocket and conducted Beethoven's Second Symphony from memory -- mostly from memory -- really it was one of the most inspired performances of my life, and I would say he just messed up all along."]

(41:42 - 42:17)
["I studied with Marcel Tabuteau, you know the great oboist in the Philadelphia Orchestra who talked all the time about the logical inevitability of a phrase, which suggests that musical gesture is somehow complete in itself and self-justifying and that always I think has to do with the rates of flow of energy--and there are people who relate to that and understand it, and there are some who don't so well, and I always think it's more important to have that kind of instinct about timing than it is to be perfectly clear in gesticulating or something."]

So if it isn't the gestures, what is it? What do you think, I asked Rebecca Young, associate principal viola.
(57:02 - 57:19)
["I like a conductor who comes in and doesn't just talk about loud and soft, slow and fast, can the winds be heard, you know, that kind of thing. For instance, our conductor, Maestro Masur, talks about poetry all the time."]

(59:15 - 59:43)
["I think it has to do with their soul. You know, some people are more mathematical about it, and technical about it, and good technically. You look at their hands and it's reliable and you can always be together. But it doesn't necessarily mean so much to you. It doesn't move you in the performance as much as someone who doesn't necessarily have the technique in their hands, but they have it in their soul, and it takes you to another level."]

Violist Peter Kenote added:
(00:56 - 01:07)
["a conductor that not only knows his score, but breathes the score, that lives it, that has something to say in the score."]

Great, sure, that nails it down. Can't anybody help me clarify this thing?

And Eugene Levinson, principal bass gave it a valiant try:
(13:49 - 14:22)
["I think that's the main thing what inspired me if the conductor brings -- the things that really touches you -- depends on which music you play -- some of those are very common music, and musicians according to their experience they've heard a lot of these things, and all of a sudden comes a conductor who really brings something in the same piece which was played maybe hundreds of time brings something that really inspired musicians and they are not afraid to play. you have to be able to convince orchestra with your concept of the music and definitely be able to express that musicianship and directorship, whatever it is, to the musicians. Through you hands. That's not easy."]

Hmm. Well how about Stanley Drucker, principal clarinet in the orchestra now for 50 years, a half century. Surely he'll be able to explain it.
(06:20 - 06:43)
["You know, it's a chemical or a magic formula that one does -- the words of Stokowski -- 'Do Better.' And it's just a mystery. There's no explaining it."]

Finally I went back to Jack Margolies, the senior member of the orchestra.
(20:47 - 22:15)
["The great conductors I don't know how to put it because you cannot really describe it -- I don't know if you use the word chemistry but you're playing and you're watching this man or woman if it should be that and suddenly you're drawn to his intensity, to his workmanship, to the entire--to his face to his features and you begin to play better than you ever thought you could. Certain feelings come that you're maybe not aware of but it's there. It's like a moth to a flame. It's just absolutely attracted. And you yourself reach heights in contact with this man and you have a glorious performance. So as I said before you cannot really put it into words. It happens. And it only happens with that type of conductor. And I must say there are very few of those that can do it. Even though you're thoroughly exhausted, at the end of the performance you say, "how lucky I am to have been part of this concert."]

So, there you have it. I hope that clears things up for you.

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