We played a family oriented program this afternoon. It involved a quick rehearsal followed by an hour long pops concert. The conductor for this event is a long standing regular with us. He has established himself as our main pops conductor, with good reason. His amiable, energetic and lighthearted demeanor appeals to our pops audiences.
To give you perspective, our pops concerts usually feature a big name artist who plays with the orchestra on the second half. The first half features just the orchestra. Most of the audience comes to hear the big name act, not necessarily the orchestra. So, despite our being "featured" on the first half, most of the audience is patiently waiting for the big act. This conductor bridges that gap well. He has high energy and is comfortable chatting and joking with them between pieces.
He also has talent as a musician. He knows good phrasing, good sound and pitch when he hears it. He corrects valid problems during rehearsals. But he has a disconcerting tension in his body when he conducts. There's an urgency about him, despite his affable exterior. His face is often contorted and impatient during performances, and his arms move in tight, insistent motions. All this contributes to a tense orchestra. Our demeanor reflects his.
The most frustrating expression of this tension and urgency are his tempos. He tends to take them too fast. Even after setting a tempo, he seems to want to "keep us on our toes" by constantly pushing the tempo forward. It's as if it's never fast enough. So we never settle into a rhythm, a beat. As a player, I feel like I'm being dragged on a short leash through a beautiful park, missing all the glorious scenery I am paid to notice and recreate. Perhaps he sees it as a way to keep the audience from being bored, but is that doing justice to the music or the audience?
Many musicians in my orchestra are as frustrated as I am. We don't presume to know the best tempo for any piece. There are many valid possibilities for tempos for any particular music. That's not the issue here. It's whether the music is playable, and also about allowing a tempo to settle.
So, preparing for this short family concert we rehearsed a well known piece. It was very familiar, in fact. Which means we've also played it under some top notch conductors over the years. We know what the tempos should be. After we rehearsed is for a half hour or so, with tempos the upper edge of speed, he implored us to perform the music well despite such little rehearsal. (remember we know this music)
Then, during the concert, he pushed the tempos even more. When I tried to stabilize one accelerando to keep it sensible, he just ignored me and pushed ahead to an unplayable speed. It's a shame he doesn't have enough respect for us to give us the benefit of the doubt. He always says how much he loves us, but I don't feel respect from the podium under him. I give my best, and he pushes it more.
I don't know any conductor who would ignore the collective experience of 55 well trained, very experienced musicians. Does he remember that we have notes to play while he's zipping away up there? Even if we get the notes at those tempos, they sound frantic with tension. I am happy to give my best, but when it's never fast enough, I tend to give up and ignore him. I don't think he would want that. The fact is, many big orchestras ignore their conductors to survive. The Columbus Symphony is unusual in that we really give our best and try to follow any conductor who leads us.
But we do so at a risk. The players are the ones blamed if the musical product is lacking, rarely the conductor. Who will be our advocate in this case if not we? No one. Again, I don't question this person's ability or validity as a musician. As I've said, he bridges a difficult gap with out pops audiences. But he insists on pushing us to play tempos beyond either tradition or reason. That affects our musical product.
Making music shouldn't be a tug of war. A conductor can give urgency to a tempo without ignoring the musicians and without looking frantic. A balance of responsibility between conductor and musicians is crucial. It's a group effort. Each knows what they're doing. True, each may prefer differing tempos for good reasons. The musicians want playable tempos so the music sounds clear, the conductor wants to create excitement. The two meet in the middle. That's the way music is made.