What Does a Conductor Do? A critic decides to find out- by stepping up to the podium himself
I’m standing on a podium, with an enameled wand cocked between my fingers and sweat dampening the small of my back. Ranks of young musicians eye me skeptically. They know I don’t belong here, but they’re waiting for me to pretend I do. I raise my arm in the oppressive silence and let it drop. Miraculously, Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni explodes in front of me, ragged but recognizable, violently thrilling. This feels like an anxiety dream, but it’s actually an attempt to answer a question that the great conductor Riccardo Muti asked on receiving an award last year: “What is it, really, I do?”
I have been wondering what, exactly, a conductor does since around 1980, when I led a JVC boom box in a phenomenal performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in my bedroom. I was bewitched by the music—the poignant plod of the second movement, the crazed gallop of the fourth—and fascinated by the sorcery. In college, I took a conducting course, presided over a few performances of my own compositions, and led the pit orchestra for a modern-dance program. Those crumbs of experience left me in awe of the constellation of skills and talents required of a conductor—and also made me somewhat skeptical that waving a stick creates a coherent interpretation.
Ever since big ensembles became the basis of orchestral music, about 200 years ago, doubt has dogged the guy on the podium. Audiences wonder whether he (or, increasingly, she) has any effect; players are sure they could do better; and even conductors occasionally feel superfluous. “I’m in a bastard profession, a dishonest profession,” agonized Dimitri Mitropoulos, who led the New York Philharmonic in the fifties. “The others make all the music, and I get the salary and the credit.” Call it the Maestro Paradox: The person responsible for the totality of sound produces none.