Through the years, it has been my privilege to observe many outstanding professional conductors. Early in my career, I had the opportunity to visit the rehearsals of Carlo Maria Giulini, Zubin Mehta, Andre Previn, and Seiji Ozawa.
Because of my need to improve as a conductor, I went as often as possible, always looking for something specific; but in the beginning, it was disappointing because they never displayed techniques I could use the next day in my rehearsals.
However, as I continued to watch these and other great conductors work with various ensembles, it became clear that they all have three things in common: (1) a remarkable level of personal musicianship, (2) an extraordinarily strong inner aural image of the music in all of its details, and (3) a passionate determination to get what they want
Internalization of the music comes from score study; yet so few people understand how important it is for a conductor to study the score, to be prepared, to ingest the music and make it a part of one’s inner self. Too often, some look at it only in an objective manner.
A score is not just a map we can watch as the music goes by; it is our only direct link with the composer, the creator of all these sounds. Unfortunately, this communication from the composer uses language notation, which is limited. At best, the score is still just a clue to the thought process; so, in a sense, score study is almost like playing “Detective.”
We are trying to get into the conceptual areas of the composer, so we know not just how they think, but can begin to understand them and grasp the feeling of their music. The two are related. For example, we don’t want to make a crescendo just to follow the directions written on the music; we want to make a crescendo because we know the composer wants the music to grow in volume, for a particular reason. Otherwise, a crescendo is superficial. Not all crescendos are paced equally – one lasting four measures may use 30% in the first three measures with 70% saved for the last measure – but the composer has left only that single word “crescendo” as our clue. Or maybe the composer has not actually written the word “crescendo” at all, but we know that the music begins to build at certain places. Remember what Mozart and Mahler both said: that the most important things in the music are not found in the notes, but in what’s behind the notes.
The “feel” of music is so much more important than the “thinking” of it. It’s the feeling – the intuitive understanding, the internal sense of the sounds – that we’re trying to discover, then transmit to the players and to the audience. Yes, we seek an objective knowledge of the music that is intellectual and analytical; but then we use that information to find out how the sounds feel. It’s this tactile sense that the really gifted conductors have. They seem to be able to “sculpt sounds with air.”
When we make music, we combine our interpretation with the composer’s intent. We should not take “fantastic” liberties, but we must feel perfectly content with whatever we do, even if the composer were to walk into the room. I remember doing the Texas All-State Band one year, when we programmed Latham’s Three Chorale Preludes. In “Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded” there are no written accelerandos or ritards; but occasionally I would take certain liberties – stretch this or that, hesitate just a little before the cadence, or add a little ritard and crescendo to give a suspension more power. After convention concerts, the people who come up to congratulate the conductor all have their name tags on; and when somebody said, “I especially like what you did with “O Sacred Head,” I was shocked (but pleased) when I looked down and saw the name, “William Latham!”
Simply following explicit directions (or the lack of them) on the score is like learning a few words at the age of two and then trying to use that limited vocabulary for the rest of your life. We must continue to ingest all kinds of music, study new scores, grow with the musical times, and help our interpretive skills to develop.