How waving a stick promotes orchestral harmony

Conductors settle the score after violinist Kennedy's dig at strutters on the podium
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The Independent Culture

The English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was no great fan of conductors. "Why do we have to have all these third-rate foreign conductors around," he asked, "when we have so many second-rate ones of our own?" Almost 50 years after his death, similar acid remarks are being bandied around by a musician who is less well-known for his wit. Nigel Kennedy, the virtuoso violinist with the well-oiled quiff, has been sticking the bow into modern baton-wielders.

"They're straight off for the dollar," said the Mockney fiddler in an interview last week. "Round the corner to get a better job. All they're interested in is strutting about, wielding a bit of power.... Why would you want to stand there waving a stick when you could be playing an instrument?" In fact, he claimed, most orchestras would do fine without them. Or, as Sir Thomas put it: "There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn't give a damn what goes on in between."

At the Abbey Road Studios, just around the corner from where a blue plaque marks Beecham's former home, Andrew Brown is surprisingly sympathetic. As the music director of the London Metropolitan Orchestra, he might be expected to castigate Kennedy. They have worked together in the past. "I sort of got on with him," he concedes. "But you can't be so dismissive about something like that!"

In Studio One, Abbey Road, the LMO records the scores to some of the biggest movies in the world. Mike Newell's Love in the Time of Cholera and the American blockbuster 10,000 BC, released within days of each other this month, were put together here. And that wasn't achieved, says Brown, by strutting around, wielding his power and waving a stick. Recording 90 minutes of music takes about five days, with 100 or so musicians and a conductor often sight-reading their scores. "And then it's all usually buried under some sound effect!" he laughs.

"There are loads of bad conductors around," admits Brown. "I could teach you the rudiments of conducting – beating time – in three minutes. But you'd need to sit inside an orchestra for 20 years, and build up a huge musical awareness.... You need to convince that orchestra that you know more about that score than all of them put together. And, critically, you need to have the right relationship with them. It's all about mutual respect."

Brown thinks he understands why musicians such as Kennedy might resent conductors. "They're probably being paid more than the whole orchestra put together – which probably irks someone like Kennedy a lot." And yet, they can get away with doing less work. With a bad conductor, or none at all, a well-rehearsed orchestra can struggle through – as André Previn once demonstrated when the London Symphony Orchestra blithely played on without him on his André Previn's Music Night. "But a bad conductor can also mess up and make you look stupid. A trumpet player can't mess up once: if he splits a note, it's curtains."

Brown compares the job to that of a football manager: he doesn't need to have been a great player, but he must understand the work done by his team. He began as a violist himself – but says that many musicians do grow up dreaming of waving a stick. In his line of work, though, he's answerable to a composer, a director and a studio full of movie bigwigs. There's no room in that studio for an awful lot of strutting.

A good conductor, then, needs to be able to sight-read a score for 100, keep his eye on all the performers, watch scenes from a movie while doing it and maintain the respect of his orchestra. He needs to do all this without ever being noticed – although dating sopranos (Simon Rattle), marrying Mia Farrow (Previn) or accepting honorary citizenship of Palestine (Daniel Barenboim) are occasionally allowed.

A good musician only needs to show up and play. Unfortunately, others may turn in a less than satisfactory performance. As Sir Thomas Beecham said to an errant cellist: "You have between your legs an instrument capable of giving great pleasure to thousands – and all you can do is scratch it."

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