This is a post from National Symphony Orchestra bassist Jeff Weisner. Jeff also teaches bass at The Peabody Institute in Baltimore and co-authors the blog PeabodyDoubleBass. Click here for all of Jeff’s doublebassblog.org posts.
Last week, my orchestra did a big benefit concert with super-famous conductor Christoph Eschenbach, and before and after the concert, rumors and gossip were flying around. The NSO is over two years into a conductor search, and many of our recent guest conductors have been rumored to be our next music director. First everyone was talking about this guy. Then this guy was all the rage. This guy made occasional mentions, and folks even discussed this fellow a few times. Each candidate who was rumored to be our next MD had his detractors and fans. But as each one was analyzed, gossiped about, and then forgotten, I was reminded anew how incredibly difficult it is to know how a conductor will connect with a particular orchestra from looking at their past performance with other orchestras.
(For the record, the NSO conductor search, like most big orchestra conductor searches, is conducted in total secrecy, and I have absolutely no idea whether any of the conductors mentioned, including Eschenbach, are actually being considered in any serious way for the NSO Music Director job.)
Eschenbach is a great example of how mysterious the whole world of conductor chemistry is. As the MD of the Houston Symphony, he was beloved by the orchestra musicians and public. In Philadelphia, he has foundered, frustrating the orchestra musicians and failing to connect with the public in the way that he did in Houston. Why? What are the differences between two groups of excellent orchestral musicians that made his results so different?
This mystery exists not only with music directors, but with guest conductors as well. The year I was playing in the San Francisco Symphony, the conductor David Robertson appeared with the orchestra. I thought he was fantastic, as did many SFS musicians I spoke with at the time. That same season, he appeared with the NSO. Most of my colleagues there thought he was dreadful and expressed the hope that he would never appear with the orchestra again!
And I can assure you this is not only a phenomenon of big professional orchestras. Orchestras of every size, shape, and salary level routinely express amazement as they work with a conductor who is loved (or hated) by another ensemble, and experience the exact opposite reaction.
Why is it so difficult to predict how a conductor and orchestra will interact? Some partial explanations can come from repertoire. If a conductor is doing a piece they feel strongly about, that can have an effect on how they work with the musicians. Another element is timing. If either the conductor or the musicians are tired or frustrated from a long string of concerts, too much time on the road, or just a bad cold going around, attitudes can become negative.
But even factoring these elements in, it’s simply impossible to predict how a conductor and an orchestra will get along, personally or musically, until they actually spend some time together.
I love the fact that this is such a mysterious and unpredictable process. It brings into play so many elements of what make being a musician such a great thing. Whenever a group of people get together to play music, each is bringing their own experiences and ideas to the table. Those ideas are expressed both verbally and in how they play. In a chamber music context, these ideas are hashed out in rehearsal. The final performance, at least in theory, represents a synthesis of the ideas and concepts that the group has worked out together in collaboration.
In an orchestra, the game is a little different. Each musician can only express their concepts within the limitations of what the conductor and principals tell them to do. They are even further limited by what the conductor allows their colleagues to do – if the conductor likes the way the oboe does their solo, I have to go along with it in my own playing, no matter what I think of it. But orchestras (if they play together on a regular basis) have a group consciousness as well. I know my colleagues’ styles and approaches, and together we have a group identity – a “way we play.” When a conductor steps up to the podium, they are interacting not only with the way 100 people each individually think the piece should go, but also with the way we as a group “know” that piece. When you step back and look at this complex stew of variables, it makes sense that the conductor-orchestra relationship can be so weird and unpredictable.
I enjoy watching this relationship play out each week and seeing what it produces. Conversely, I find that the unhappiest orchestral musicians are those who refuse to accept this process. They tend to either reject the conductor’s role (“why won’t he just let us play?”), or the orchestra’s group role (“why don’t we all just follow him better?”), or they overemphasize their own ideas (“I keep trying to do the obviously indicated ritard in bar 18, but no one is following me!”). I’m not saying that I always like or agree with the way my orchestra ends up playing things! But I do love the weird process of seeing what comes out of the orchestral sausage grinder each week.