Orchestral versus choral conducting.
I grew up as a definite instrumentalist (violin), not as a singer. In fact, I don’t quite remember why I didn’t sing, but I think that I was embarrassed about singing. This is quite probable considering that my son (who has a fantastic voice), also gets very embarrassed when we sing around him and especially when he is expected to sing along. My father has an emotional aversion to singing (blaming it on his tinnitus). It must be genetic. When I was in high school, I played flute, saxophone, even bass drum, but never joined the musicals*, concert choir, or chamber choir. That was for the cool kids, band was for the nerds. *I was recruited to play violin for every single school musical*
During my masters degree (16 years ago!) at IU Bloomington, we were immersed in opera, and at the same time we were expected to sing in one of the concert choirs. I had never ever sung in choir before, and it took a little getting used to singing in strange languages and attaching the words to the notes while sight reading. (Let’s be honest, I didn’t study my parts in choir, very sorry Mr. Poole). I remember distinctly being quite lost during the first few rehearsals of singing Gretchaninoff, which is logical considering we didn’t have a transliteration of the Slavic texts, and I had never seen Russian letters before. While studying the operas that we were handling in the lessons and in the studio, I also learned the music by singing all of the vocal parts. Thank goodness we had soundproof practice rooms, because I’m sure my roommates would have otherwise gone bonkers. In other words, singing became part of my life by default. I had no idea what I was doing, but apparently I had a little bit of natural talent because at one point my conducting teacher gruffly muttered “nice voice.” Huh, I thought?
One of the most lasting impressions of my studies at IU was the absolute magnificent beauty and volume produced by the various casts of opera singers. I thought it was just incredible, and was in awe. It was these years that motivated me to also study voice, which I only picked up officially while studying at the Conservatory of Amsterdam and privately with James MrCray and others.
But now to get to the point of all this..During this time, the goal for every ambitious conducting student, including myself, was to become an opera conductor. Some of the orchestral conducting students looked down upon the choral conducting students, as if our highly elite activities were so much more important than their little bit of singing with their choirs. And so now I will get into the point of how wrong they (perhaps I as well) were to have had such an idiotic assumption.
First of all, there is one absolute truth about stage performances including opera and ballet. The conductor is a vital part of the performance. She/he communicates between stage and pit. There would be no possible way for the orchestra to follow the singers/dancers without the conductor. Therefore I probably agree with the statement that conducting opera and ballet is the highest possible achievement for a conductor. Since usually only orchestral conductors take on these responsibility, it might be logical that there is a somewhat elitist view of orchestral conducting versus choral conducting. Take away the stage however, and the question arises if a conductor is necessary or not.
In the case of an orchestra the answer is, not always. It’s a fact that may make some conductors uncomfortable, especially those enjoying absolute control. Control is not necessarily a negative thing. If used well, it can allow a group of people to share a musical vision that is at the least uplifting and at the best transcending. There are numerous ensembles that perform without a conductor, and are successful at it. They function as an extremely expanded chamber music group, meaning that the musical communication between the musicians is on a hyper-focussed level. Instrumentalists are generally more able to hear and react to the other instruments of the ensemble than vocalists due to positioning of the ensemble, the different colours of the instruments being easier to distinguish, their more obvious body movements and materials (think of a violin bow), and the general fact that they don’t have to sing. Choir members generally only hear those in their immediate vicinity and are therefore much more reliant on a conductor for ensemble and balance, next to the obvious benefits that a conductor may provide such as interpretation, expression, pronunciation, etc. As to orchestras, great self-lead string ensembles to follow are the American group A Far Cry and the Dutch string ensemble Amsterdams Sinfonietta.
While a symphonic orchestra contains many different timbres, thus enabling instrumentalists to distinguish and react to the various instrumental entrances, voices are meant to blend together to sound as unified as possible. Good choral blend is a sign of high quality in a choir. Of course an orchestra must also strive for a unified sound, especially within the sections (such as the 1st violins), but obviously the timbre of an oboe will not be confused with the flute.
The choral blend and sound is one the duties of a good choral conductor to mould. In fact, I see choral conducting as an effort to continually mould, sculpt, carve, persuade the sound to fit the style, text, and poetic meaning of the piece to be sung. Intonation is a key issue that has various aspects that affect it: vowel placement, vowel forming, harmonic balance (focussing on louder tonics, slightly expanded 5ths and adjusted 3rds). It is this very important aspect of choral conducting that makes it so different from orchestral conducting. The sound needs to be cultured, nurtured, endlessly coaxed and coached, and sometimes boldly demanded to explode in brilliance. It takes a great attention to detail and is less focussed on GPS navigation and rhythm, more on text, context, unification and expression. Now it might come over as if I am implying that these last things mentioned are not important in orchestral conducting. Quite the opposite! They are obviously present and need attention. However, in my experience, conducting orchestras has a higher demand of general organisation (telling who to enter where, how, and why — all in your gestures), and less fine-picking detailed “poetic” work entailing constant attention to forming the sound itself as is present in all choral conducting.
My general conclusion after years of both choral and orchestra experience as a conductor AND orchestral violinist and choral singer is that the optimal opera conductor is not the orchestral conductor, but the orchestral AND choral conductor. Someone who knows how to form vocal sound and at the same time be able to lead the orchestra should be the prime candidate for any opera conducting position. Furthermore, choral conducting cannot really be considered less complicated that orchestral conducting as it entails a slightly different skill set than pure orchestral conducting.
To be continued. Next time I'll talk about the differences between small (read, short) conductors and tall conductors, and perhaps even fat (heavily built) and thin. I'm learning quite a bit from observing my video recordings of my own rehearsals, and it's bringing back memories of lessons learned (and unfortunately, forgotten).
#On being a woman and being an orchestral and choral conductor: a female conductor or a woman conductor? Both sound ridiculous. One would think that gender should have nothing to do with the musical outcome of an orchestra or choir’s performance. And yet…
When growing up, I studied violin and played in the San Jose Youth Symphony. I also played the flute during middle and high school. Several of my schoolmates also played in the youth orchestra. The conductor of the orchestra, Yair Samet, was at the time a rather intimidating figure for me that I both feared and was fascinated by. I had the most horrible audition possible because I was so incredibly nervous. (As a side note, playing the violin as a soloist or playing auditions has always been an issue of nerves. It got to the point that all of the thousands of hours of practice were simply thrown away with sweaty hands, a racing heart, and a total blackout in my brain. For some weird reason, I have never been nervous playing the flute, singing, or conducting. Bizarre.) And yet, I was admitted to the back of the orchestra, and the journey began. I also had a fantastic (female) wind ensemble conductor, Diane Wyant, who also happened to be an oboist for the San Jose Symphony, where Yair was assistant conductor. All in all, it was a small world. Diane was a real inspiration to all of the kids in the band department. Her enthusiasm, work ethic, and encouraging attitude was contagious. At a certain point, she allowed a few of us to conduct the ensemble (I think… long time ago) for a small portion of the rehearsal. On of my fellow band mates, James Johnson, a clarinetist who also played in the youth symphony, started expressing a desire to learn more about conducting, and informed me that he had started taking private conducting lessons with Yair. A firecracker went off in my brain. The challenge was on! I got up the courage to approach Yair, which was a mental challenge in itself, and started taking lessons. We started with Beethoven’s First Symphony, and in the years that I studied with him, we got through Brahms Symphony #1, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite #2, and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. We may have also done Mahler 5, but I’m not sure if my memory is correct on that one. I ended up studying and conducting the piece at a later point. Easy stuff, obviously. (sarcasm) The years with Yair were not wasted. Thanks to his instruction, I was accepted into the Masters of Music in Instrumental Conducting at Indiana University Bloomington, where the world of symphonic and opera operatic repertoire was opened to me fully. Years later, I can say that my dream job has come true. I’ve made it as a (female) conductor. I’m still not where I want to be, but the place I’m in is satisfying as it is. However, this post is about what being a woman and a conductor actually entails.
Contrary to belief, there are quite a number of female conductors at the moment. Marin Alsop, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, Karina Canellakis, Anja Bihlmaier, Lina Gonzales-Granados, Xian Zhang, JoAnn Falletta, Barbara Hannigan, Daniela Candillari, Elim Chan, and I'm sure there are more, but these ladies come to mind. Some I know personally, others from observation. I met Mirga (with whom I share a birthday) in Bonn while we were active participants at the Beethoven masterclass with Maestro Kurt Masur. I was at terrible time, battling with self esteem issues, an eating disorder, and depression. I was not functioning well as a human and definitely not as a conductor. Mirga, however, was the star. The orchestra responded to her conducting as if it was magic. The men couldn’t compare. She had a boyish haircut at the time, and wore somewhat boyish clothes. There was no femininity exuding from her presence, which is curious if I compare her LA video’s from 2015. However, gender was a non-issue with her on the podium. The only thing that mattered was the music. Masur obviously saw the potential in her, and she has continued to great things (and deservedly!). If I observe all of the ladies on the list, the only one who stands out as flaunting her femininity to her advantage is Barbara Hannigan. This is very likely because of her background as a soprano. Her ability to combine her stage presence as a solist and as a conductor has been hugely successful because of her absolute dedication to the product and her ability to pull off the bizarre. (see her Mysteries of the Macabre from 2015 with Simon Rattle, one of the most amazing performances of the decade). Aside from Barbara Hannigan, gender is a non-issue on the podium for the ladies above. ** side-note Elim Chan blew me away when she came to conduct NedPho a few years back. Terrific conductor!
But, how is it for the orchestra? How is it for the audience? As a violinist and mezzo who has played/sung under many conductors, it is beyond a doubt that the conductor’s physique, tone of voice, and emotional approach do have quite an influence on the sound. Our own biases also play en enormous role as to whether we accept the conductor on the podium or not. Only trust and mutual respect between ensemble and conductor will produce musical magic, the rest is noise.
Now, I’ll have to admit a shameful fact. I have been known to inwardly groan if I have to play/sing under a female conductor (which has truthfully occurred rarely), for the reason that most of them dragged their femininity onto the podium with them, and I (at a certain time in my life) had an allergy for such behavior. For some stupid unconscious reason, yes, even I, am biased. It’s a rotten truth, a woman has to prove herself more than a man. I finally also became aware that women are much more conscious and perhaps constantly ashamed of their appearance (yep, battled that for a long time), which inadvertently has an influence on how others react to them. Men seem to be able to shirk this handicap, although I’m completely aware that nowadays, everyone has issues. So yes, we consciously or unconsciously react more critically to a female in a leadership position (Hillary Clinton, prime example). The strange thing that I’ve noticed in my own experiences is that an ensemble of only men (men’s chorus, for example) is much more easy to work with (as a conductor) than a mixed ensemble. Could it be that all of the critique that women feel actually comes from women themselves?
More to follow later.
Let’s get to the difficult issue. Uteruses, their uses, and biological clocks ticking. There is an unfortunate window of time in which highly educated (which is necessary to be as a conductor) women can have children, namely directly after they finish their studies and are embarking upon a career. It is an uncomfortable given that the most successful women are childless, especially in the arts. Opera singers and ballet dancers have an especially tricky situation. I have witnessed first-hand what sorrow that can create when an artists’s career starts to fade and they are left with an unanswered wish to become a mother. Too late. They chose their career, but it’s an unforgiving field.
The fact is that not only pregnancy is demanding for the woman, but the first four years (at least) of the child’s life as well. A woman’s brain is wired to be highly alert and mentally active to tend to all of the demands of the child. A huge amount of mental capacity is directed to the business of motherhood. This natural instinct is how we have evolved and survived for thousands of years, and it is folly to think that we can just trick nature because we think that we are “emancipated.” Hence, if you are doing your job as a mother WELL, you are losing mental energy needed for your career. Out of the list of women above, I would dare to say that perhaps only Marin Alsop has children.
Making a choice to have children as a female artist is making a risky choice of postponing your career options just when it needs to build momentum.
Speaking from a personal level, I do have two children, and I do not regret becoming a mother. In fact, it is the greatest thing that has happened in my life. All of the stupid rummaging around trying to become useful and important, self-esteem issues, and eating disorders disappeared like they never had been part of my life the moment that my daughter took her first breath. Motherhood made me complete and gave me purpose. I gave myself completely to the job. I was there for them. I took care of them in the daytime and rehearsed or gave concerts every evening. I have never been so sleep deprived in my life as when they were small. But, I was a hands-on mom, and it gave me so much more meaning than any score or performance or position could offer. While some women luck out with great partners, mine struggled with the demands of fatherhood. Our relationship did not last. There is no way that that I would ever trade motherhood for a “better” career. However, there is no denying that a huge amount of my mental space and energy was diverted away from my previously entrepreneurial activities as an artist. I had always been the one that would make the craziest things happen, mainly because I was highly devoted to and good at organizing huge projects. My ExArt days (Maria de Buenos Aires) were behind me. The day after my last big project, the Tormis Festival, was the day I conceived.
So yes, it is different being a female conductor versus a male conductor, but I guess that is relevant for any leadership position. It is difficult. Not only are you fighting against general bias, but you’re in a battle with your biological clock at the same time.
The good news is, children grow up. If you once had an entrepreneurial spirit, it is bound to return. As it has for me.
Here’s to staring my conducting blog! Yesterday was one of the evenings that I came home being so extremely thankful for my job. It was an absolute joy to conduct the Apeldoorns Symphonic Orchestra yesterday. My brief (2 year) history with this orchestra was a worrisome time of losing members to illness, death, and covid-fears and lockdowns. And yet, we came through stronger than ever. We have witnessed an astounding growth of new members, the addition of a professional young principal oboe player, and a new energy to tackle the music in a thankful and enjoyable way. I’ve come to know the orchestra a bit better, be more attentive to their individual personalities, and yet have been able to keep (re-find) my at times intense manner of rehearsing.
I’ve also decided on a new tactic. I have started to video record every rehearsal in order to analyse my own techniek while also being able to listen more intently to the overal sound and how the musicians react to my conducting. I should have done this much earlier. You are your best teacher. Should have known before.
Yesterday was just a blast. We started out with Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance op 46 #5, and while the orchestra still has some technical difficulties to overcome, the energy and tempo was already adequate. We moved on to Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture (original version) during the second half hour of the rehearsal, and it was there that the real fun began.
I have sung quite of bit of Rossini’s mezzo arias, including Nacqui all’affanno and Una voce poco fa, and I was assistant conductor of Cenerentola at IU Bloomington, and conducted the Stabat Mater a few years ago. Rossini is a brilliantly fun composer, and my some of my favourite passages include his opera storms. Usually a time for the decor to be switched, the storm passages include audible lightning flashes, thunder, and huge waves of sound that finally dissipate into clear skies. Perhaps not always meant as a visual or literal storm, you can hear an example of this in the overture at rehearsal number 5. My person predilection is to have the cellos and basses really thunder through the 8th notes so as to make the first violins really play fortissimo in order to get the lightning flashes out on the ascending arpeggio. The horns and trumpets should not be too careful and should play the 16th notes rather sharply and in an anticipatory fashion. Lastly, to really get the enormous waves going, the winds play the long notes as Fp with an recurring crescendo during the last two beats of each sequence. At four bars before rehearsal 7, an incredible effect can ensue if the forte PIANO is really taken quite literally, as the crescendo happening a measure later Is simply overwhelming. Of course, the storm begins to dissipate after rehearsal number 7, which is unfortunately the technical nightmare of every first violin in existence. Exposed and fragile, it necessitates calm and a high level of good practice.
A good way to approach the intro (Andante sostenuto) is to bring back to memory all of the Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry and other cartoons from the 1980s. It needs to have this ridiculous, over the top, flamboyant (but not overly), and childish approach to really succeed. If the first 16th note is played as a literal 16th note, as many conductors (with the exception of Levine) do, the entire comedy of the opera is lost. I feel that to succeed, it simply should sound like “TaDAAA.” I also chose to take the battute passages quite seriously. The strings should not play the bow back and forth, but should bounce the bow (closer to the tip) off of the string. It costs very little energy, as the bow just bounces right back, and is recoiled into the fingers easily. I also do this at measure 6 during the oboe solo! It really brings the strings to the correct dynamic of a percussive and rhythmic pianissimo, as not much sound is produced by doing battute.
Another eye-opener was that the clarinettist decided to play the rhythms in the solo at rehearsal number 14 in a more legato fashion than I had my own mind, which gave the passage just the right amount of laid-back swag that it needed. It was a welcome idea that I gratefully took over for the other soloists.
This evening I’m off to Leiden to conduct my choir there. We’re singing a beautiful new work by Bob Chilcott, former member of the Kings Singers and wonderful arranger and composer of choral music. This piece, the Shepherds Carol, is an exercise in patience as the piece meanders through various time signatures in a hushed pianissimo with a slow and flexible 8th note pulse. The climax comes to a grandiose volume in measure 26 following the sung text “Larger than Venus it was, and bright, so bright.”
We’re also doing the incredibly fun White Winter Hymnal arranged for Pentatonix, including the body percussion accompaniment. I was able to demonstrate each individual percussion part just a month ago when I performed the piece in Buitenkunst, but I’m afraid that 2 of the parts have slipped my memory. It’s time to re-learn Mitch and Kevin’s percussion parts I’m afraid.