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).