on not writing about ensemble leaders

Ever since I posted about rehearsal culture and the democratic ensemble, my mind has been munching on a few tough morsels. I keep returning to the following questions: in what kind of situations do I believe that a musical leader is necessary; what kinds of musical leadership do I believe to be appropriate on various occasions; and which set of attitudes serves a musical leader best for functioning appropriately in practice?

Let’s announce right away that I gave up. Even if I skip about 300 tightly footnoted pages that deal with the classical canon and a conductor’s functions in it, and fast-forward to the statement that a group of a certain size, or various kinds of music, often benefit from someone taking on the task of a coordinator of the whole, these remain questions that either open a path towards random ranting or would be the basis of a lifetime or two of systematic research. See how long this sentence became? That’s what I mean.

I have been ensemble leader for five years. I understood this task largely as administrative – we’re talking about a group of six creative people with no need for an artistic boss. I have nevertheless occasionally been assigned the task of a musical leader – occasionally, too, that task assigns itself, for instance, when one has to play a concerto and wants that the ensemble does certain things to match the expression of the solo part. I have played under various conductors, some kind, some unkind, some breathtakingly inspiring, some – not. How could I possibly avoid becoming anecdotal?

As in this one: during a mid-tour rehearsal I was addressing a passage from a slow movement in a concerto by C.P.E. Bach where previous concerts had shown a discrepancy (not a disagreement) between me (the soloist) and one of the other instrumentalists (not a regular member of the group). I mentioned how I thought the passage should sound in order to come together – it was a matter of paying attention to a specific musical detail. Usually, I’m not gruff about these things. In response I got a look-me-being-witty-face and the retort “do your stuff, and I’ll do mine.” (I went on rehearsing. The passage never became good.)

Every time I want to write about how wrong those conductors are who have gotten all rigid and hard and unpleasant, I have flashbacks like this one. It ain’t worth anybody’s time to see me wading through all this again. Anecdotes are entertaining, let’s keep it at that.

Now. If I had a bit of sense, I would contrast this story with another one, selected as an exemplification of a brilliant leader’s brilliant musical leadership: mine [applause]. Nah, not today.

I do have a story which, to my taste, shows the very finest of good ensemble leadership: Our ensemble and four vocalists had a project together with a well-known external coach-soloist. Part of the program was a capella: Palestrina. Palestrina is not only hard on counterpoint students, it is difficult to get together on stage, and accordingly, rehearsals showed that there was a bunch of unsolved problems. So our conductor stepped off the rehearsal schedule, sat down patiently and explained rhythms, words and pitches, demonstrated solfeggio-learning tricks, rehearsed in bits, together, slow, faster – took in fact break time and extra time to get stuff worked out, without ever getting impatient. These pieces went very well during the concerts.

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