Potential orchestra mutiny and conductor envy The orchestra pit of Plenary Hall, Melbourne, Australia.

Potential orchestra mutiny and conductor envy

Jenna Simeonov

I’ve said it plenty of times before: I do not envy singers. The pressure, the standards, the vulnerability, they’re not of the ilk I prefer.

As a pianist and répétiteur, I don’t envy conductors, either. Plenty of pianists do, and often their work repping in rehearsals or coaching singers is a stepping stone for them into the eventual world of conducting. I’ve never wanted to stand on the other side of the piano, largely because orchestras can be terrifying.

I don’t even mean they’re a big bunch of moving parts, for which I’d be responsible for connecting. Although I like public speaking, the idea of standing in front of a group of professional players, charged with communicating your ideas to all of them (and convincing them your ideas are good) is super unappealing.

I’ve seen it before: orchestra mutiny. It’s a subtle beast, that OM. Whether or not they’re a fixed orchestra that plays together often, or they’re brought together for a specific concert/production, orchestras are full of players who have followed their fair share of conductors. They can smell fear, insecurity, and apologies from miles away. When those very human elements creep into a conductor’s work, the orchestra can take the opportunity to write you off: mutiny.

Orchestras are not full of mean-spirited players, ready to pounce on the weak; I don’t mean to say this. But they’re an efficient bunch, and they have the rare opportunity to note the difference in rehearsal styles, in priorities, in semantics and communication skills between different maestros.

It begs the question, though: how does one command respect in front of a group? The balance between dictatorship and democracy is a tender one, and it can often come down to the difference between saying, “Can I have a bit more of the violas?” and “Violas, love your line!” Or, it’s the difference between patience + perseverance, versus doormat-ness + beating a bar to death. Conductors are often dealing with a microcosm of this question of respect, a condensed version of an arguably profound topic of humanity. The catch is that respect is necessary not only from players to conductor, but also vice versa.

It’s a brilliant thing to watch, though, when a conductor really does get this balance of power and respect. It’s true that good orchestras crave benevolent dictators of some sort. I’ve found that the best conductors know what they want, and have full trust (or at least feigned trust) that the orchestra will eventually give it to them. In these circumstances, the players are empowered, knowing that the maestro has faith in their abilities.

Rewarding as it may be, I still feel perfectly happy leaving the baton-waving to others. Readers, what about you? Do you have conductor envy? Let us know why or why not in the comments below.

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