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Knowing The Conductors Role

Reflections on wind band conducting with help from Erich Leinsdorf, Gunther Schuller and Leopold Mozart

I have before recommended Erich Leinsdorf's book The Composer's Advocate as being essential bedside reading for every conductor, with an honoured place by his or her bedside. I came back to his chapter Knowing the Conductor's Role time and time again in rehearsals for a concert and subsequent CD recording of the Berlioz Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale and the Milhaud Suite Francaise, two works which need careful control and balance.

The "Held Back" Crescendo

The Berlioz is of course massive, and internal balance needs to be addressed. More important is the control of the long phrases and delayed crescendi. The first theme is twenty two bars, beginning 4 bars before 1 with a forte entry in the flutes, Eb and 1st clarinets and in the eleventh bar marked crescendo for seven bars to ... another forte! We tend to let our players think that dynamics are real; we need to emphasise that they only are in scores by Webern and some later composers, but they are purely relative in nearly every work up to the 20th century and most thereafter. Our players need constantly to think of the tessitura of the instruments, the orchestration, the chord sequence and finally the placing in the movement.

At figure 6, we have another problem of control; after a two bar "till ready", we are faced with a twenty one bar phrase from piano to fortissimo ending with five bars of fortissimo. It is very easy for the players to flag, and even if they sustain it, the ear tires of the noise. I encourage them to think of it as a meno fortissimo, with a poco crescendo in the last five bars. When the music is repeated between 12 and 13, we need to balance carefully the tutti orchestra with the trombones. Gunther Schuller insists in his The Compleat Conductor that crescendi should normally be delayed:

As the crescendo is initially held back and then gradually released to run its course, its ultimate resolution, when it finally arrives, is all the more exciting, dramatic and rewarding.

The Single Forte In Overdrive

On the subject of dynamics, Leinsdorf sums up the dilemma in a discussion of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony:

The optimum effect is created by a well-considered scale of dynamics. Achieving it requires a firm resolve that nothing before bar 427 of the finale in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony shall reach the triple-forte level. There are many ff spots in the preceding forty minutes of play, and every one of them is a bit different. The scoring is different, the emphasis is different and the impact should be different.

Perhaps the most decisive nuance in this whole reckoning will be the single f, which is, alas, often overdriven.

The Milhaud has a further problem, that of the internal balance of the ensemble. It is scored quite heavily with a full symphonic band in mind, and the texture can be very thick. To thin it out we have to persuade all of the band to think of their role; are they carrying the main theme, do they have a subsidiary theme, or are they simply accompanying? I often challenge them on the question of the relative importance of their part on a scale of one to ten.

The opening theme is given in octaves to oboes, Eb clarinet, first clarinets and first cornet, and I ask everyone to be a little lighter than the oboes, because later when we get noisy, we will lose the oboe sound while the others, especially the cornets, can then dominate. I ask the accompaniment to be very light but to phrase with the theme, and I invite the moving quavers/eighth notes at the cadences to be quite energised.

Vertical Balance

The point is that we have to take these decisions, since Milhaud has given every instrument the dynamic forte regardless of the strength of the instrument, whether it is high or low and whether it is soli or accompagnato.

Again, Leinsdorf is our guide:

Another kind of balancing problem arises from conventions of classical scoring and is sometimes apparent even in the early twentieth century. Composers often wrote one dynamic mark for the entire vertical scoring involved. Rare are the instances of graded dynamics in scores prior to 1850(or in wind band scores of the last century). They expected the performers to adjust their instruments' relative strengths according to the primary or secondary importance of their roles.

Foolish Scrapings And Meaningless Noise

Leopold Mozart actually re-inforces this view of forte when he writes... wherever a forte is written down, the tone is to be used with moderation without foolish scrapings.. For the 18th century forte can mean anything mf to ff depending on the instrument involved and the point in the architecture of the movement, whereas successive centuries force the upper range of decibels higher and higher. That is where we need to think of the acoustics of the hall, and the sensitivity of our audience's hearing. Many contemporary scores need a large space, seating 1,200 or more, for the sound to get away, and even then it is easy for us to go through the noise barrier. Leinsdorf suggests that every great score will have one high point which will take all of the energy of the players - anticipate this and you kill the effect of the climax, which may well become meaningless noise.

Some time ago at a BASBWE Conference, a distinguished wind band conductor began a session by stating what we all know, that most bands play too heavily, and that the music gets too loud too quickly. He began conducting, and within seconds was asking for more saxophones, then more horns, instead of asking the already very loud brass to play a poco fortissimo or fortissimo ma accompagnato.

Even the most distinguished conductors, aided and abetted by composers, will indulge in noise rather than a good balance. I heard a "cross-over" score for small symphony orchestra and a rock group which had the bass, rhythm, saxophones and brass so heavily miked up that the strings, woodwind and harp were virtually inaudible throughout. Everyone seemed to enjoy the noise including the distinguished composer and even more distinguished conductor (but not the woodwind or strings); however I wondered whether a reduction of the noise by perhaps 10-20% might have resulted in far more actual excitement, since we should then hear the glittering colours of the rest of the orchestra, reserving the "noise" for special moments.

The easiest thing for us to do with our band is to make a noise. The most difficult is to give clarity to the score by making accompaniments light, keeping syncopations light, helping the players to appreciate the relative strengths of their instrument and how it should be contributing at any given moment. That is where we need to develop our conducting technique, to put across the messages about the score which the composer has hidden behind those simple coded dynamics.