Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Are all Choral Conductors poor Orchestral Conductors?

On the ride home last night after our Symphonic Choir's guest appearance with the Symphony in thier "lighter Christmas Classics" concert, my wife and were commenting on the guest conductor, who is one of the conductors of a reputable pops orchestra down south. My wife commented on the fact the he was quite clear, and certainly proved to be both an effective orchestral conductor as well as providing enough attention to the chorus to keep us all happy. The "conducting professor" in me immediately found ways to criticize his tight shoulders, loose wrist, his tendency to subdivide where no subdivisions are necessary, and for the most part, his lack of expression - however, for the most part, I agreed with my wife. He seemed very comfortable in both idioms as an accomplished orchestral conductor, and choral conductor. Not a great conductor, but very capable.

I recently read on a blog somewhere of an orchestral musician complaining about how they disliked performing Messiah, mainly for the number of times that they had to perform it with so many "poor choral conductors" at the helm. My immediate reaction of course was one of defense. (To be fair, the blogger did qualify the statement by saying that not ALL choral conductors were poor). It got me thinking though, about how many times I've complained about singing for orchestral conductors that do not know enough about choirs to effectively conduct a large work for chorus and orchestra. I even remember one of them saying "Don't look for cues from me, my concern is the orchestra." Of all the musicians who actually NEED the cues - choirs should be at the top of the list shouldn't they?

Here are some of my observations of differences between large choruses and orchestras, besides the brutally obvious. Symphonic choirs, most of which are over 100 singers, have such a wide range of abilities - from the skilled music reader right down to the singer who learns everything by rote, and relies on those with more ability around them to help them learn, but once it's learned, it can't be unlearned - to everything in between. Professional orchestral musicians are all extremely accomplished musicians who are the best available players of their instruments. Singers tend to put life and limb in the hands of the conductor. After having dozens of rehearsals with their chorus master for a show, it is a tricky thing for them to adjust to a new conductor, who is not giving them the attention that they were used to (specifically for cues and releases). Remember - most of these singers don't actually count, they are looking for the visual command (heck - it's not uncommon for them to practice mundane things like sitting, standing, lifting music and bowing on cue even - something you don't see in orchestral concerts). They are less concerned about the difference between subdivided two and a four beat pattern then they are about a consonant release or an offbeat entrance.

Orchestral conducting and choral conducting I believe are two very different skill sets, and one is always going to compromise the other when you are faced with both choir and orchestra at the same time. Although my training is predominantly in choral conducting, I was lucky enough to study with our University's orchestra conductor for two terms during my Doctoral studies. I studied at the length about conducting an effective pizzicato, understanding bow markings and the many various articulations associated with each instrument. Yet few orchestral conductors worry themselves of how to conduct a proper release of an "M" consonant, or take any care to learn about diction or proper breath support. I was quite happy, however, to have the experience of conducting Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Poulenc in a completely orchestral idiom. I feel that I am quite comfortable in front of an orchestra, maybe a little intimidated at first rehearsal, but I've always been told that I am quite clear, and they enjoy playing for me. I'm assuming that they wouldn't tell me this unless it were true.

My question is - how many "great" conductors are there who can work effectively with both Choir and Orchestra? In my experience, I've only met a few great ones. One of which is Yannick Nézet-Séguin - who first studied as conducting as .... a Choral Conductor ... just saying.


Allen H Simon said...

It definitely never occurs to many orchestral conductors that they have to indicate the end of a note at all, since it's never necessary for instrumentalists -- they just stop playing, and doing so precisely together isn't important if you're not adding a closing consonant!

I am Chorus said...

One of the biggest differences I've noticed is that many of the orchestral conductors I've worked with as a chorister pay little or no attention to the meaning of the words that are being sung, and how that meaning might affect the music itself. Crescendos or decrescendos or pauses or changes in dynamic in places that don't make sense in the context of what is being sung.

Anonymous said...

Thoughtful bit of blog, that I only wish conductors in general could read and ponder over.

But eaqually important, that singers might read it, and musisicans, too. If everybody fathomed the number of balls being juggled in the air at once sometimes, they might make a huge effort to pull it off.

I've sung in Händel's Messiah as both an alto and a soprano, have sung in clasical and rhythymical choirs here and there. The cuing is tough to decode en masse, and charm and luck go a long way.

I think it helps if the conductor coaches both groups a little apart from each other. Seriously, make the choir think they're the most important, and then say the same thing to the orchestra!

Born in the USA, I've been in choirs all my life and am now in my 50s living in Denmark since the 1970s. It was a great way to ease into the new culture & learn the language.

Keep charming,


Anonymous said...

This is an old blog, but I'll make a comment anyway. One of the problems is that most choral conductors work for years with the same choir. This is especially true with amateur community and church choirs where much of the conductor's job is teaching the notes. After 10 to 12 weeks working on a program, the conductor will usually get what he or she wants no matter what they do in front of the choir on concert night. Over several years, this means that gestures that are idiosyncratic (polite term) or sloppy (more realistic term) are not what's really directing the choir anyway. BUT, when you put the same gestures in front of an orchestra, the results are way different. If you hire professional musicians to accompany your choir, they're going to play the right notes the first time. They want clear clues, phrasing, cutoffs, etc. And when they get the above-mentioned idiosyncratic gestures and patterns, they quite rightly get stressed and look for guidance elsewhere ... the concertmaster.
So the key is, spend time n front of the mirror making sure that your patterns are clear and well-defined. Your resulting beat pattern may look like it came from a textbook, but I guarantee that no orchestra will ever compain.
James Copland