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.