I may be kicking a hornets nest, but a thought occurred to me this week. I’m teaching a graduate seminar in Baroque Performance Practice, and I’m delighted to report that students are arguing away about the intentional fallacy, the relationship of the composer to the performer, and what responsibilities the performer has to the composer.
Now, one of the strongest defenders of the “transparent performer” position – that is, the idea that the performer serves as a vehicle to carry out the composer’s instructions without imposing his/her own will is a band conductor. I’m very grateful that we have someone like this in class to present that viewpoint.
What struck me though is a possible difference in band and orchestra culture, and I’m wondering if it is true. That is – and of course there are exceptions – we have a tradition of military bands in this country dating back to at least Sousa. Those bands are praised for their “precision”, but not necessarily their passion. Orchestral conductors might be praised for “precisions”, but there is not as much praise without also having some emotional content.
I’ve known a few band directors that do work on technical stuff without inspiring anyone. For that matter, I know orchestra and choral directors who do the same. However, I’m wondering if people have thoughts on any significant divide in the culture between the two.
Is there a tradition that values precision without emotional content that is more pervasive in band culture than in orchestral culture?
Dr. Knecht, I have to tell you I was taken aback after reading this blog post. (To anyone who reads this comment, I am the “band” conductor who is referenced.) That you would suggest or stereotype band conductors as less musical than orchestral conductors pushes me to the precipice of being offended.
I feel I need to remind you that all conductors first start out as musicians and performers. They make the transition to the podium only after significant amount of technical and musical training on their chosen instrument. They bring to the podium their level of musicianship. If they are an outstanding musician who performs with emotion and passion before they started wearing the hat of conductor, then that musicianship will translate to their musicianship as a conductor and ultimately to the performance by the ensemble they have the privilege to stand in front of. It’s just not an ‘orchestra verses band’ thing. It is not a cultural thing. It’s a musician thing!
As for my own personal musicianship as a conductor, despite my standing on the side of the composer during our class discussions and on written assignments, I have often been criticized for making many musical decisions based on feelings and emotions and less about composer intent. During my time here at UNL, I have been pushed to think more about the intention of the composer so that I can make more informed musical choices. I have come to the realization that a performer’s/conductor’s obligation to the composer does not have to be in conflict with the performer. We can honor the composer’s intentions and at the same time present a performance that has our own musicianship and artistry clearly present.
To help answer your question at the end of your blog post let me tell you that this is my seventeenth year as a “band” conductor. Nine of those years I also had the opportunity to conductor orchestras as well. I have attended hundreds of band and orchestra concerts in my life including some of the finest bands and orchestra from around the world. Believe me when I say I have attended an equal number of unmusical, passionless orchestra performances as I have band. I have also been moved to tears as many times with bands as with orchestras. The common thread with all of the great musical performances has been the high level of musicality of the players and the conductor, not the group’s instrumentation.
I will end with a friendly challenge…come and attend a rehearsal or concert of the UNL Wind Ensemble. Better yet come to my final conducting recital with the UNL Symphonic Band on Sunday, December 14th at 3 pm in Kimball Hall. I promise you will come away with a new perspective on the musicianship of band and band conductors.
I've had an equal experience between band and orchestra conductors. While there are certainly a number of band directors who are hung up on the precision side of things, I've had a at least as many orchestral conductors who spend 80% of their time talking with the strings about fingerlings and bowings. I've come to wonder whether it may reflect the conductor's comfort level when working with instruments other than their own, even more so than a tendency toward (or away from) precision or passion.
James, please don't be taken aback. You were certainly referenced, but I'm not trying to suggest a stereotype. I think, quite honestly, that when it comes to conductors there are all sorts and there isn't any real divide between the orchestra and band. I certainly didn't mean to imply any disrespect to you or band directors in general. At least among the conductors that I've played for over the years, there hasn't been any significant difference. Since I don't know band culture as well, I was sincerely asking a question. I know plenty of people who feel the same way about Toscannini.
One of the things I find fascinating about the whole discussion is that you are one of the few that is actually standing up for and defending the composer – something that is very close to my heart. Why is that? Why are all of your colleagues so ready to throw the composer's thoughts under the bus?
I think you are completely right about all of this. Forgive me if I sometimes post something a little brazen to start a discussion. Glad to have your thoughts.
I think James summed it up quite well, but I will add this one small thought. The distinction in culture one might perceive between orchestras and bands, particularly at the collegiate and professional levels, may be the nature of the repertoire. Band conductors are accustomed to working closely with living, breathing composers. A great deal of our best repertoire is less than a century old, and the culture is such that conductors reach out to the composers whenever possible. Performers that have never rehearsed with the composer standing next to them may well feel they have greater expressive leeway, or less responsibility to the score, than those of us who have to justify our choices to the originator of the material. That doesn't mean that we always agree with the composer, but we know we'll have to have a conversation. I believe the name of the game is for the performer to strive to bring his/her emotions and intentions in sync with the composer's – call it artistic empathy, if you will. CB
Interesting thoughts, Carolyn. In my experience, it has often been the exact opposite. Performers that have worked with a composer are much more likely to take leeway with the score. That is, if a conductor doesn't know the composer, they will often justify their decisions by using the score. If a conductor knows a composer, he/she will often say, "Well, I know so and so, and he/she won't mind if we do this." I think the bigger question is whether or not you are having a conversation with the composer in any performance. Are we not having a conversation with Beethoven when we play his music?