Last update:
Oct 2, 2014

Working with an orchestra

Working with an orchestra these days is based on mutual agreement between the conductor and the musicians. The understanding of common responsibility has grown stronger. Nevertheless, the conductor’s vision of interpretation prevails. First he must hear the composition in his head, then he must replicate it with the orchestra. Already in the 1970’s in London, Gennadi Roždestvenski whispered to me that the conductor must give the musicians the idea that they are in charge, then they will execute the conductor’s vision voluntarily.

First I create a vision of a given work in my mind and after that I compare it to what comes out of the apparatus. Gestures should be enough to achieve the interpretation, there’s no need for talk, and usually already the first version is a convincing performance, and the details can be dealt with later. Sometimes the first experience can be enthralling, but if the difference between the vision inside one’s head and the orchestral version is big, you quickly realize you’re in trouble.

Each orchestra has their own sectional dynamics. The conductor must quickly recognize the hierarchy and authoritative elements in the orchestra. In 15 minutes the conductor will find out if he can develop natural communication and collaborative spirit with the orchestra. If these elements are not quickly achieved, creating them later will be difficult. Sometimes the tempers of the orchestra and the conductor match, sometimes not. Sometimes this happens all of a sudden and completely by itself. The conductor must also train his psychological skills. Very few people can do much about their own temper. The real nature of the conductor will always become clear, and if it doesn’t help a given situation, there’s very little one can do about it.

There are huge differences to how people learn. I don’t have a visual memory. I memorize music largely through its harmonic events. Depending on the work, I visualize them in different ways by using various techniques to memorize it. The process of learning one of Beethoven’s symphonies is very different than when learning one of Sibelius’ symphonies.

Instrumentalists have muscular memory to help them memorize a work, vocalists have a text. When George Balanchine designed the choreography for a difficult work by Stravinsky, the dancers counted the bars, verbally counting to 7 and 9. When I study complex things I come up with rules to memorize things. The score is a map which I divide into logical parts, to events to which I give names. I divide all larger forms. The whole studying process is actually about creating this map.

The best end result is achieved if the conductor can inspire and unite the orchestra to a collective effort. The more honest and appropriate the goals are, the easier it is to obligate the musicians to them. This is the basis of many longterm collaborations between conductors and orchestras.

Being able to arrange the most comfortable circumstances for the co-workers is not the meaning of leadership. Questioning values, being extreme and correcting problems with shock treatment may actually improve working conditions. This demands great devotion from the conductor. His personality must be present 100 %.

Taken from the book by Pekka Tarkka & Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Kapellimestari, published by Siltala 2009