Last update:
Feb 8, 2020

Working with an orchestra

These days working with an orchestra is based on a mutual agreement between the conductor and the musicians. Though the conductor’s vision of the interpretation prevails, the understanding that there is a common responsibility has grown. The conductor must hear the composition in his head, then replicate it with the orchestra. In London in the 1970s, Gennadi Roždestvenski whispered to me that the conductor must give the musicians the idea that they are in charge, for then they will execute the conductor’s vision voluntarily.

I create a vision of a given work in my mind that I then compare to what comes out. Gestures should be enough to achieve the interpretation, there’s no need for talk. Often, the first version is a convincing performance, and the details can be dealt with later. Sometimes the first experience can be enthralling, the difficulty arises when the difference between the vision inside one’s head and the orchestral version is significant.

Each orchestra has its own sectional dynamics. The conductor must quickly recognize the hierarchy and the authoritative elements in the orchestra. Within 15 minutes, the conductor will find out if he can develop natural communication and a collaborative spirit with the orchestra. It can be challenging to create these elements if they are not established rapidly at the beginning.

Sometimes the temperaments of the orchestra and of the conductor match, sometimes not. Sometimes this happens all of a sudden and of its own accord. The conductor must also train his psychological skills. Very few people can change their own temperament. The real nature of the conductor will always manifest itself, and there is little one can do if it doesn’t help a given situation.

People learn in very different ways. I don’t have a visual memory, so I memorize music mainly through its harmonic events. Depending on the work, I visualize them in different ways by using various techniques to remember them. The process of learning one of Beethoven’s symphonies is very different from learning one by Sibelius.
Instrumentalists have muscular memory to help them memorize a work, vocalists have a text. When George Balanchine designed the choreography for a challenging piece by Stravinsky, the dancers counted the bars, verbally counting to 7 and 9. When I study complex works, I come up with rules to memorize. The score is a map which I divide into logical parts and into 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 long-term collaborations between conductors and orchestras.

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

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