Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, written when the composer was only 24 years old, was instrumental in establishing his success. This brilliant tour de force has become a staple of the symphonic repertoire, as well as being an important piece for string and oboe orchestral auditions.
While much has been written about the grammar of conducting - beat patterns, gestures and the like – the following discussion presents ideas about preparing for a rehearsal and techniques for running a rehearsal. Although, the gestures are what the orchestra and audience see at the concert, the groundwork takes place in rehearsal. By no means wishing to denigrate the importance of a clear and expressive baton, the points related in this article should go far in helping achieve a satisfactory performance. Without the knowledge and know-how of preparing for and running a rehearsal, the physical part of conducting is at best based on a foundation of quicksand. Observing conductors who know how to rehearse is a crucial step for anyone desiring to become a conductor. However, there is something to be learned from people who don’t rehearse effectively, as we then compare those experiences to observation of highly competent and efficient conductors.
There are some basics in conducting concertos or solo pieces that are necessary to adhere to. First of all, the soloist has a lot to think about, and the last of these should be the conductor. The soloist should have no thoughts that the conductor is going to give an inaccurate tempo, miss an important cue, or be insensitive to when the soloist might want to push or hold back the tempo. A rapport between the soloist and the conductor needs to be developed before the first orchestra rehearsal, so that the rehearsal time isn’t spent dealing with issues that could have been decided upon beforehand.
The opening of the symphony presents various problems for the players. The most apparent is for the winds to be able to hold the long note for the 5 measures, which very well may influence the choice of tempo. Beethoven's indication of quarter note = 66 may seem on the fast side, but it enables the players, including the flutist, to hold the long B flat without needing to breathe again. The "traditional" tempo of about quarter note = 48 makes for real difficulty, especially for the flutist. Also note that the score is written "alla breve", which might imply an inner pulse of two beats to the measure. So perhaps a tempo between 60 and 66 would work well. Also it is vital to note that the second horn low B flat is very difficult to produce, and I recommend breathing with the orchestra, especially with the second horn, when you start the piece. I find that when I conduct in this manner, that I don't have to worry about the pizzicato in the strings being together. Other suggestions include little or no vibrato for the flute, G string for the violins, and just a touch of vibrato for the strings. If the flute player has difficulty holding through, a very quick catch breath at the end of bar 4 is possible. In bar 5, I recommend the swell to go to the third beat, and not exaggerated. The strings can help facilitate the swell by adding a touch more vibrato. Also, make sure that the resolution is a full eighth note.
Copland’s brilliant ballet score, entitled Appalachian Spring, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945. The following article deals with the suite for full orchestra, but the majority of the observations would be applicable for the version for 13 players.
Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun was a landmark work in the history of music. It is a difficult piece to conduct on every level: sound, timbre, atmosphere, balance, pacing, to say nothing of good ensemble. The following article is a result of having conducted and taught this piece many times; each time has afforded me the opportunity to gather a little more experience and understanding of how to present it to the orchestra and the audience.
Dvorak’s Symphony #8 is one of the great masterpieces of the symphonic repertoire. While it has its share of difficulties of balance, ensemble, and style, it is not nearly as difficult as his seventh symphony and can be programmed by many community and school orchestras.
Dvorak’s Symphony #9 is one of the most beloved works in the symphonic repertoire. Having had the experience of conducting it many times, I have accumulated a list of ideas, suggestions, and alterations that might be of interest. These comments are in the spirit of bringing out all the amazing colors, counterpoint and drama of the piece that perhaps go beyond the printed page, and which I have found helpful to performing the piece.
Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations is one of the most beloved pieces in the symphonic repertoire. These variations, which depict his friends, are both creative as well as endearing, and the variety, content, and length make it an ideal choice for the second half of a concert.
While we are so grateful for the wonderful music that George Gershwin has left us, we can only speculate as to what he might have written had he lived beyond his 38 short years.
Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses is a brilliant, imaginative, colorful, and dramatic composition; based on some obscure piano duets by Carl Maria von Weber and an ancient Chinese melody, it is astounding to hear how Hindemith weaves a fascinating pallet of sounds and moods.
In December of 1982, I had the disctinct honor and pleasure of working with one of the finest opera composers of our time: Gian-Carlo Menotti. His presence as stage director of the Cleveland Opera Theater's performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors afforded an opportunity to those working in the production to better understand his intentions in the areas of musical interpretation and character development.
Scheherazade, Rimsky Korsakov’s beloved fantasy inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, is a tour de force for symphony orchestra, which presents challenges for both the orchestra and the conductor. When examining my score for a pair of recent performances, I couldn’t help but notice the many changes that I have made with many aspects of interpretation and approach. It is my hope that some of what follows might be of assistance to conductors.
Truly one of the greatest overtures of all time, Rossini’s William Tell, written for perhaps the longest opera of all time, doesn’t fit the typical mold of his overtures. Italian Girl in Algiers, Cenerentola, Barber of Seville, Scala di Seta all start with a slow introduction, are followed by an allegro, and contain the famous Rossini crescendo, a long passage starting very softly and increasing gradually in intensity.
The Sibelius Violin Concerto is surely one of the mainstays of the violin repertoire. I have attempted to point out some of the issues encountered in conducting this wonderful piece. The comments below are what I’ve found to be helpful.
Til Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Richard Strauss' 15 minute tone poem portraying the 15th century practical joker is a high-paced romp based primarily on two themes. The first of these is a heard in the opening phrase of the violins in augmentation, later heard in its definitive form in the piccolo clarinet. The second is the famous horn call. Strauss weaves his brilliant scherzo using these two themes in a variety of guises, along with additional themes helping to depict the various escapades of our roguish protagonist.
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is surely one of the great masterpieces of the symphonic literature. This guide may be more appropriate for advanced student orchestras than professional orchestras, but hopefully there will be food for thought for conductors of all calibers of orchestras.
Below are some interpretive ideas for Tchaikovsky’s beloved masterpiece. These ideas are based on having conducted and taught this piece many times, and are mostly practical suggestions for performance.