19 MAR 2018

Who needs a conductor anyway?


Conductors are prominent (and often flamboyant) figures on the floor of the concert hall, and yet many people wonder what it is that they actually do. 

It's not uncommon for experienced concert patrons and new-comers to ask: what is the actual role of a conductor in an orchestra? As a member of the 2018 SSO Young Ambassador program — an initiative for people aged 6-21 to get involved with the orchestra — I went behind-the-scenes at the Sydney Opera House to ask Artistic Director of the SSO’s flagship Fellowship Program Rodger Benedict all about this conducting business.

Why are conductors so important?

Roger: Conducting is a relatively new profession. In Bach and Mozart’s time the idea of a conductor as we know it today didn’t exist, and the orchestra was directed by a keyboard player or the Concertmaster. But as music became more complicated and the size of the orchestra increased, it became necessary to employ someone to keep a musical and organisational overview.

Why do people become conductors?

Often for the wrong reasons… power, control, vanity…! Only kidding... In reality, most conductors are people who have a huge passion for the music and a desire to express their creativity through leadership rather than on any single instrument. Speaking personally, I came to conducting after a long career as an orchestral player and I do think it helps if one has that experience and some inside knowledge of how an orchestra ticks.

Why are conductors often so flamboyant in their gestures?

Conductors need to inspire the orchestra and make sure their gestures can be seen easily by every musician, but having said that, some conductors’ flamboyant gestures are for the benefit of the audience, not the players!

What is your favourite performance as a conductor?

The one I am currently giving! (The SSO's Family Concert, Who Needs a Conductor Anyway?)

To use or not use a baton?

I think I can be more precise with a baton generally, but I will conduct without one if I am working with a small ensemble or on a particularly intimate piece of music where the hands on their own can be more expressive.

Describe a moment where you felt a sense of peace and harmony while on stage as a conductor. 

Although I need to be able to feel completely “in the moment”, I also need to be always planning ahead and aware of what the orchestra needs from me next, so I am helping, through my actions, to create peace and harmony for the audience rather than myself.    

How important is the relationship and understanding between a conductor and the ensemble?

Absolutely vital. The conductor has to earn the trust and respect of the players and know how to manage the relationships he or she has with them.

Have you ever broken or ‘lost’ your baton during a performance?

Not yet!

How does a conductor bring together each individual part to create one orchestral sound?

Through good transactional leadership – setting an appropriate rehearsal strategy and knowing what and how to rehearse. Through having a solid concept of sound, balance and tempo. And imagination!

What is your signature conductor ‘move’ or action?

Not sure! Someone else will have to answer that…

Roger Benedict will conduct the Sydney Symphony Orchestra this year in Mozart and Mendelssohn and Playlist with Matthew Wilkie and the SSO Fellows in French Fellowship.

Image: Liam Brewin Higgins pictured with Roger Benedict. Credit Tim Walsh.