“Conductors are ambassadors of composers”, said Kurt Masur once during a conducting master class a few years ago, “we are here on behalf of people who are greater than us”. Although those two phrases have the power of inflating any composer’s ego, I would suggest caution. Masur was probably not just referring to any composer but to the greatest composers of all time, and in doing so he was establishing a very clear hierarchy, but most importantly, he was defining the role of the conductor as communicator and pivotal figure between creator and listener.
As a composer of mostly orchestral music I have had the privilege of working with several conductors. While most of them have only conducted my music once, others keep programming my works up to this day. The most rewarding relationships are those that develop over the years because this allows a conductor to track a composer’s development, leading to a deeper understanding of his/her musical thought.
Composing is a solitary job; we don’t interact with other people while writing our music, at least when I sit down to work I do so in absolute intimacy, closed doors and complete silence. It is only at the performance that a piece comes to life and it is only then that it can be experienced by others. In this sense I tend to disagree with Arnold Schoenberg who once said: “music need not be performed any more than books need to be read aloud, for its logic is perfectly represented on the printed page; and the performer, for all his intolerable arrogance, is totally unnecessary except as his interpretations make the music understandable to an audience unfortunate enough not to be able to read it in print.”. Apart from being quite an arrogant statement it also fails to understand that, as ethereal as our art can be, performance is the consummation of the creative process because it is only then that music is able to transcend the world of ideas and materialize in the form of sound waves. Listening to music can be a spiritual, emotional and intellectual experience but it is also physical, and it only becomes physical during a performance. This is why interpreters are essential for the survival of our art.
In contrast to composing, conducting is an inherently social activity because it cannot come to fruition without the intervention of other human beings. In other words, a conductor is incapable of performing his/her job unless he has a group of musicians in front of him. He himself cannot produce any sound, yet he controls the forces of the orchestra, who has willingly surrendered to his authority. His place is somewhere in between composer and performer and between orchestra and audience. He serves as a link, bringing and connecting everyone and everything together. He cannot perform his job alone, yet he must stand in the spotlight, on the podium, apart from the rest. He hasn’t written the music, yet he must know it as if he had written it. And, if for whatever reason the composer is not present during rehearsals, the conductor has the last word in any doubt that may arise concerning the score.
As heads of artistic organizations, conductors need to be very practical-minded people, sometimes fulfilling administrative duties that have no artistic aspect to it. Rehearsal time is limited and going over time is hardly acceptable in the orchestra world, so they need to be very concise in their use of words and gestures. Composers, on the other hand, are generally not very pragmatic and usually lack concision in their use of words and gestures. There are exceptions, of course, especially if they are conductors or instrumentalists themselves and have a good understanding of how the system works. This is where conductors perform one of their essential duties: translating the composer’s thought, which can be quite abstract and immaterial, and bring it down to earth. I have seen many conductors exercising this function and in the process I have learned to be more concise not only when expressing my ideas but also when writing my scores. Orchestration books alone did not help me get where I am at now. And even though my instrumental writing has improved mainly due to the feedback I have got from orchestra players, a conductor’s contribution cannot be underestimated. Their clarity of thought has sometimes led me to rethink the way I write a piece and this in turn has resulted in a more clear and understandable score. Not only can a very well written score save precious rehearsal time, it also helps bring about a better performance. This is one of the hardest things for young composers to achieve: knowing exactly how to materialize their musical ideas and how to translate them into musical notes. Conductors usually excel at this, especially because they know as much of music theory as they do of musical performance.
Like every other performer, conductors also have to bring their own interpretation to a given work, and this is where one can find enormous differences. It only takes a few recordings of, let’s say, and enormously popular work like Beethoven’s fifth symphony, to realize how different a version can be from one another. How different a Kleiber from a Klemperer or a Toscanini! This is an aspect that is even harder to quantify and it sometimes takes a great conductor to really bring out the best of a piece for it to be fully appreciated. In contrast to other performers, the conductor does not have direct physical communication with his instrument. A pianist can decide exactly how soft he wants a note to be, it might not be easy to produce a fast pianississimo (ppp) passage, but at least he has total control because there is no intermediary between his body and the instrument. The conductor however cannot do anything but give indications with his hands, face and body so he must establish direct and instantaneous communication with the orchestra musician. At first it might seem like this takes away the pressure from him because he need not worry about playing anything, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The conductor needs to be totally aware of everything happening during a performance and this demands an extremely high level of concentration for long periods of time. In this sense, the best symphonic interpretations come about after a long working relationship between an orchestra and a conductor; it takes years to develop good mutual understanding.
The first conductor I ever worked with was Miguel Harth-Bedoya and we have developed a lasting friendship and a strong working relationship. We met back in 1994, when Miguel founded the Lima Philharmonic Orchestra and I was still in high school. Miguel has seen my development from being and aspiring musician to becoming a PhD in composition. With every new work we need less and less time of preparation because at this point our communication is almost intuitive. He is very economic with words, preferring to communicate his ideas through body language. We hardly talk about the origins and inspiration of a work, focusing instead on the score and leaving the music to speak for itself. So if anything, I can say that long-term collaborations are to be nourished and preserved because they can lead to some of the most rewarding experiences in one’s professional life.
The world of music is wonderfully symbiotic. We are all links in a chain and we depend on each other to exist. Starting with the composer, continuing with the conductor and passing through the performer all the way to the listener, we all form part of a communication process that would be incomplete should any one of us were missing. Like Kurt Masur said, conductors are ambassadors, they bring a message that might not necessarily be theirs but it is a message in which they strongly believe in and which they are eager to share with everyone out there who is willing to listen. As composers we must see conductors as our allies, they are, after all, the people in whom we have entrusted our music, a delicate collection of sounds written in utmost intimacy but which would remain lost in the world of ideas were it not for them, the men and women who connect us with the rest of the world and who make it possible for our message to reach humanity at large.
 Schoenberg in Newlin 1980: 164. Spoken in 1940.