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Putting a piece of music on the stage is always about intention of the interpreter. It’s never really an honest historical representation of what the composer intended.

Question: What is the role of the conductor? 

Leonrn Botstein: In the most basic sense, conducting is the art of rnorganizing music through a kind of pantomime. Using your hands, your rnface and your eyes in order to shape and control and deliver a musical rnperformance that requires a lot of people. When there are a lot of rnpeople on stage, each of whom knows his or her part, are terrific rnmusicians, they have to have some sense of coordination because the rnpiece that they’re doing involves so many different moving parts, you rnneed one person to try to keep it all together. So there’s a basic rntraffic cop part of being a conductor. The most obvious place where rnconductors are needed is in an opera pit. So you have the conductor in rnthe opera pit, you’ve got musicians in a pit, that’s the orchestra. 

Thenrn you would maybe have an off-stage band. You’ve got a chorus on stage. rnYou’ve got a bunch of people in costumes shouting at each other, runningrn around, going crazy and you have to keep all of this machine, it’s a rnvery complex machine, keep it going where everybody comes in at the rnright place, gets out at the right place. Everything happens in an rnorganized way. That’s the traffic cop part of conducting. That’s why so rnmany great conductors come out of the opera pit. Because that’s the rnplace where coordination of things is very important. The other area rnwhere conducting is very important is in music that doesn’t in a way rnseem very easily understood. So let’s say a complicated piece. In the rn20th century would think of “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky, where rnit’s complex rhythmically, there are a lot of things happening at the rnsame time but not in the same place. Let’s say the “Fourth Symphony of rnCharles Ives,” which has many different rhythms like a geological layer,rn one on top of the other. So, you know, how do you keep track of your rnpart? 

Well, you need someone there who, again, is organizing thern traffic cop part of it. But the traffic cop part of it is the most rnbasic aspect of conducting. And it’s needed just for efficiency’s sake. rnIn other words, you could, there have been histories, in the Soviet rnUnion, for example, there was a very famous orchestra that had no rnconductor that did some of the Prokofiev premieres. It was a communist rnidea, you know, it was a collective. There would be no boss, no owner, rnno, no guy in front who was going to tell them what to do. So it was a rncollective experience. First of all, everything took 16 times as long torn prepare because they couldn’t agree. They argued and debated and rndisputed and so one point of view never won. 

You know, it was rnkind of a mish mosh. And Prokofiev describes these endless rehearsals ofrn trying to figure out who is right, who is keeping the right rhythm, whorn is with the other person. And so he wished suddenly for a conductor to rnhelp it out. Orpheus today is a very fine ensemble that works without a rnconductor, but it needs much more rehearsal time, so there’s an rnefficiency issue. And then finally the most sophisticated part of it rnprobably is an interpretive issue. So, you need someone who comes in rnwith a point of view who shapes an argument. It’s like a director in a rnplay. You could ask the same thing. You’ve got a bunch of these actors, rnthey come out on stage. There’s “Hamlet,” there’s “Romeo and Juliet,” rnand they know their lines, they’re literate. What do you need a directorrn for? But we think they need a director, even though the director is rninvisible. 

In this case, because it’s a different kind of art rnform, the director is visible. Now, the most important part is that rnconducting is about communication with a bunch of people about a work ofrn music. Now there’s a lot of nonsense theater in conducting. A lot of rndancing around, a lot of show and tell, a lot of Hollywood biz, which rnhas nothing to do with conducting. There’s a lot of marketing rnpersonality stuff. There’s a lot of fakery in conducting. The reason rnconductors are always help in suspicion is because if you are going to rnthe Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and you’re doing a rnMozart Symphony, they probably don’t need a conductor to get through thern piece, so the conducting becoming decorative, supplemental. It becomes arn cult of personality. So in a certain limited arena, there is a lot of rnbogus conducting. You know, someone plays the piano, plays the violin, rnit sounds out of tune, they don’t play very well, it’s hard to fake. 

Arn pianist, you know, he can put the petal down, but you really can’t get rnaway with not being able to play. So conducting is a little more elusivern because it doesn’t appear to make any sound. 

Question:rn Is there any room for the conductor to insert his or her own artistry? 

Leonrn Botstein: I think there’s a big misunderstanding. Some people rnthink, well, the composer wrote the music. Well, that’s true. And rnthere’s a score. But depending when the score was written, the number ofrn indications of what to do are very few. So in the 18th and 19th rncenturies, you know, first of all before conducting was a profession, rnconducting didn’t exist until somewhere in the mid 19th century in an rnindependent way, the score tells you a minimum number of things. rnConsider a map, right? You can buy several kinds of map. You can Google rnseveral kinds of maps. One kind of map tells you just where everything rnis, but very little in between. Another map gives a lot of details. rnAnother map tells you where the restaurants are. 

There are all rnkinds of maps. Some maps can tell you how crowded the roads are. But thern map won’t tell you actually how to drive. It may tell you where it’s rngoing, where to go. It doesn’t tell you what to do when it rains. It rnmight tell you when that windy road, you might have elevation, so it rnmight show you that it’s going to be a long time to get from here to rnthere, even though the two places look very close together. The score isrn a map. It doesn’t tell you how to drive, how well to drive, how to takern the turns. It doesn’t tell you how to make the trip. It only tells you rnwhere you’re going. So the score is a minimum number of instructions. 

Now,rn Toscanini, after the Second World War invented a marketing ploy. That rnmarketing ploy was I only do what the composer’s intention. Who knows rnwhat the composer’s intention? The composer’s dead. First of all, his orrn her intentions may not be the most important. He may have misunderstoodrn his own music. There are a lot of composers who had strong ideas about rntheir own music, which really were at odds. It’s like writing a book. rnIs the best interpreter of a novel by Tolstoy Tolstoy himself? No. In rnfact, it’s much more interesting to hear what other people say about rnTolstoy. Tolstoy wrote the book, but he doesn’t own the interpretation. 

Sorn the fact is that this hype about doing only what the composer intended rnis a nonsense because nobody knows what the composer intended. And the rncomposer can change his minds. For example, Beethoven wrote a bunch of rnsymphonies before 1817. In 1817 he fell in love with a gizmo called a rnmetronome. So he said, well, I’m going to put metronome markings on the rncompositions I wrote ten years ago. Well, he changed his mind. Schumann rnreedited music he wrote when he was younger and changed his mind about rnit. So intention is not a stable thing. Maybe he thought this way about rnit. Later he thought another way. So putting a piece of music on the rnstage is always about intention of the interpreter. It’s never really rnabout an honest historical representation of what the composer intended.rn That’s a marketing ploy. 

Question: What are the keys rnto good leadership in conducting? 

Leon Botstein: The rnfirst is you have to know what you want to say. Most important thing in rnmusic, as in everything else, is having a point of view. Knowing the rntext and having an argument. So you’re going to play “Hamlet,” you’re rngoing to turn him into a cranky Midwesterner? You’re going to turn him rninto a kind of a new-age adolescent? You’re going to turn him into a rndisappointed former evangelical choir boy? I mean, whatever are you rngoing to turn him into, you have to have a point of view about the rnmeaning of the text and the meaning of the role. The second thing is yourn have to have the technical capacity without speaking, just with your rnhands to realize that intention so it’s read by the musicians. 

Conductingrn is an international language, which means a good conductor can go rnanyplace in the world, get on a podium, not say a word, and give a down rnbeat and conduct a rehearsal or a performance and get what he or she rnwants done, done. You have to have the technical capacity in your hands,rn your eyes and your body to communicate how you want it to go. And the rnthird thing is you actually have to be a persuasive person. You have to rnwin the respect and the affection of the players in front of you. They rnhave to say this person isn’t wasting my time. Musicians are very highlyrn trained and intelligent people. 

And they sit in orchestras rnwhere their individuality often is suppressed. They really can play rntheir instruments, and here’s this person up there, often incompetent, arn narcissist, an arrogant person, telling them what to do, and their rnattitude is, "Wait a minute, I can do that better." You know, it’s as rnif, in a religion you had a bishop conducting a bunch of priests. Well, rnthe priests think I should be the bishop. Or you’re a rabbi giving the rnspeech and there are rabbis in the audience. All the rabbis think, well Irn should be up there talking. So you’re always dealing with people who rnare competent, sometimes maybe more competent than you in certain rnrespects, so why should they listen to you? You know? Why should we rnlisten to the president of the United States, even though we elected rnhim? You know, somebody says I’m smarter than the president of the rnUnited States, why should I listen to him? I know more about foreign rnpolicy than the President of the United States, why should I listen to rnhim?

So his or her powers of persuasion are terribly important. rnAnd that leadership function, to win the affection and respect—not only rnthe affection. Many conductors, because there’s a tension between rnplayers and conductors, go overboard. Leonard Bernstein early in his rncareer wanted everybody to call him by his first name. Not call him rnMaestro or Mr. Bernstein. Lenny. You know, he was friendly with rneverybody because he wanted to break that barrier. You can go overboard rnin that as well. Curry too much popularity, but you have to also demand rnand gain respect. 

Question: What is one of the more rnchallenging pieces you’ve ever conducted? 

Leon Botstein:rn One, the most challenging things to conduct is the thing you’re workingrn on now because all the anxiety about getting up on stage and doing it rnis located in that one piece, so the piece you are learning is always rnthe uppermost in your mind. The other two very important challenging rnthings in conducting are new music, so music that’s never been played. rnMusic that doesn’t have a reputation. Music that nobody's heard before. rnSo the question is, what do you make of it? You’re sort of the first rnperson to put it on stage. And as the first person to put it on the rnstage, the question becomes how do you give this piece its best shot, rnits best chance? 

Its best chance when it is maybe the first rnperformance, or the first performance in a long time, a revival. And thern third probably most challenging one is a very well-known piece. rnRecently I did, for example, with Dawn Upshaw here in New York, the rnFourth Symphony of Gustav Mahler with the Bard Conservatory Orchestra. rnAnd it was a challenge not only because it was a young orchestra, very rngifted young musicians with a great soloist, who has done the piece manyrn times, but also because we are doing in New York a piece which has beenrn done over and over and over again. And the question is, the burden of rnsuch a long tradition of interpretation is a very heavy one, so either rnyou give in to it or you try to break it. 

And if you break it rnyou can make enemies. You can anger people because most people come to arn hall with well-known repertory already in their ear. They’ve listened rnto the same record over and over and over and over again. They don’t rnknow that there’s actually a little book, a printed notated book that rnhas the music. So it’s really like “Hamlet.” So you look at “Hamlet.” rnYou read “Hamlet,” I read “Hamlet.” We can have a discussion for days rnabout what you think Hamlet is about, what I think “Hamlet” is about. rnBut if the only thing we had was a video of Jack Nicholson playing rnHamlet, you know, then somebody else shows up, you know, Leonardo rnDiCaprio plays Hamlet, suddenly we’re comparing John Gielgud and rnLeonardo DiCaprio. We’re not talking about Shakespeare anymore. 

Yourn know, because in our minds eye we have a mental picture of John Gielgudrn as Hamlet. So I’m offended by Leonardo DiCaprio? I don’t like it rnbecause I have in my ear somebody else’s voice. So most people come to arn concert with their favorite recording or two recordings of very famous rnworks, so if you do it differently you can anger them. For the audience rnmember who realizes that there’s no standard interpretation, there’s no rnright interpretations, there are different interpretations. None is rnbetter or worse, and that you could respond differently to the same workrn in different ways. You would want to hear it differently. I don’t want rnto hear it the same way. 

But in the classical music business, rnbecause of recording, people get used to hearing it the same way. It rngets slower, then it gets faster. They’re used to a certain tempo. And rnthey’re used to it because they’ve listened to it, they’ve learned it byrn repetition, not by learning the text, but by having in their ear in a rnway imprinted one version of it, and that audience is very hard. 
Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman