In 2015, I had my first experience of a “conductorless” performance, playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris. Not having anyone to rely on to direct, I was worried we might do the musical equivalent of running around like a headless chicken! But of course an orchestra has many fine heads, and once on stage there was not much to worry about. It was in many ways a relief – indeed a liberation – to discover what we were capable of on our own.
Without a conductor, everyone’s attention is different. The musicians become more aware of their roles as individuals and how much responsibility they have within the collective. We had to observe and react to one other, since no one person was keeping track. Creating a strong relationship with the concertmaster can help enormously; you have to learn to trust him or her (as well as the other section leaders) and together you must reach an agreement on how to handle certain entries and points of interpretation. You cannot simply play and hope they follow as this is guaranteed to create a mess.
As the soloist you take on some of the conductor’s role by showing more bodily gestures. You have to think about them carefully and not communicate in a manner that will mislead the other players. I had to learn how to indicate articulation, phrasing, dynamics, and give cues to particular sections of the orchestra – like the brass and percussion. A great deal to do!
Unconducted ensembles only work when playing certain kinds of repertoire – mainly music written during the mid-19th century when the conductor had yet to become a standard part of the orchestra. Chamber-sized orchestras are better predisposed to respond well to this set-up than a full symphony orchestra. While there are many smaller groups that do fantastic work with 20th century music, I find that many modernist violin concerti are simply impossible to pull off without a conductor due to the music’s complexity.
The first conductorless orchestra of the 20th-century was founded in Moscow in the first years of the Soviet Union. It was called Persimfans — one of those unusual Soviet-era Russian acronyms: Perviy simfonicheskii ansambl bez dirizhera, or “first symphony ensemble without a conductor”. For them, it wasn’t just about reviving an earlier tradition, but also creating a democratically organised musical group inspired by the revolution. Apparently they would sit in a circle facing each other, with some musicians even having their backs to the audience. All the musicians studied the scores and participated in discussions about interpretation and technique. Sometimes they would allow conductors to work with them — Otto Klemperer being one — on the grounds that such figures were against the dictatorship of “bad” conductors. Klemperer, by the way, loved them, and said that if this kind of group continued, people like him would have to find new jobs.
Soon after, similar groups sprang up in Kiev, Baku and even Leipzig. Of course, it didn’t last long. In 1932, after ten years, Persimfans was disbanded — not long after Stalin started acting as the dictatorial “conductor” of the whole country. By the time I was born in Latvia at the very end of the USSR, all the conductorless orchestras were found in the West, like New York’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
You could say a conductorless orchestra is more democratic, but does it create better music? In my experience, the important thing is clarity of how you see the piece and conceive an interpretation. This is normally an agreement between you and the conductor as the leader of the orchestra, but this can also be done with the orchestra alone. It does require more attention on everybody’s part, since the “management” figure is no longer there; but when done correctly, and with diligence, it does not take anything away from the final performance.
For me, it is easier to play with a conductor. He (or she — I hope soon this won’t be so rare, thanks to programs like the RPS-supported Women Conductors!) is like a “boss” who is responsible for the main decisions; who has a picture of the whole piece and an idea where it should go. A conductor can also help performers economise on time, which has become an increasingly rare resource in today’s world of fast-paced rehearsal schedules. This is very useful, especially in very complex music. It is the way I have played for most of my life, and which feels most natural – like having a boss is for people in many other professions.
In this sense a conductorless orchestra is a special experience for any musician, if not a luxury in terms of time and self-organisation. It also gives you an opportunity that many musicians rarely have: a chance to work entirely under your own initiative and take the time to work with others towards a shared goal. It forces you to articulate your vision of the music and convince or persuade others of the strength and validity of your ideas —respectfully, without over-asserting your authority. The more thoughtful and attentive musicians are to their art, the more they, and the audience, will enjoy the music.
As well as the Mendelssohn Concerto, I’ve had the opportunity to play Mozart’s fourth and fifth concerti this way – a rewarding experience every time. I am very excited to play in a “conductorless” recording of Peteris Vasks’s violin concerto Distant Light this summer with a chamber orchestra in Latvia and the new challenges it will bring.
Ideally, after all the hours of practicing, you get on stage for a performance and, at least for a few moments, you get to live in the space between your instrument, your fingers and your ears. But we don’t always get to have perfect semi-out-of-body experiences. And in fact, quite often, “technical difficulties” tear you away from the music (just ask Janet Jackson). As long as no one gets hurt (more on this below), these experiences can even be good, when we are forced to think on our feet and find a solution quickly. In a time of highly polished and edited recordings and musical perfectionism, a small mishap can even be a humanizing experience. What should you do when something goes wrong? Here are a couple tips I can share on how to respond to the unexpected on stage.
1. Think quickly.
At the Latvia Music Award Ceremony in Riga, my E string snapped moments before the end of Wieniawski’s Polonaise Brilliante – in fact, it snapped right as I was approaching the fermata. The concert was being filmed live on national TV, and it would have been pointless by then to call “time out” and fix my poor violin. Time already slows down when we play music, and fear and adrenaline bring it almost to a halt. In a number of seconds that felt like hours, I realized I had to do something immediately. I would even say that I didn’t realize anything – my legs simply took me elsewhere before I could say what I was doing. I turned to the concert master, Sandis Šteinbergs, and said, “Sandis! Please help me!” He graciously lent me his violin and saved the day: I played to the end, as you can see above. In the middle of a performance everyone is concentrated on the goal of getting through the piece to the best of their ability, so that when a mishap does occur the other musicians also notice it immediately and will probably try to help if they can.
2. Stay calm and wait for an appropriate moment to react.
At a recent performance in Tel Aviv, I watched with horror as my music stand began to slide down in slow motion. By the time it stopped it was much farther down and I was craning my neck toward the floor. Thankfully I was wearing contact lenses that day – if I had been wearing glasses they would have probably fallen off. When we finished the movement, I pulled the stand up only to see it start to inch slowly down again. The audience started to laugh, and I did too. This broke the tension, I smiled, got up and took the music stand backstage to replace it. In most of the situations I have experienced or heard about from colleagues, you can either make do with the slightly compromised situation or calmly interrupt the performance between movements or pieces and fix the problem.
3. When it isn’t a musical issue, trust other people to know what to do.
An elderly concert attendee fell unconscious when I was performing in Poland. At first I only noticed people going up and down the isles – something to which I try not to pay attention while I am playing. But then two paramedics came in with a stretcher and placed a woman on it. She had a heart condition and was not responding. Although I didn’t know what was going on, at this point I was naturally quite concerned that something awful might have happened, but continued playing as it seemed to be under control. I was relieved to find out later that she came to shortly after they took her out and that she even insisted on returning for the second half of the concert.
I’m conflicted, however. Musicians literally have center stage and can direct the audience’s attention to someone who may need help. If we are attentive to the audience as musicians, surely we also must be prepared to recognize an event that is larger than the music itself, and then to use our position to help. No matter what the situation, however, it is best to remain calm, look for an opportunity to intervene – whether in a technical issue or a more serious emergency – and count on your training and disciplined practice to deliver you once the music can begin again.