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'The Challenges of Playing Concerti without a Conductor' for Royal Philharmonic Society

Kristine Balanas

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.

Click here to read the full article on the Royal Philharmonic Society blog