A Daily news digest by Jasper van Santen

Breaking Conductors’ Down by Gesture and Body Part – NYTimes.com

In Nonsense on April 6, 2012 at 12:09

Breaking Conductors’ Down by Gesture and Body Part 

ARMS carve the air. A hand closes as if to pull taffy. An index finger shoots out. The torso leans in, leans back. And somehow, music pours forth — precisely coordinated and emotionally expressive — in response to this mysterious podium dance.

Concertgoers, who train their ears on the orchestra, inevitably fix their eyes on the conductor. But even the most experienced listener may not be aware of the subtle and deep connection between a conductor’s symphony of movements and the music emanating from the players.

So in an attempt to understand what is going on, we interviewed seven conductors as they passed through New York in recent seasons with an eye to breaking them down into body parts — like that poster in the butcher shop with dotted lines to show the different cuts of meat — left hand, right hand, face, eyes, lungs and, most elusive, brain.

The conductor’s fundamental goal is to bring a written score to life, through study, personality and musical formation. But he or she makes music’s meaning clear through body motion.

“If you imagine trying to talk to somebody in a totally foreign language, and you wanted to express something to that person without the use of language, how would you do that?” the British conductor Harry Bicket said. “That’s really what you’re doing.”

Every baseball pitcher has a different motion, but all pitchers want to retire the batter. Similarly, every conductor employs a singular style, but all want to elicit as great a performance as possible. So our breakdown has inherent generalizations.

In the end it must be remembered that the art of conducting is more than just semaphore. It is a two-step between body and soul, between physical gesture and musical personality. The greatest technician can produce flabby performances. The most inscrutable stick waver can produce transcendence.

“You can do everything right and be of no interest at all,” said James Conlon, the music director of the Los Angeles Opera. “And you can be baffling and effective.”


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