What makes a great conductor?

What makes a great conductor? Being a composer at the mercy of them, I’m constantly confronting this question. Some recent performances prompt a few thoughts.

Take Marin Alsop, who recently conducted Desert Transport at the Cabrillo Festival. This is a woman who conducts a dozen new pieces a week during a time when most of humanity is on vacation. How does she do it? For starters, she knows the score inside-out at the first rehearsal, and she’s bred an orchestra of exceptionally serious musicians. So when she gives the first downbeat, already a great deal of the work has already been done: due diligence to the music, and long-term development of the orchestra.

And it’s a very nice downbeat: so much experience lies behind that one swing of the arms! Laying down a clear beat, giving the right players the right looks at the right times, keeping all the instruments in balance with subtle nods — these should be in the toolbox of every maestro, but seemingly simple tasks are not easily mastered (cf: drawing a perfect circle).

With Desert Transport, Marin conducted a piece that literally cranks up (it’s about a helicopter flight over Sedona — excerpt here). Tons of energy pulses from the first measure, and the tempo constantly increases as the aircraft takes flight. Making an evenly-paced two-minute accelerando ain’t easy, yet she had the orchestra locked tightly to her the entire time. There’s even a passage where the conductor syncs-up with a field recording of Pima Indians — sort of like juggling on a rocking boat (the Pima don’t exactly keep a steady beat). She did all this exquisitely, charismatically, and generously. Marin may be part woman/part laser in rehearsals, but her warmth comes through at showtime. That combo, for me, is what makes her a great conductor.

Then there’s Riccardo Muti. He’s from an entirely different time and place.

His reputation as an ‘authoritarian’ precedes him (thanks to some critics). He certainly looks the part: dark looks, a fierce brow. And sure, one thinks of his tenure at La Scala and the knees begin shaking. Yet the man is beloved by those who play under him.

How he achieves this lies at the nexus of über-serious musicianship and Old World charm. Here’s an example: you’re sitting in Chicago’s Symphony Center watching a rehearsal of Aus Italien by Strauss. Almost all of the information comes from the maestro’s baton: tempo (obviously), dynamics (a few inches’ difference is a huge swell from the brass), even character (little bounces with the scepter and those staccati sound way more clear). This is textbook efficiency.

But suddenly he stops and starts telling a long anecdote. Instruments go on laps, percussionists take seats, time passes. One wonders: is this storytime? At just that mind-wandering moment, the maestro comes to his point: the third movement of Aus Italien isn’t just a beautiful seaside idyll. It’s the Italian coast seen through the eyes of a German, and a subtle balance of rigor and rest needs to permeate every phrase. The musicians take up their instruments, and they sound transformed. The entire vibe has morphed. The maestro’s little story was charming — and massively effective.

Another living legend, Michael Tilson Thomas, adds a very special angle: he composes. Writing music for Michael is perhaps like sending a screenplay to Quentin Tarantino. He can look at a work from both the inside and outside. I’ve gotten used to chatting with him about the music before it’s written: with both The B-Sides and Mothership, for example, I passed along written overviews of the works before a note was composed. His very pithy, meaningful suggestions always impact the pieces. (I left a few pages about his latest piece, Mass Transmission, in his dressing room after last night’s concert — we’ll see!)

But beyond Michael’s musical genius is his Berstein-esque ability to communicate with anyone in the room. His thoughtful commentary to the audience enhances the experience for everyone — from seasoned music professionals to first-timers. I still think about his introduction to the Berg Violin Concerto: in a few short minutes, he elucidated the entire inner workings of a complex 12-tone piece. That ability to reach out, in addition to create conducting chops, is so critical today.

But of course, great conductors exist outside of the pantheon of living legends. Robert Moody, who leads orchestras from Portland to Phoenix to Winston-Salem, has conducted more of my music than anyone. (He commissioned my first piece.) His combination of superb musicianship, affable communicative skills, and fearless programming sets him apart from a great many other young conductors. Or take Edwin Outwater, who recently conducted a concert of my music in Portugal: his eclectic programs move from classical to modern to indie rock. Accessible yet substantive, provocative yet engaging: killer combo.

So, what makes a great conductor? There’s not one answer: it’s different with each one. But certainly, every great conductor needs more than superb musicianship. Charisma and leadership are critical, as well as sincerity and generosity. Musicians, after all, don’t like to play for a crossing-guard; they want to play with a partner, someone who invites them into a unique experience. Wish I had space to discuss all of the wonderful ones I’ve been luck to encounter.

(For example: Leonard Slatkin, who leads the Detroit Symphony in The B-Sides in November – check back to see how it goes!)