What makes a great conductor?

James Levine leading the Met Orchestra in Carnegie Hall last May

The Cincinnati Symphony’s “Russian Hallows’ Eve” was an entertaining brew. Here’s the review. I was especially impressed by the soloist, Benjamin Schmid, an Austrian violinist.

The concert was led by guest Andrey Boreyko. As I was leaving a gentleman came up to me and asked, “What makes a great conductor?”

That’s an intriguing question, and I’ll bet a lot of musicians could weigh in — not always positively! It’s definitely a different experience for the audience, which only sees the performance. A conductor who is charismatic on the podium doesn’t always mean greatness; lots of work and communication with the players takes place during rehearsals. (Look at James Levine, now confined to a wheelchair, who barely moves as he conducts.)

For me, I look for expressive phrasing, a sense of direction over the arc of a piece, respect for the composer and period and musicianship. A great conductor takes the listener on a journey, and conveys a specific point of view. And I enjoy it when a conductor is spontaneous (but I know that musicians hate that).

There is something about being a conductor that is indefinite –a chemistry happens between orchestra and conductor that results in an inspiring experience.

What do you think?


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