Last week I had the pleasure of attending a rehearsal of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, along with select guests, through the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia. During a wonderful 30-40 minutes, we watched Vladimir Verbitsky, former Russian conductor now become Australian citizen and conductor laureate of the WASO, run a mighty orchestra through the power of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”, by way of Rimsky-Korsakov. (Most people are familiar with this piece through Disney’s Fantasia, where the Satanic demon rises up behind the mountain.)
There are several things that run through my mind when watching an orchestra rehearse. One thing is my memories of rehearsing alongside orchestras for major choral works. Technically demanding and precise, these performances required many weeks or months of preparation and practise. But the conductor was so important to providing the direction, guidance and energy for the group. Different conductors brought out different qualities as the singers or musicians followed them. But brilliant performances required going over and over and over the same five notes, that line, that syncopation, the entry – again and again until it was right!
Another thing that runs through my mind is that the practise of your technique is so important. You have to work through one section again and again and again till it matches the conductor’s vision. And in this respect, the conductor’s vision must be rock solid – it can change and shift as rehearsals progress, but the conductor must be able to clearly envision what he wants and direct the players to express through their technique the sound, energy and dynamism that fits into the whole. The conductor’s ability to work with the players’ own technique to achieve what he wants is vital.
One of the other things that I always feel so enthralled by is that the conductor himself (I have conducted a few groups myself) has to be in sympathetic union with the skills, needs and production of the whole group and how the performance will be perceived by the audience. He has to train the players in his own signals and expressiveness that cues their efforts. When Vladimir Verbitsky turns to the strings section, bends on his knees in front of them and stretches his hand out, shuddering as it lifts an imaginary mountain into place, the players respond, putting their finesse and strength into the bows as they draw out the deep swells from their violins. There’s a sense that one is mediating the meeting of music, performer, instrument and audience – all part of a grand narrative of passion and emotion that rises in a rapture of imagination.
Our leadership should bring together the disparate elements and talents of those before us, weaving them into a symphony of skill and performance that creates something special out of the individual parts. It requires skill, study, understanding, vision and the ability to work with and direct all of the players to bring their hearts, minds, mouths and hands to the task of the whole. It requires rehearsal, reliance on others and the realisation of the mind’s eye.