Performing without a conductor opens up a whole new realm of possibility within a chamber orchestra and with it a new range of challenges. Gone is the sometimes autocratic maestro, however with a greater level of democracy can also come indecision. The entire group dynamic is altered, and everyone must work together as a very focused and unified ensemble.
Fortunately, our first conductor-free concert of Southbank Sinfonia 2019 was a side-by-side project with the eminent Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF). The pieces we worked on and performed for this project were Mozart’s Symphony No.29 and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4. Don’t let the number 29 deceive you, Mozart was only 18 when he wrote this piece and Mendelssohn only 24! Repertoire written by such young composers seemed quite fitting for our young orchestra which is comprised of members aged 22-29 and was a joy to perform.
Our ASMF mentors clearly knew each other very well and had a lot of experience working together. Throughout this project, we were exposed to these talented musicians - and our own fantastic Associate Leader Eugene Lee - engaging in a lively discussion about the orchestra’s interpretation of the music. The moment the music stopped, there was almost always a chorus of discussion. When working with a conductor, the general expectation is that the orchestra should be as quiet as possible when stopped, to allow the conductor to share their ideas and opinions. This key difference created a completely different atmosphere throughout rehearsal, and I believe encouraged individual musicians to be more involved, and to feel more included.
Our mentors were certainly not afraid to disagree, but always in a positive manner and with the same goal of creating a high-quality end product. They were very congenial and professional towards each other, but with an enjoyable amount of humour and whimsey. I’m not sure I’d ever heard so many joking digs at the violin sections in my life; the viola section is normally the prime target! The combination of ASMF violist Robert Smissen and cellist Stephen Orton was a comical force to be reckoned with and this healthy mix of hard work and laughter made rehearsals go surprisingly quickly and smoothly.
One of the main challenges while playing without a conductor is for the entire orchestra to be able to communicate. With everyone seated, it can be very hard for the front stands of the strings to stay together with the back row of wind or brass players whom they may not be able to see. There is no longer a person on a podium raised above the orchestra to keep everyone in time, and therefore much of that responsibility falls on the Leader (principal violinist of the orchestra seated at the front). The Leader’s gestures have to be extremely clear and visible, and a lot of the rehearsal process becomes their obligation. These heightened duties also require a new level of trust from the Leader’s colleagues.
ASMF player Rachel Ingleton working with the wind section
To help with this challenge, it was decided that the Leader George Salter and myself, seated next to him, would be put on small podiums of our own to make us more visible to the orchestra. While in concept this was a smart idea, the execution was a tad more difficult. The first attempt involved me being on a podium that did not fit my feet, so I sat like a child with my legs dangling in the air. That created quite a spattering of laughter throughout rehearsal as more and more of my friends noticed my predicament. The second attempt involved the addition of a cardboard box for my feet to rest on; that was not so successful either. Ultimately, George stayed on a larger podium, and I got a conductors stool. It was quite an interesting experience being able to constantly spin around and look at different parts of the orchestra while playing; I could get used to that!
Ultimately, though going conductor-less can be dangerous at moments, I felt that it made our performance all the more exciting and dramatic. I’m looking forward to more concerts like this in the future!
Our annual project with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields is a central element of our Artist Development activities, the focus of this year's Music Director's Appeal. You can find out more about Artist Development and how you can help us to expand what we're able to offer musicians here.