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What's the score on conductors?

August 14, 2010 |  7:00 am
Lion Are conductors really necessary? After all, there’s a printed score. Surely everything the orchestra musicians need can be found there. And traditionally, in the Baroque and early Classical periods, wasn’t the concertmaster the conductor?

But since Beethoven’s time, as Leonard Slatkin, Lionel Bringuier, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Colin Davis explain in my piece on conductors Sunday, an independent conductor has become an indispensable part of music making.

Slatkin, an inveterate St. Louis Cardinals fan, compared a conductor to “a baseball manager who does most of the work on the sidelines but is an active part of the game.”

For Bringuier, the music director’s art is “a three-step process: preparing the score, rehearsals and the concert.” He said the most important thing a conductor does is to “interpret what the composer wanted.”

But how can a conductor do this? A composer cannot capture in written form every aspect of a musical performance. As the masterful writer Paul Griffiths once observed: “The authority of the score knows various levels, and there is a whole rainbow of shades between fidelity and alteration.”

That’s one reason why conductors’ interpretations can be so different. Many decisions have to be made about phrasing, dynamics, color, stress and rhythmic flexibility that the score itself cannot resolve. And that’s the beauty of it. Otherwise, why go out to hear live music making if we can stay home and listen to one CD version that fits all?

It perhaps explains what Slatkin meant when he said musical perfection should never be the goal. “If ever there was a time when I came off stage and thought, `You know, it’s never going to be better,’ that’s when I’d have to stop.”

On Thursday, Bringuier appears at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program of Dvorak, Mendelssohn and Brahms. And on the following Tuesday and Thursday, Slatkin leads the Phil in two concerts: an all-Shostakovich program with violinist Sarah Chang, and an all-flute evening with soloist James Galway performing works by Mozart, Debussy and Piston.

— Rick Schultz

Photo: Bringuier at the podium.

Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / L.A. Times