Orchestral conducting technique: the lesson by Carlos Kleiber


By Ennio Nicotra


kleiber1-300x200The conductor is the reference point of all orchestral musicians. All of them receive a series of information from him, that is then consciously or unconsciously transformed into sound, in a performance that reflects the interpretation of the piece that the conductor has reconstructed in his mind after a careful and meticulous study of the score.

The conductor may instil his ideas during the rehearsals of course.

We take Fritz Reiner as an example of a rather austere conducting style; we’re facing a great musician, we know that his rehearsals were very accurate and detailed, his knowledge by heart of the score and the individual parts obviously aroused the reverence and awe of the orchestral musicians, even if musicians with these qualities aren’t a rarity as one might think.

He enjoyed a respect and absolute control, for almost 20 years that he was the permanent conductor/dictator of the Chicago Symphony.

We observe and listen to this very carefully all the way through his execution of the introduction of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony:


However, reflecting on the final result – exquisitely musical – we note a certain stillness. Let’s examine his conducting very carefully and let us ask ourselves the following questions:

What information is he transmitting to the orchestra?

  1. Time? yes (even if at the beginning we notice a gradual yielding)
  2. Dynamics? yes.
  3. He shows all the entries? Yes, with the gaze he controls everyone.

Something else? I don’t know.

As we know, music isn’t only made up of time, dynamics and entries..

If we were to search in Reiner’s conducting, for indications of more purely musical aspects such as:

  • phrasing
  • character
  • structure and development of the phrases
  • construction of the passage
  • agogics

we would notice after a few minutes that they are lacking.

In fact the result is static, it lacks forward movement, as if we always walked in the same place without taking any direction. This is in fact the critique that was usually given to him.

A conductor must transmit during the performance, a series of comprehensive information about the vision of the piece, and not only the time and the dynamics.

All of the essential information to make the piece come alive, the execution interesting, always keeping the tension constant.

We see the same piece under the direction of Carlos Kleiber.

He at that time embodied Beethoven’s 7th, we can “see” the character, the joy, the explosive power of this music given off through his entire person, from the expression on his face to the movements of his body, and the arms of course, and this information as we see it was seen above all by the orchestral musicians, who have the instruments in their hands…

The problem is the balance of the transition of the attack, the famous orchestral delay

(Different between the string and wind sections, but this problem is solved perfectly with the Musin technique, and the study with pianists is a great flight simulator for the next available flight with the orchestra and a perfect way of synchronization between the two sections).

We know that the production of the sound takes place during the third phase of the attack: the ascent of the arm.

Therefore, look carefully at Reiner: he jerks, the arm rises up, it stops and after a brief moment there’s the orchestral reaction, therefore already at that precise moment he isn’t with the musicians, he’s out, he must wait for them to reintegrate with himself and give the next attack, this will be repeated continuously during these six minutes. (here you can see another conductor with the same problem)

In addition, unperturbed, he continues to conduct using the staccato scheme (the oboe and the clarinet, have slurs indicated), and often he must linger to wait for the sound, very evident in the fourth bar with the eighth notes of the oboe which hesitates, because the stationary arm of Reiner doesn’t allow the player to predict the next beat. At this precise moment, there is a clear situation of incomprehension that is fairly common, conductor and musician waiting for each other.

In fact, therefore, the legato isn’t there, the four beats of the bar are isolated, musically disconnected in between, lacking continuity to see how the music moves forward. This also causes a yielding of tempo, as well as a general flatness throughout the introduction.


In music, on the contrary, it’s important to see what happens BETWEEN one beat and another

We find all of this observing Kleiber: to understand how he balances the transition of the attack,  watch the initial attack closely, first of all the gesture is single and continuous (this affects the quality of sound a lot, the wind instruments can breathe very comfortably), he doesn’t stop at the top as Reiner does in the very first frame of the video, and the sound emission occurs at the moment when his arm is located at the highest point (the third phase) exactly with the orchestra. In contrast to Reiner therefore, he doesn’t have to stop to wait, and that’s decisive for what follows, in fact it allows him to be able to go straight ahead without hesitation. The music begins to flow immediately.

Then, rightly, he conducts only legato, showing the continuity and the link between the four beats of the bar, he doesn’t cause any yielding of tempo.

As many of you may have guessed from this brief analysis there’s an inseparable link between what the conductor does and the orchestra’s reaction; everything he does or does not do find a match in the music. To put it bluntly: the orchestra, consciously or unconsciously, plays what it sees, the information that it receives. It’s quite natural that, changing the conductor, changes the sound and the way of playing of the musicians, it’s obvious, there’s nothing mysterious or supernatural or a miracle as many would like to believe, each of us transmits different information.

It’s necessary, however, to have a deep knowledge of the technique and have a trained eye to notice all of these details and to put into relation ‘action-reaction’. The matters just discussed to an untrained eye, would seem very negligible , but actually make a difference, a profound difference! And it’s equally understandable that having a deep knowledge and a mastery of the technique – of this technique – gives us a different ability to handle certain situations to our advantage. (This introduction of the Seventh isn’t as easy as it sounds, with the students we dedicate a very long time to it, even more than a lesson!).

In the emotional participation of the execution of a piece, it’s also essential to involve the orchestral musicians emotionally and physically; to the contrary, its absence makes the performance sterile and static.

Often the relationship with the orchestra is distorted by the same orchestral musicians, who in the well known pieces of the repertoire, tend to fill the deficiencies of the conductor solving many problems automatically, in some cases even avoiding looking at him, but this is only possible up to a certain limit; hardly any orchestra – despite all the good will – will ever compensate for the lack of expressiveness and generate passion and enthusiasm and a unified and comprehensive impression of the score if they are lacking in the conductor.

It is the conductor who instils a unique vision of the piece, he’s the glue which unites the different personalities of the orchestral musicians, which makes it a unique instrument.

It happened to me during a masterclass, being asked by the orchestra manager to change the piece of a student: they would willingly have played that piece, but despite a technical clarity, the lack of emotional involvement of the student made the execution flat, tedious and lacking in agogics.

Combining a clear technique with an emotional involvement is the ideal mix, the one needs the other and they have to merge themselves into a whole, integrating themselves together. The technique remains a sterile instrument if it isn’t enlivened by the emotional involvement.

Next intensive workshop in Palermo (Sicily)         15-19 July 2019

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