Theatricality and technique: the gestural and emotional aspects of orchestral conducting

By Ennio Nicotra 09/01/2016


The conductor is first and foremost a musician performer. As an instrumentalist he has to revive the process of reincarnation in the piece with his whole being, from the musical conception to the motor and emotional sphere (Ilya Musin).


This phrase is by my teacher- but that could also be a remark from the pen of Konstantin Stanislavskij – the figure of the conductor pruned by mystical and supernatural connotations by tracing it back to a more human, more earthly dimension.


The conductor, says Musin, is a performer, and thus like a performer he uses a technique for playing his instrument


(On this subject, and on the new concept of “technique” we had the opportunity to talk about this thoroughly in the previous articles).

In the light of this observation, noting the great orchestral conductors of the past and the present in action, we can’t help but not shift the focus to the tangible acting component in many of them, understanding the use that they make of it to influence the orchestra, and consequently grasp the obvious points of contact between orchestral conducting and the theatrical representation.


Who could not talk about the theatrical representation observing this Bolero of Ravel


or the Romanian Rhapsody of Enescu?


The affinities with the so-called theatrical form “one man show” are manifestly evident. At times, doesn’t it seem to help to watch a play, where instead of following the show from behind the scenes, the conductor is at the centre of the stage to lead his company?


Orchestral conducting is wide-ranging, a musical direction, the transmission of an interpretative thought and an overall view of the score; but in detail, there has to be an element of coordination and a constant reference point, absolute and shared by the whole orchestra (see the previous article with the testimony by Stefano Mainetti)


It’s not only the acting, but also the manifested will to convey to the orchestral musicians, to the “actors”, in fact to those to whom the performance is entrusted, a unique musical idea and to influence with that, their musical perception and their performance.


I think that the Bernstein video is eloquent from this point of view.


We can easily deduce from these examples that the motor sphere together with the emotional sphere has a very important role.


Undoubtedly, the emotional participation in the performance makes it alive and interesting, and always makes an impression in this short precious movie of Furtwängler, because it allows us to separate the technique from the emotional involvement.

In an era when it was believed that the orchestral conducting was the only art without a codified technique, his arms bounce almost without any apparent control, his body seems to be crossed by electrical shocks. It is impossible to talk about conducting technique, to identify rhythmic impulses, in the midst of those convulsions, but the shaman lives by his own light, as if he was in a state of trance; he’s separated from our world and has entered into contact with other dimensions.


She is there, has manifested herself, she who grabbed Franco Ferrara and hurled down from the podium has possessed Furtwängler:


The inner emotional involvement is therefore essential, to try to also extend this condition to the orchestral musicians, and it’s a thread that unites the greatest orchestral conductors.


In conclusion, it’s inevitable to note in the great figures in the history of orchestral conducting, the deep intertwining between conducting and acting.


For these reasons, having overcome the early stages of learning the basic principles of conducting, it is important in parallel with a specific repertoire cut to the characteristics of the individual student, to try to develop beyond the motor sphere, the emotional sphere too.


If you want to learn or refine your conducting technique,

Next Workshop in  Palermo (Sicily) 17-21 July 2017!  Intensive week with piano duo  in Villa del Pigno – Istituto dei ciechi Florio e Salamone.


(By Ennio Nicotra)

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