I play in a small ensemble (LONDON OCTAVE) and usually we don’t need conductors. When we play we try to listen to each other… and we find that from that awareness a common feeling and a sense of the music can emerge. It helps that we have all known each other and played together for many years. Of course a gifted conductor can have a similar effect. he can even generate that precious feeling that what we are hearing now has an almost cosmic importance. But those conductors and moments are rare and the moments can happen without a conductor. Also those special conductors unfortunately command huge fees for each concert! Most conductors are “ordinary”. They tell the players what to do both in words and gestures….. but those instructions remain sterile because they are only theoretical instructions and the players are not allowed room to play from themselves. These conductors assist a safe performance without a mistake…. As one conductor candidly put it: “Conductors are like condoms, its safer with, but better without.”

Some conductors are even worse than ordinary. But they are sometimes very good news for professional musicians. They are so incompetent that they can be ignored……and sometimes have to be ignored! So then the players have to rely on their own listening and attentiveness and it’s my experience that something very alive and even exciting is possible. A performance of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro (not with London Octave) which was conducted by a so called conductor who could show nothing, not even when to start playing, turned out to be one of the most exciting performances I can remember because the situation generated an uncanny and even desperate reliance on each other amongst the string players So now when people tell me so and so is a bad conductor I prick up my ears and think “Hopefully he’s really bad…..then there could be an enjoyable concert in prospect after all.”

Dietrich Bethge, cellist, and director of London Octave


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