Music to shake a stick at

Conduct becoming: Adrian Jackson knows the score when it comes to conducting

CONDUCTING is  probably the easiest job in the world - money for old rope.

We have all done it. Stick on a CD, (LP for more traditional readers) or turn on Classic FM, wait for a bit you know (TIP: It is more difficult with bits you don't know) and then wave the baton about - that is the conductor's stick - in time or thereabouts to the music. Simple.

It is hardly worthwhile buying a real baton for the kitchen or living room, a wooden spoon, ruler or, an excellent choice, a knitting needle, will all do the job. And that is it.

You can add flourishes and facial gestures and wave more expressively for emotional bits or put in bigger arm movements for loud dramatic bits as you get a bit more confident. If you find yourself, for some reason, with a real orchestra you have to start them off as well, remember, so they are all on the same page but really that is all there is to it. Or is it?

If finding someone who could read a score and beat time to keep everyone together was all that was required then there would be no rush to pay £25,000 or more a concert for a maestro - or even a few hundred a pop for a lesser mortal to flourish the baton every time an orchestra trooped on stage.

There are those who see the conductor as vastly overpaid against the members of the orchestras they conduct  when, after all, it is the performers not the man with the baton who provide memorable performances. Rather like the starter taking all the bows for a stunning Cheltenham Gold Cup win.

Others see the orchestra as being the instrument of the conductor, played, just as any other instrument, to obtain the tone, emotion, pace and feeling that the conductor wants.

The majority of people though, the proverbial bums on seats, see the conductor as the bloke who comes out last, waves a baton enthusiastically, milks all the applause and leaves without having played a note. Money for old rope.

Symphonic variations: Adrian Jackson at Shugborough Hall where he produced and conducted  a series of outdoor, summer proms with his City Concert Orchestra

Next month Adrian Jackson, the executive and artistic director of Lichfield Garrick returns to his day job when he brings his City Concert Orchestra to the theatre for A Night At The Proms.

It is a black tie gala affair which will have popular music including The Battle of Britain March, The Dam Busters March, Aces High, 633 Squadron, RAF March Past, The Hebrides Overture, Land of Hope and Glory, Rule Britannia, Henry Wood's Sea Songs, Radetzky March and Jerusalem in the programme as well as a selection of well known arias from soprano Elizabeth MacDonald and tenor Victor Michael.

Although they do not play in the orchestra, conductors invariably have formal training on at least one musical instrument. Adrian's is the trombone, the same, incidentally, as Gustav Holst.

Although not someone who knows much about sport  he sees football as a simple way of explaining the role of the conductor.

“The conductor's job is about interpretation, It is a bit like a football captain or coach who has a team of footballers who are all superb in their own right  but they have to work together as a team to win.

“You have an orchestra full of highly competent musicians who in their own right are all virtuosos or soloists or whatever and it is the conductors job to pull them all together to make them work as one.

“If you give someone a book and said read that paragraph and then they passed it on to someone else to read the paragraph it would be different because the interpretation would be different.

“It is the same with music. There can only be on person in charge. The conductor. He will decide on feel, tempo, light and shade, phrasing - it is about that one person leading that team of people to produce an end result.”

In the theatre watching a play or musical you know well it is easy to see changes made by the director but with music it is different.

Unless you are an expert if you go to a concert of, for example, Beethoven's Fifth then if it sounds like “de de de derrrrr . . .  de de de derrrrr” then it is Beethoven's Fifth - end of story.

We don't tend to notice bits that are louder, or more lyrical or the fact the symphony lasts a little bit longer or shorter than the CD we have at home.

Adrian said: “You can see changes in a show. It is a sort of passive change in music. You don't see it and many people don't necessarily hear it. They just know it was right. They can't say why it was right other than it was just so beautiful.

“Music  has a different meaning to everyone. It is very subjective and what excites one person will not excite another. You just know when it is right because it gives you the experience you want. That is what the conductor does, pulls it together.”

And having pulled it together the conductor then faces the third element of a concert, the audience. According to Adrian at classical concerts there are two audiences. There are those who if they recognise the music and it sounds like their CDs at home they are quite happy and they have had a lovely night out.

There are also those who follow on mini-scores and are much more critical.

“They want to analyse. They are looking  for different things. They are looking at the technical side. They may come away thinking I didn't think much of the second bassoon player, or the timps were not quite there because they are looking for something else.”

Another problem with music these days is cost. Adrian is also a producer and artistic integrity and cost is a constant balancing act.

He said: “You are balancing what you want artistically with what you can afford. When I am going around the country with my orchestra or as a guest conductor I will be asked asked what I want in my orchestra and I will give them my ideal line-up and they will say ‘we can't afford so many musicians so we will have to cut back a bit'.

“So then you are in the realms of where it will affect the quality of the music. To my ears it will sound horrible, to some of the audience it will sound horrible but for most of the audience they will not notice.

“You have to decide things like do I have a second bassoon or just have one and hope no one notices? Most people won't spot it but some will notice and know there should be a second bassoon player. It is balancing the artistic side against the financial side. That is what I do all the time here at the Garrick and with my orchestra.”

Conductors are not just the front men for symphony orchestras though. There is musical theatre, opera, ballet - even dance bands - where someone has to lead and control.

And that can bring in other factors. When you work in musical theatre you have to work with a director. 

Adrain said: “The director will want to achieve a specific result which may or may not work musically and what you have to do as a conductor is to make it work musically. You have to create something together which works in harmony.

“If you are conducting a symphony that is very much driven by the conductor who sets the bar. In a musical it is the director, the choreographer to a point and the musical director and each one has to understand each other's department and what they have to achieve.

“You have to work together and work on the same artistic wavelength.”

Ballet brings in another element. “With ballet there is the important element of the dancers dancing at your speed and tempo. You have to be bang on every performance. The dancers will have rehearsed quite complicated manoeuvres and if you suddenly change the tempo, and it only needs to be slight, too fast or too slow, it clearly affects the performance because they cannot go off on their own, they have to go with you because once the music starts you are in charge.

“You can't afford to have a bad night. One slip of the stick can ruin a show, you end with a pile of ballet dancers.

“These days with technology in musical theatre the conductors click track so the tempo is pre determined. You press a button and you get a click in your headphone and that is what you stick to, every night of he week it is exactly the same. That has made it easier for conductors.”

Adrian Jackson , centre, with Alain Boublil (right) and Claude-Michel Schönberg at Birmingham's Symphony Hall at the premiere of their joint venture

Added to that are prerecorded tracks to augment the smaller orchestras - cost again - with often only a handful of players in the pit. 

Adrian said: “Last week at Les Mis it was nine players in the pit. In my day it was 28. Everything is scaled down for financial reasons. To get to somewhere near the artistic  level they need to create they are having to use modern technology. It is one of the reasons I don't tend to get involved with musicals because I like to have an orchestra in front of me not a machine, a computer. In a live show you have to react to the audience and you can't do it when everything is regimented. You can't communicate with the artist on stage either if it is all fixed.

“It is not used as much in ballet because they tend to have a maestro and a full orchestra. Someone who understands and is vastly experienced.

“When you have a piece full of dancing it has to finish within a few seconds each night. The only licence you get are in the overture and incidental parts with no dancing. Once the dancing starts you cannot change the tempo.”

Adrian continues to work on a conceptually new concert with the writers of Les Misérables, Miss Saigon and Martin Guerre, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, which premiered at Symphony Hall, Birmingham , and featured the BBC Concert Orchestra and West End soloists.

It showed another of the elements of conducting. In the concert was an except from Schönberg's ballet Wuthering Heights and as Adrian conducted it in rehearsal the composer leapt on the stage to explain the tempo was wrong.

Two views of the same piece. Schönberg was looking at ballet tempo, Adrian at a symphonic tempo and interpretation. With no dancers and a concert audience the pair reached a compromise. Three versions of the same piece. 

Somehow the old rope is starting to look remarkably good value.

Roger Clarke

The City Concert Orchestra - A Night At The Proms was at Lichfield Garrick on Saturday, September 11 and was presented by Hannah Gordon.

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