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Conducting as communication


There is a video of the Russian conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky I absolutely adore. This video, available on youtube (, features Mravinsky conducting his own orchestra (of a barely credible 50 years), the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra, playing Tsaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

The music-making is wonderful in this film; after all, this is the bread and butter of an orchestra from the same city as Tsaikovsky. But the thing that brings me back to this video, is the strength of the conducting. In some ways it is idiosyncratic, but at the same time very classical. Mravinsky conducts without a baton, which makes his hands extremely expressive (and appealing to a choral conductor), but I think that is in the end only a minor detail.

Mravinsky’s general appearance and demeanour are, for lack of a better word, noble. You might even say his face looks austere and expressionless. But I think he proves us wrong very quickly. This is communicative conducting at its best. For me, Mravinsky does not paint a visual picture of the score or his own emotions, as many other conductors do. His conducting is aimed at realising his idea of the score. It is not so much information as communication. He prepares (and how!), warns, reacts, gives feedback, entices, encourages, all at the same time as his gestures also depict the music. Not to mention giving a pretty clear beat pattern at the same time.

A few examples. Look at the video from about 1’00. Mravinsky looks up as if looking into the distance, giving the music a poetic flavour. Then he focuses his eyes on the woodwinds during the pause creating an intensity for that pause and the next entrance. There is a little nod as he begins the next phrase (‘if you please’) that I find oddly endearing. The raising of the eyebrows (1’26 and 1’34) is also eloquent. The first one I read as ‘oh’ and the second one ‘with care, eh?’.

When the music changes character at 2’13, Mravinsky first concentrates on the strings and their new motive with both his hands and his body. He then turns his attention to the woods and their theme (eyebrows again). He nods slightly to the clarinet (‘good’) and even manages a little grimace of a smile (‘all good’ / ‘great music’). At 2’29 comes a surprising and eloquent small gesture of the hand for the new entry. It encompasses both time and character beautifully.

After this come a few key moments from the point of view of causing what he feels is in the score as opposed to depicting it. From about 2’40 the intensity of the music grows, but Mravinsky remains calm, thus keeping the momentum in check. And, for me, the most amazing thing happens around 2’55 when four sudden violent waves appear in quick succession. Mravinsky’s gestures focus on the syncopated notes that begin the motive (in the lower winds). These notes are not at all the most salient audible element of Tsaikovsky’s musical figure. In the same way, his conducting from about 3’20 is surprising. Again, the music is powerful and even aggressive, very upright in sound. Yet, Mravinsky’s gestures are restrained and to a great extent horizontal. Besides changing the way this passage sounds (giving it breadth), he also seems to saving energy for where the music is going and creates an amazing intensity that lasts until the culmination around 4’00.

This is what makes great conducting so exciting. There is a clear vision combined with wonderful skills and a deep desire to communicate the vision. It is a here-and-now experience because of the communicative approach. It will in all likelihood never be the same again. This makes it thrilling for both musicians and audience. There is a deep respect for the score, but there is also an understanding of the need to interpret the score every single time, like a text and its reading. I also believe there is a deep respect for the musicians and the communicative approach makes them part of the creative process.

It is worth noting that a great deal of the gestures, with which Mravinsky works, are not traditional conducting gestures. Yes, the hands are beautiful, the movements flowing, the beat patterns clear and the impulses precise. All these could only come from a good training and years of experience. But the facial expressions, the body movements and many gestures of the left hand are clear to us because they are just normal body language we read every day in other human beings. I believe most of these gestures are intuitive and are just a natural expression of the will of the mind and the will to communicate with the performers.



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