The Art and Science of Conducting

December 19, 2011
Conductors are “multitaskers” in motion, using baton movements, body language, and eye contact to guide and inspire sixty (or more) orchestral players at the same time. In addition, they know musical scores inside and out, interpret and carry out each composer’s artistic vision, and expertly direct the audience’s attention during each performance.

Brett Mitchell (above) knows all about multitasking. As a former Assistant Conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Ph.D. graduate of the University of Texas, and current Music Director of Michigan’s Saginaw Bay Symphony, Mitchell has a fascinating view from atop the podium and a passion for involving his audience. This maverick maestro is scheduled to speak at the Women’s Institute of Houston’s lecture luncheon series on January 20, 2012. We visited with him to get an advance preview.

WIH Reporter: How do most people regard conductors?
Mitchell: Most people think that the conductor’s job is to “beat time.”  While there is some truth to this view, it represents very little of what we do on the podium. The conductor’s function is similar to the managerial equivalent of “macro-managing”, making sure that there is a clear vision, but letting each team player take responsibility for executing their part of that vision. For the most part, a conductor’s job (especially with a first-class orchestra like the Houston Symphony) is to help the orchestra shape phrases and to guide the listeners’ attention.
WIH Reporter:  It’s interesting that you bring up the managerial perspective. There have been recent articles about CEOs, entrepreneurs, and other business professionals who are studying the management styles of top conductors.
Mitchell: I really view my entire job as consensus-building. While I certainly come to a first rehearsal with very clear ideas in my mind of how I’d like to shape a particular piece (what tempos and dynamics I’d like to try, etc.), I rely on my colleagues in the orchestra to bring their vast experience to the table as well.  More often than not, they’ll play a particular passage in rehearsal in a way that I hadn’t thought of, and we’ll run with that.  Additionally, if the oboist plays a particular phrase one way, the cellos will listen to that and play their next phrase in response to that. We all work together by listening to each other, both through the notes the orchestra plays and through the words we exchange, to ultimately arrive at the interpretation that the audience hears at the performance.  That interpretation is not one man’s (or woman’s) vision; it is a collective vision informed by the countless years of experience shared by everyone onstage.
WIH Reporter:
What are the most challenging pieces to conduct and why?
Mitchell: Operas are always a challenge to conduct, because not only are you working with a full orchestra, but there are singers (and sometimes a chorus) up onstage.  These singers all have to have memorized their music and words (most of the time in a foreign language in which they’re often not fluent). They are wearing costumes and dealing with lighting, blocking (where to stand and move), and moving scenery.  All these things can make for plenty of potential distractions for the singers onstage, and so much of the conductor’s attention throughout a 3, 4, or even 5-hour opera has to be devoted to those onstage.  There can be offstage musicians (mimicking the sound of some far-off military band, for example), and conducting them has to be achieved via either an assistant conductor who is watching on a video monitor offstage, or the musicians themselves watching on a big screen.  Needless to say, it is by far the most involved and complex kind of conducting there is!
WIH Reporter:What do people need to know about conducting and conductors?
Mitchell: Conducting is not a dictatorial or autocratic role; it is much more about being an arbiter of taste (e.g., deciding how softly a particular passage should be played) than being a micro-manager (e.g., deciding how every aspect of a particular passage should be executed).  The best conductors are those who let the musicians express themselves personally and most fully, while encouraging them to play better together than they ever thought they could.
WIH Reporter: What were the strongest influences in your life?
Mitchell: Leonard Bernstein, my primary conducting teacher Kevin Noe, and my parents. Also, something few people know about me is that my first musical love was Barry Manilow!
WIH Reporter: What books would we find on your night table?
Mitchell: Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes,” John Mitchison and John Lloyd’s “The Book of General Ignorance: Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong,” and the Collected Poems of W.H. Auden.
WIH Reporter: It sounds like the view from the seats is only a tiny fraction of the overall story. 
Mitchell: Conductors are not typically a breed most people interact with on a regular basis, so shedding some light on my line of work and how it relates to consensus-building in all walks of life is one of my great passions.
Brett Mitchell is scheduled to speak on January 20th, 2012 at 11 a.m. The lecture luncheon program meets five times a season at the River Oaks Country Club, and brings nationally recognized commentators to discuss issues and topics of current interest in a variety of fields. Three lectures remain in the 2011-2012 season; each of the remaining individual lectures can be attended for a fee of $80 or a prorated membership for $210 for three. The fee includes the lecture (11 a.m.), luncheon (12:00 Noon), and valet parking.