The Role of The Conductor — Q & A

Musings by, and an Interview with, Conductor William Boughton

"... Boughton brings an infectious enthusiasm..."

Fanfare, USA

“I’m often asked“What is it that a conductor actually does”?  My response varies depending upon the time, place and person asking. However this is not a light-hearted subject and the question demands respect.

Let’s start with the great and undisputed masterpieces of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms etc etc. We, the musicians and conductor, are entrusted with the responsibility of bringing these works to life, maybe even spreading new light on them, and in so doing elevating and inspiring ourselves and, most importantly, the audience. This is the sole objective of classical performers. Our love and dedication to the music is a given.

Conducting is a silent art-form, communicated through our hands and expressions. The conductor, at best, is an inspirational enabler. I have to have the ability to know when to get in, and out, of the way of the musicians. The conductor enables the shaping of phrases, provides the architecture of the piece/movement, balances the ensemble, provides the tempo—which can change enormously from one acoustic to another, enables communication across the ensemble—particularly important with a large orchestra, and should always remain open and humble to the greatness of the creation they are working on.”

Q: How do you choose what to perform?

A: “The choosing of what music to perform is extremely important, for if there is no connection (intellectual and emotional) I don’t even go any further. The love of one piece of music by a composer doesn’t mean that you are going to like, or have an affinity, with all their music. I normally ‘live’ with a piece of music for quite a few months before making a decision of whether to add it to the repertoire.”

Q: How do you learn the scores?

A: “I have developed this process—Read through the score to get an idea of architecture, form, orchestration, repeat that process as many times as necessary to become familiar with those elements. Then start the detailed learning of phrases, harmony, counterpoint and structure. Only when this is done do I mark phrasing with the required technical elements to realize them through bowings breathing, kind of attack, rubato—a subject for a future interview!

The process of learning a work that has been in the standard repertoire is different to working on a contemporary piece. Take a Mozart or Beethoven Symphony, Bach Passion or a 20th Century classic like the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra which I will research through scholarly books and instrumental treatises, the history, playing styles, the commissioning and, in the case of Baroque and Classical music, listening to Period Instrument Performances and Recordings. I always try to be as thorough as possible.”

Q: Your advocacy of contemporary music is well known. How do you select the who and what?

A: “The composer, and therefore new compositions, are the life-blood of the art-form, we, the performers provide the oxygen that brings it to life. Usually it’s a particular piece of music by a living composer which inspires me to delve deeper into their oeuvre. I need to ‘live’ with their music for quite a while before deciding to perform it – some people make a strong first impression that withers, others can sustain and develop that initial interest.  The excitement of bringing a contemporary piece of music ‘to life’ is, for me, unparalleled.”

Q: What is your approach to programming new music?

A: “My process is simple – be BOLD. The arts are about pushing the boundaries testing our sensibilities and acknowledging the new. Why not try new music, you might be pleasantly surprised. Too many audiences nowadays have an immediate and negative reaction to anything they don’t know. The default position on seeing a composer’s name that they have never heard of is – can’t be any good or we would have heard of them before.

I acknowledge that appreciating the palette of a contemporary composer requires some work, openness and preferably some excitement for something new. Where would be today if Mozart and Beethoven audiences had been so negative towards music of their time. One of Man’s worst attributes is the immediate distrust of anything new or change to ways that we have always done things. Are we programmed this way by our educational systems?”

Q: How do you develop an interpretation?

A: “This is a little like asking a Composer – how do you compose. It’s impossible to answer. Only when you have done all the study, research and lived with a piece for a long time can you really claim to have an interpretation. It’s a little like getting to know a person, with all their peculiarities, subtleties, strengths, weaknesses etc can you really claim to know them? And even then you can be surprised. The same with a Bach Passion or Beethoven Symphony you can stumble upon something that you never realized was there and it changes your view of the entire work, and then you work with a different ensemble and those musicians bring something entirely different but very valid to the work. If a performance sounds organic and not manufactured then the performance has succeeded.”

Q: What creates the performance?

A: “The process starts in the first rehearsal – the development and cohesion of the ensemble based around the ‘buying’ in of ideas about a piece. Developing an atmosphere of creativity where the musicians respond to each other within the framework that is being provided.”

Q: There is a defined sound to the orchestras you conduct – how do you create this?

A: “There are many unexplainable aspects to our interactions with each other.  We talk about the ‘chemistry’ between us. It is this chemistry that makes us react differently to each other. I know within a few minutes of rehearsal if the chemistry between us is positive and conducive to developing a fine performance. Attending rehearsals of the Philharmonia Orchestra with Karajan, Klemperer and Guilini as a youngster made a strong impression and I carried this sound in my head for many, many years. As a cellist it was the sound of the Philharmonia strings that I always emulated – that sound has stuck in my head.”

Q: Which conductors do you most respect?

A: “Old ones. It takes years of dedication, love and understanding to really know the great works, to be at one with them – like being with an old friend – you don’t have to ‘do’ anything. When you listen to one of their performances the music unfolds in the most natural way, no histrionics, no sensationalism, it’s all about the music and so it touches us in a profound way. There are, and always have been, many brilliant and very talented young conductors, but they need time and the expertise of the musicians they’re working with to develop a total understanding of the symphonic canon of great works.

When I listen to Abbado’s Mahler with Lucerne Festival Orchestra it has this beautiful naturalness to it, or Gunter Wand doing Brahms, or Herbert Blomstedt doing almost anything!”


"... Boughton brings an infectious enthusiasm..."

Fanfare, USA