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From the conductor’s experience – managing a philharmonic and opera theater

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It is no coincidence that it is conductors who are trusted with the responsibility to run cultural institutes. Each contact with an orchestra requires the skill of decision-making. What to pay attention to, what should not be forgotten, and finally – what does it take to make right decisions? Wojciech Rodek – conductor, head of the Lublin Philharmonic – answered these questions during a speech delivered at the 2017 International Academic Session on Symphonic and Operatic Conducting – the challenges of today, held at the Feliks Nowowiejski Academy of Music in Bydgoszcz.

Experience and knowledge

With reference to what was said by the previous speaker – José Maria Florȇncio – about the interpretation of the regulations, I would like to add that the Supreme Court has quite a different opinion on this matter, trying to prove that the musicians playing in the orchestra do not create anything, but only serve the execution of the conductor’s vision. I must say that this is extremely sad, and probably exposes, in a way, the weakness of our community, which has practically no influence on what is happening.

I have been conducting for almost seventeen years now. Half of that period I was a leader, I had to decide on things. I have a very clear memory of the first moments when I had to make decisions. They were not artistic choices that we are used to making from our first working years (concerning tempo, balance in a chord) which, especially to us artists, seem easy, natural. These were strategic decisions about running the institution, fulfilling the program, selecting guest musicians. These are extremely serious matters, related not only to the artistic sphere, but also to finance. The decisions often have significant impact on audience turnout and reputation of the institution. Making these decisions, I must admit, was very difficult.

We always strive for good and correct choices. I believe that experience and knowledge are the most important in the decision-making process. If – when deciding on an issue – we take these aspects into account and, in particular, we do not disregard the voice of our conscience, our artistic vision, then we can rest assured that everything will be fine. Unfortunately, the experience I have in mind cannot be gained at school – contact with people (with artists, musicians) is a necessity, as well as many years of work, proper conclusions after concerts. When it comes to knowledge… Imagine a young man who all of a sudden becomes the head of an orchestra. He decides that the ensemble will perform Strauss‘ Don Juan, then Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat minor, and then some piece by Gustav Mahler, all in one month. Of course – that’s one way to go. However, imagine what will happen when this young man comes to an opera house. „Now we’ll do Wagner, later Richard Strauss,“ would certainly be his words.
In repertoire planning, knowledge is much needed. I would like to give a hint to future conductors – it is necessary to acquire as much knowledge as possible when you are a student. It is valuable to study, get familiar with musical literature, and study scores. Nowadays, it is incredibly easy. Let me mention an example that is quite emotional for me: when I wanted to learn Parsifal, only one vinyl recording was available in Wroclaw; you had to borrow it to listen. I was underage at the time, so my mother had to do it for me. Next, it had to be copied onto some tapes, you had to procure the score somehow and photocopy it. Photocopy shops were not available as they are today, so connections mattered. I once told a conducting student: „now it’s all very easy – you use one computer. You can download the score and the recording from one website and you have everything. Why don’t you know any of this?“ And he answered: „you still need unlimited internet“. I have to admit that this means that such a person does not need all this at all. I remember how I couldn’t sleep in peace until I got to know the content of Tristan and Isolde. I knew excerpts, but still craved to study the entire opera. It required finding the recordings, getting the score … It was not so easy after all – and now? Now everything is possible. So I urge you to make the most of every moment spent inside the walls of the university. Students think that now there is no time for anything. There is time! It is after graduation that there will be no time for anything, and even later there will be a family, maybe children. You will have to live a normal life, work and – make decisions. And when to acquire this knowledge? Knowledge that is, as I already pointed out, indispensable.

Philharmonic and opera theaters

According to current regulations, the director is selected through a competition. However, maybe we should ask the question who the director of a cultural institution should be? An artist? Not necessarily. A manager? Either. The new director selects – or not – co-workers to do some of the tasks for him (which he may or may not be familiar with). When it happens that you have to be responsible for making decisions, it may turn out that you are the only competent person in the institution capable of taking a certain type of action. Experience and knowledge must therefore be put to very good use. But where are you supposed to learn things that require on-the-job experience? Especially in management, because decision-making at work involves – besides the artistic sphere – the organizational sphere.

You have to remember that it’s „easier“ in a philharmonic, because we “only“ have one orchestral ensemble. But think about what decisions have to be made at an opera house, where a conductor/artistic director manages multiple ensembles, including choirs and ballets. These decisions must be at least good for the institution to function properly. Going back to the philharmonic – in the case of the orchestra, work regulations are the most important. This is usually a collection of some random stipulations, which is due to the fact that in general the directors last a year, maybe two or three years, and then there is the next one, the next one and the next one. Each one makes some changes, and as a result, many inconsistencies can be observed. Let us use concertmasters as an example. Suppose there is a poor concertmaster or group leader in an orchestra. What can be done in such a situation? These are very delicate decisions. One can hope that due to demanding requirements one, they resign out of their own accord; this does not happen often. Or you can raise the bar high and at some point conclude that „unfortunately, the concertmaster is not fulfilling their role.“ In one institution, it was proposed that the concertmaster be elected through a competition for a definite term, just like the artistic director. It turned out that the orchestra members were strongly conflicted with each other, so everyone wanted to be a section leader, or concertmaster, and everyone thought they were the best musicians. Dozens of orchestra members entered the competition. The auditions were assessed by an independent committee, everything was done professionally, and the positions were mostly assigned to the same people as before. At the same time, everyone who entered the competition knew that in three or four years (depending on the rule agreed on) they could apply again. The „winner,“ on the other hand, if he or she did not perform well in the leading role, would be allowed to step down at the end of the term without any consequences. Thanks to such rules, the atmosphere in the orchestra calmed down. I once tried to implement a similar rule in one of the orchestras. It turned out that those lowest-performing musicians were union functionaries; unfortunately, this is not at all uncommon, or even often the case. They decided to defend the contestants who had already been leaders. I was told: „we cannot agree on terms because we are the only ones who can – thanks to the fact that we are irremovable – protest against cleaning up within the orchestra.“ Each ensemble has its own history, and consequently its own particularities. For this reason, one rule cannot be adopted for all orchestras. You should first get to know the community well, which will later enable you to achieve the best possible results in organizing your work.

Musicians often feel unsatisfied, having spent many years in the last stand. A number of orchestras use a noteworthy rotation method. By using it, not only do the players not get used to each other, but there is also a kind of competitive element – they show off their skills. In many orchestras, each wind group has a section leader. Does it have to be the best musician? Perhaps it would be preferable for him to be a respected person who knows how to impose solutions. However, many conductors use their own way of assigning positions, for example – indicating the musician to be the principals depending on the concert program. The policy of many ensembles, unfortunately, is for the conductor not to interfere too much in the work of the director, in the internal affairs of the orchestra. This is acceptable to some, because then the orchestra’s self-government operates very well – an instrumentalist can be idling or schedule days off if they plan to play in another project. Nevertheless, I am convinced that when the conductor (artistic director) personally appoints the musicians playing the solo part for each concert, their motivation is completely different. This is because the musician knows that his work is subject to observation, assessment and nothing is a coincidence. The way the parts are distributed can also indicate a certain degree of trust, responsibility, quality of playing, stylistic preferences. Besides, it is important for the conductor to have direct contact with the musicians, and this way of working intensifies this contact. Are section leaders therefore necessary? There are orchestras in which the concertmaster of the wind group performs more of an administrative function: marking attendance, recording standards. Artistic decisions are then taken by the artistic director.

In our orchestras there are often four wind instrumentalists at full-time, while a concert program usually requires two. In some institutions it is allowed that musicians share concerts, i.e. in the first part one group plays, after the intermission – the other. The advantage of this is that everyone – despite not playing the entire concert – is actively playing, remaining engaged, practicing. However, this causes jealousy among string musicians, who consider it unfair to get credit for the entire concert by playing only half of the program. There are also orchestras where sharing concerts is not in practice. This results in passivity on the part of the musicians, they are not in shape. Therefore, you need to decide what is better – a decrease in form or disagreements in the ensemble. More importantly – one must take responsibility for such a decision.

At some opera theaters – due to the frequent rehearsals of parts of the opera – there is a custom of not having all orchestral musicians attend all rehearsals. In the case when two instrumentalists play the first part, one comes to the morning rehearsal and the other to the evening rehearsal. In the strings, not everyone has to come to rehearsal. This rotating system allows selected people to be absent. As a result, however, the conductor does not have a full ensemble at the rehearsal. Is it fair? One has to face a choice again. For here we are dealing not only with artistic issues, but also – human issues. If the opera rehearses twice a day from Tuesday through Saturday, it is important to analyze whether during the performance we will dispose of musicians who will play enthusiastically and whether they will be energetic enough.

Choir and ballet should also be mentioned – an educated symphony-opera conductor is not necessarily familiar with these disciplines. Conductors are apprehensive about ballet-related decisions. It is important to know the specifics of the ballet, their availability, in order to be able to plan activities (during the dancers‘ lessons, it is not possible to require their presence at a dress rehearsal). In ballet, as in choir, everyone wants to be a soloist. There are different ways to appoint these soloists. Sometimes a guest choreographer arrives and observes the efforts of all the dancers, and then selects, in his opinion, the best and gives them solo roles (so it doesn’t depend on who the on-staff soloist is). Then the situation becomes unhealthy – again, one has to decide whether the choreographer is allowed to make such a choice on his or her own, since, in principle, it is the director who is in charge of the cast and who makes the final decisions. Also it should be reconsidered whether it is possible to abandon the rule that a full-time soloist is the only one entitled to perform solo. In the choir it is similar – everyone dreams of even a minor solo role. However, choir members do not always present the appropriate level. Sometimes they come to auditions repeatedly to prove that they can be entrusted with a solo part.

As far as organizational matters are concerned, one must remember: rehearsal duration (and how to shape them, how many breaks there should be), the concert norm, number of obligatory performances, how to plan this. All this is closely related to financial matters of the institution, and any ill-advised decision carries the risk of unpleasant consequences. In addition to these organizational issues, knowledge of which the conductor acquires in the course of successive years of work, there are also the artistic matters that I already mentioned. These include the scheduling of artists, guest artists and program line-up.

Currently, Polish cultural institutions are starting to resemble “ community centers „, meaning that you will find everything in their offer. In the Eastern countries (Ukraine, Belarus, Russia) „philharmonic“ means an institution that can house even a circus. It hires circus soloists, dance artists, or folk groups. In Poland, similar trends can be observed. Music institutions have slipped out of government control, and therefore have lost the supervision of people who are – one would hope – responsible, highly competent. Ever since the institutions have been under the governance of local authorities, there has been a shortage of people who would evaluate the operation of a philharmonic in a competent manner. When you come across an official who recognizes their lack of competence and grants the institution more autonomy, this is a good thing. Unfortunately, there are also those who think they have enough knowledge to cast judgments. For example – a doctor by education has been delegated to manage culture. He expresses interest in issues like the right light for musicians, the comfort of the audience. He perceives everything from a completely different perspective. Among such officials there are also musicians – often unfulfilled ones. They „know better“: „why do you play this?“, „this piece is not worth playing“, „this does not sell at all“.

Planning the event calendar

Once a soloist said to me: „I don’t understand why we can’t play Aida on Friday“. I answered: „ma’am, if we play Aida on Friday, we won’t perform anything else on Saturday and Sunday; to bring that Aida set from the warehouse, set it up, play it, assemble it, nothing else will be staged for Sunday.“ She looked at me with astonishment and pointedly retorted: „well, what do you mean it can’t be done?“. It is worth mentioning here that performing a different opera everyday used to be common in many theaters. The last institution doing so was the Wroclaw Opera under the direction of Ewa Michnik – they played something different from Tuesday to Sunday. This strategy has its strengths and weaknesses, therefore calls the director to make yet another decision. After all, it is very difficult to sell out three performances of the same title for consecutive dates at a large hall.

In the past, at one of the theaters, we ran a simulation of how many technical staff would need to be hired for the opera to perform a different spectacle every day. Let’s take twelve new employees as an example, so that a twenty-four-hour change of decorations, etc. could be implemented. Anyway, it turned out that this is not enough. The technology and execution are so highly specialized that it is almost impossible to prepare a performance in one day (along with bringing the decoration from the warehouse, which – to save money – is usually located very far away, and installing it). The technical director has to assess which order of performances is optimal. Even expanding the technicians‘ team did not make it possible to play every day. When I saw the program modified by the technical director, I concluded that we could as well do without these twelve people. It is convenient to prepare the stage set and do nothing for three days, worrying if someone will come to the shows instead.

An opera theater should work Tuesday through Sunday. Usually there is no money to perform every day, because each opera production generates losses. Consequently, more decisions have to be made. This is an extremely responsible matter, because you have to take into account the soloists‘ dates, the feasibility of decoration changes, the order of consecutive titles and – above all – the audience. So we arrive at the question – what to perform at opera houses? It turns out that popular operettas serve them best – the audience always comes through. Together with the director of the theater in Gliwice, we offered the public a new operetta. It didn’t work out – despite the very good performance of the ensembles, people were not interested in unfamiliar titles. On the other hand, Johann Strauss’s Viennese Blood, an operetta that can actually be staged without rehearsals, always had a full house (for whatever reason). But what should an opera theater be? Today there are no more operetta theaters in the country – those that once existed were either closed or changed their profile to musical theater. So it is natural that operetta can be staged in an opera theater. However, the proportion of pieces in the repertoire must be taken into account. After all, the program should not be structured based on the financial perspective only.

I have recently heard an official (who runs a chicken farm on a daily basis, but was appointed to lead the department of culture) making a statement about one of the most performed contemporary operas: „we don’t need such operas“. Does he have the right? He has, because he is higher up and can decide on many things. However, we have now reached a situation where those responsible not only for culture, but also for the city, the province, have not made their offices into something more than they really are. They are, after all, administrators of public money, and in my opinion that’s what we (specialists) are for. Experts should decide what kind of show will be staged, or what repertoire will be performed at a symphony concert. If we let it be decided by people who are incompetent and only take advantage of the fact that they have power, we will reach a a point where only commercial events will count. Events, that is, how many times a provincial marshal or mayor can make an appearance among voters. Such a concert must be „catchy“ – preferably gypsy melodies, czardash, with dancing in the background; so that officials do not get bored. I have seen many officials who – watching outstanding artists on stage – did not understand what they were taking part in. They noticed the spontaneous reactions of the audience, but did not comprehend the importance of the event. It would be nice if they appreciated the demand for such artistic endeavors; unfortunately, in most cases, what matters is their image, their logo, and that they have a great time. So this is another aspect of the job that requires the director to decide when to compromise and when to fight for their vision. It may happen that, when pressured, the person managing the institution is constantly filling the artistic season program with operettas, because this is what the authorities expect.

The question remains, what a philharmonic should be. I know from experience that the more serious and ambitious the calendar, the less people in the audience. Those who never go to the philharmonic, due to their aversion to hearing the czardas again, need a powerful experience. The best choice of repertoire is when we think that each time there are people who are coming for the first time. And it is with music that we have to encourage them to come a second time, and then another time. Regular concertgoers will always honor us with their presence, but a new audience needs a big boost, a surprise factor. I am not in favor of homogenous programs – for example – an overture, a Mozart piano concerto and a Haydn symphony. Someone can easily get bored. I admit that I have always dreamed of producing concerts without announcing the program. The audience would come, not knowing what would be played; the reception would be fully spontaneous. Apparently, Mikhail Zoshchenko, a prominent Russian author, was invited by Shostakovich to the premiere of his Symphony no. 5. At the concert, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was played first, after which Zoshchenko ran up to Shostakovich and congratulated him on his successful piece. So – the audience doesn’t need to know much about music, but must leave the concert hall moved.

When it comes to opera performances, there are many factors affecting reception. Puccini’s Turandot is a great opera that audiences adore. People go see it repeatedly, although it is fair to say that Puccini is generally popular among music aficionados. However, his operas cannot be played over and over again; for various reasons – there must also be classical works, for the orchestra. So a choice has to be made. The conductor – in addition to thinking about the audience – must also think about the development of the ensemble, give difficult and serious tasks to perform, so he will have a guarantee that the musicians practice. If an instrumentalist is given forty pages of a Mahler symphony that he has never played, they will have to learn it. So there will be a guarantee that they do not pick up the instrument only for rehearsals.

What is also worth considering is whether five rehearsals are necessary before every concert. The conviction that rehearsals are a must „because the lady from the office checks whether the right number of days, hours have been worked“ is wrong. Someone should explain to this lady that you cannot treat these matters as mathematics – perhaps a lower number of rehearsals is enough. I remember a rehearsal conducted by Jerzy Semkow who finished at eleven in the morning, saying: „you improvise beautifully“. This had an extremely motivating effect on the musicians.

The issues I’ve raised originate from experience that cannot be gained during studies. Sometimes a conductor is thrown in at the deep end and has to make decisions, the consequences of which are difficult to predict. However, it is worth bearing in mind to make good decisions, or at least – always – in accordance with one’s conscience.



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