I had thought about conducting before singing, a long time ago. I was a teenager and I used to stand on the coffee table and listen to classical records and conduct them. Basically I’m a shy person and standing in front of an orchestra and telling them what to do is just something I couldn’t do. I couldn’t tell them, and wave a stick at them and tell them, it’s terrifying for me.
I wanted to give myself a 40th birthday present. And the idea of conducting on my 40th birthday came racing into my head and I thought this is an interesting idea, and then I thought about it and it seemed quite appealing. I was invited by the San Francisco Symphony to conduct them on my actual 40th birthday. I went to Tanglewood which is in Lenox MA, the home of the Boston Symphony, and I had all these lessons with Seiji Ozawa and Gustav Meyer who was the conducting coach all summer long. I remember working on Beethoven’s 7th. I was scared to death. I was so nervous and I was one of those conductors that kept the tempo more like a traffic cop. I didn’t know. I knew what conducting was but I had to find it. It was going to take me a long, long time. Alistair Neal, one of my teachers said something very smart to me. He said ‘Give yourself 10 years before you begin to feel authentic, before you begin to find yourself’ and it really did take that long. It took that long.
My time as the Creative Chair of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (1994-1998) was wonderful, a real learning experience. Until then, I was only doing one-day rehearsals with orchestras. I got frustrated with that. Working with the St. Paul orchestra taught me how to pace and other basic things. The musicians even gave me a special permission to sing to them in rehearsals. They understood that I was kind of an accidental conductor; even now, there is a lot of things I don’t know about how an orchestra works. When I was struggling to work out how to communicate with them they said it was OK to sing to them. They were my teachers.
Conducting, in a way, is like singing with your body. You sing with your hands; you sing with your eyes; and you’re trying to get the orchestra to sing. You could also say conducting is a kind of dance. Usually music plays and you dance as a response. But here, the orchestra responds to you because you’re dancing. It’s flip-flopped. So I guess I’m learning to dance.
I find I don’t have to say anything that technical to the orchestra. I just sing to them and they sing it right back to me. If I have to sing it 3, 5, 6 times, I do that and I try to show them as best I can. At a recent rehearsal with an orchestra I was working with, we were working on this phrase and I stopped them and they started discussing it. I had to say “Stop. Stop thinking about it. Don’t think, play.” Because sometimes it gets so analytical.
The hardest part of conducting is that there is a such a big mountain of information that I have to convey. And I believe that conductors don’t know everything they’re going to do until they’re actually on the podium. You can study the music: you know who’s playing what, where the technical difficulties are, the cuing, the harmony. You can have that all in your head, but it doesn’t mean you can conduct it. And I realize, every time I stand up there, that the hardest part is to get them to play the music the way I hear it, feel, it and know it. I think if get up there and say “OK, I’m going try and do so and so”, I’d be thinking too much about what I want to do, and so I think I try and just lose myself in that music . I want to be with the orchestra. I hate podiums I try my best not to walk out there and stand above the orchestra. I like, first off, to be on the floor because I get more space. I can come in close I want them to hear my breath, especially the violins up front. I want them to hear my breathing. I want to be with them, making music together. If I have any goal, it’s that. It’s you and me and Beethoven or whoever I’m conducting. It’s “Let’s play this”. If I’m bringing anything different, it’s me. Me in front of them and whatever the connection is.
Conducting is very improvisational. I mean moment to moment to moment to moment of intense listening. Intense awareness. That’s what it’s all about. When I stand in front of the podium, even though the notes on the page are the same, it’s a whole new day. Everything is different. The orchestra opens their folders and they’re faced with this same page. But everything else is different. The hall, the audience, the day, the weather, their mood. I believe that a concert that begins at 8:00 is going to be different than a concert that begins at 7:00 or 7:30 or 8:30. Because the time is different. I believe all of that. So as a leader you have to first off follow that moment. You go in there and do what you do, but there is something larger in working in the context of the music making that night. As a leader you have to play with it. You have to find it, find out what the hall, what the instrument is like in the hall, how it makes you play, how it makes you hear the music differently. There has to be some mystery in music making, always, even if you’ve played it a hundred times.
If the musicians feel you are trying to control everything, they might as well phone it in. But if you allow them to sense that there is mystery in the music, if you let them explore the mystery then they really play for you.
Note: In addition to his extensive touring with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Bobby has led many of the world’s finest ensembles including the London Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Kirov Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and the Orchestra of La Scala.