This season I’ve begun a new job! In March, I was officially announced at the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra’s new assistant conductor, to be assisting mostly the chief conductor, Karina Canellakis, as well as other guest conductors.
Before I go on, I realise there’s already a lot of jargon to untangle.
Surely a conductor is just a conductor? How can they be a guest? Doesn’t an orchestra just have one conductor? How can you assist when there’s usually only one conductor on the podium?
These are some of the most frequent questions I’m asked when I try to explain my work. Let me give a quick break down of some of these terms, which may, in turn, provide background to where I come in, and what my new role is about.
Conductor: A master of stick waving. Nomadic and reconciling a world of music - typically with orchestras, chorus and soloists - these creatures are often found buried in a large book containing lots of notes (the score). ‘Conductor’ refers to the craft and and profession, and how the stick waver would identify themselves as an artist. The term indicates a possibility for engagement with orchestras, but not the nature of the engagement. In the biz, we would label the nature of the work as one of the following:
1. Guest Conductor: Whilst there are many orchestras that simply have one conductor for all of their concerts year-round - typically amateur, semi-professional and student orchestras who meet weekly with a handful of concerts per year - professional orchestras tend to contract multiple conductors across a season of perhaps 30-35 concerts/projects. Each project will involve a certain span of rehearsals and concert or repeat concerts, with all of this typically taking place over a week or fortnight. When a conductor is first invited by an orchestra, and when they are invited subsequently before being given a ‘titled’ position (see below), they are known as a ‘Guest Conductor’. This type of career has many benefits in terms of flexibility and choice and variety of work. It also leads to lots of travel which causes the ‘nomadic’ stereotype for conductors. Almost all conductors begin with a certain amount of ‘guesting’, and many conductors continue with this throughout their careers.
2. Principal Guest Conductor/Associate Conductor: If a relationship with an orchestra develops strength and regularity, the orchestra may ask the conductor to hold a titled position with the ensemble. This usually is a consolidating of the relationship and a recognition of it, as well as combining with a certain commitment of concerts per season; perhaps 2 or 3.
3. Chief Conductor/Principal Conductor/Music Director: Most professional orchestras have a chief conductor - which may also be known by the other titles above, with some small nuance in meaning, but overall similar roles. Whilst in amateur and student settings, the chief conductor of an orchestra would conduct all or 90% of the concerts, with professional orchestras, the chief conductor performs more like 30-50% of the concerts. They are also responsible for the musical development and growth of the orchestra, and are involved in the planning of the concerts - picking music, perhaps choosing other conductors or soloists for certain pieces - and are involved in auditions for new players in the orchestra when this is necessary. It’s a big job, with lots of responsibility, and many conductors will choose to move to the location of their ‘chief conductorship’ after appointment. Other conductors at the top of their field may hold multiple chief conductor positions.
4. Assistant Conductor: This is a position usually given to a conductor at the start of their career (aka - me!). The assistant conductor will shadow and assist the music director of the orchestra, and perhaps also other senior guest conductors during the season.
Assistance is provided in many different ways. The main aim of the job is to be present and helpful to the conductor leading the orchestra in that given week. For me, this has meant being present and active in rehearsals, being a second pair of ears for the conductor, and a second score bearer for the orchestra when they have questions. I listen carefully to everything I’m hearing and write down anything I think could be better or perhaps offer alternative solutions when things are not quite working. On concert days, my ears are most useful as I can sit in the hall and have a better idea of the whole picture - as the audience will hear it - so can suggest changes if certain instruments are too loud or quiet. If there is an instrumental soloist with the orchestra, or a singer, it is also my job to make sure they are heard and are not overpowered by the orchestra.
Already in my first 6 projects with the orchestra we’ve covered a huge range of music from composers in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, and from many different countries. The Radio Orchestra have a particular focus on pieces for very large orchestra, as well as spotlighting music by Dutch composers, and bringing to light the most exciting living composers.
As well as large orchestra works by Bruckner, Verdi and Bartok, perhaps the biggest concert so far was a performance of Jörg Widmann’s ARCHE. I talk more about my experiences in my recent Instagram post.
As well as being a handy second pair of ears, I’m also present to help out in a tight spot: being a conductor as well I can take rehearsals to assist the conductor. This might be because they want to split the orchestra into sections to rehearse - called ‘sectionals’ - or because they are running late to the rehearsal or even unwell. Since I know the score well, too, I can step in if either of these latter situations occur - like an unsteady conductor. Thankfully neither of these latter scenarios have occurred yet in my work with the Radio Philharmonic, but I have had two very fun ‘sectional’ rehearsals with the brass section. We worked on Bruckner’s Symphonies No.8 and No.9. It was loud.
My final job as assistant conductor is to conduct concerts or projects of my own. These are typically more informal concerts, and give a chance to work with the orchestra in a lower-pressure setting, whilst still with full professional responsibility expectation and preparation required. For me, this season, means a recording project in the orchestra’s ‘Muziekschatten’ series (literally meaning ‘musical treasures’) and the orchestra’s annual new year’s concert in their hometown Hilversum. For the Muziekschatten project we will be recording a rediscovered violin concerto from the 1920s by the Dutch composer and conductor Benedict Silberman. We begin rehearsals on Tuesday and I’m very excited to be let loose on the orchestra! The piece blends together the jazz and lush sweeping sounds of ‘20s Hollywood film music, with some of the more intense and dissonant elements of compositions at the time. I will have more to report in my next blog!
Assistant Conductor-ing: caught on camera!
Working with Jörg Widmann in the final rehearsal of ARCHE