If you were a conductor of an orchestra, what sort of conductor would you be?
That’s the central question of Itay Talgam’s talk, closing the first day of the PICNIC conference. Talgam is the music director of the Tel Aviv Symphony, and the founder of the Maestro program, a project that brings music and conducting into business settings as a way of understanding leadership.
To explain why organizations need leadership, Talgam asks an audience of a thousand people to clap their hands together. We fail. Eventually someone shouts out “1, 2, 3” and we do much beter. But we’re even better when he conducts us from the stage.
But perhaps conductors get too much credit, he wonders. A contemporary classical music poster is likely to feature the orchestra in small type, the conductor in huge type, and almost as a footnote, the contribution of Mozart or Beethoven to the experience. We’re looking for the interpretation of the conductor, not just his ability to make people start and stop on time.
We watch a video of Riccardo Muti. His gestures have clarity and strength. It’s clear what he wants and where he’s going. But there’s such force – why do you need a hand punch to stop a trained orchestra, when (as Talgam demonstrates) you can stop a bunch of amateurs by raising a finger. His theory – “it’s so you know what to do and the sanction if you don’t.” Another conductor leads with his eyes closed – Talgam wonders, “Have you ever led an expedition with your eyes closed?”
Richard Strauss looks like he’d be miserable to play for. No emotion, small, controlled gestures, and he’s turning the pages of the score… of a piece of music he, himself, wrote. The message, Talgam tells us – your job is to just play the damned piece, not to add any interpretation.
There’s a limit to what you can do as a conductor, explains Talgam. “You throw little balls of energy to the players and hope they catch them.” This doesn’t neccesarily mean waving your arms, though. He closes by showing us a number of videos of Leonard Bernstein. He explains that Bernstein’s conducting starts from his feeling of the music. If the passage is happy, Bernstein looks like he’s melting with pleasure. If it’s a tense passage, it looks like he’s suffering. “Not suffering. Enjoying himself in the jewish way.”
He closes with a video in which Bernstein conducts a long, exciting passage without moving his arms at all. It’s clear that every player in the orchestra is watching the maestro closely, and that his control comes entirely from his expression, an occasional nod, a slight movement of the eyes or the mouth. It’s extraordinary… and Talgam has done an extraordinary job of showing us a beautiful and subtle lesson in leadership.