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TV documentary goes behind the scenes at the BBC SSO

Michael Tumelty watches as conductors are thrown into the spotlight.

Conductors. Don’t you just love ’em? A few of the species have been biffed on these pages over the years.

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But if you think that I’ve been harsh, you should hear what musicians say, especially that strand of orchestral players who are aware that the maestro waving a stick at them, being rude and bullying, can be earning in one night a figure close to 50% of what the hard-working rank and file player earns in a year. Not bad, eh?

And then, of course, there is the age-old question of what a conductor actually does. There is the legendary story, not apocryphal, of the orchestral musician who was asked a question on the street by an innocent member of the public: “Who was conducting the orchestra last night?”

“I don’t know,” replied the seasoned veteran, “I never looked.”

It has become a mysterious black art, with some conductors wielding the power of, well, not life and death, perhaps, but certainly life and livelihood, over the unfortunate charges cowering beneath their gaze.

It works both ways. I have spoken to some young, inexperienced conductors who have been reduced to emotional rubble, their self-confidence shattered by merciless orchestral musicians who, totally unimpressed by the young tyro, have gone into default mode and played version 23 or whatever of Beethoven’s Fifth, more for the purpose of ensuring that Joe Soap standing in front of them doesn’t, by his own ineptness, actually embarrass or damage the band’s own reputation.

Some musicians are extremely bullish about the whole business. It’s not long since I bumped into one musician at half-time in a rather good show. He stuck his face into mine and said: “What you are hearing in there is nothing to do with him at the front.”

So. How do they do it, what’s it for, and how does it work (or not)?

Concert-goers, music lovers at large, and, in particular, followers of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will be fascinated by Talking Music, a new four-part documentary series on the BBC SSO which starts on BBC Two next Tuesday at 11.20pm and promises to speak “candidly” to some of the musicians in the orchestra, as well as to soloists and composers associated with the SSO.

The first episode, however, gives the floor to the conductors: Donald Runnicles, chief conductor, pictured below; Ilan Volkov, former chief, now principal guest conductor; and Jessica Cottis, conducting fellow at the RSAMD, who is assisting and being mentored by Runnicles, and whose presence reflects the ever-closer ties being established between the academy and the BBC.

Runnicles cuts straight to the heart. “What does the conductor do? We make no sound. The orchestra is our instrument, and it does look to the audience as though the orchestra could well be doing it by themselves.”

He explains how he sees his function, and how he does the job, in great detail. The hardest part, he says, is how to start a piece, and there is an enthralling and minute analysis of how he does it by body gesture, by a look that implies a pulse and passes to the orchestra all the information necessary to start the piece absolutely together and at the right tempo, “without one word”.

There’s a wee self-mocking moment as he reveals his occasional tendency to get carried away and speed up as if cornering too fast in a high-powered BMW: “Then you hear the screech of the brakes.”

We see him mentoring Cottis, who tells her own story in the film, and who is the recipient of the comment from the Don : “Your body language is everything; if you don’t know what to do with your left hand, then don’t do anything.”

Volkov gives a succinct one-minute potted history of the emergence of the conductor as a species, and focuses on the issues of morale in an orchestra, and the psychology of the business.

He also touches on the vital aspect of the conductor’s job in “clarifying the structure of the piece”. All good stuff, well worth watching, And lots of musical extracts.

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