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I know that the Kronos Quartet do not use a conductor, and a lot of "modern classical" music doesn't use one. For example, I don't think I've ever seen a conductor at a performance of a Steve Reich piece. However, such examples involve a pre-planned performance without a conductor.

I'm aware of what a conductor does but I'm interested in what would happen if the conductor disappeared (after rehearsals) and could not be replaced.

How would removing the conductor post-rehearsal audibly affect a professional performance?

Would it just be a bit looser, or would it just become impossible for the concert to go ahead? Would it be easier for "standards" that the players would likely know better?

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    I reckon, in most cases, that the conductor has done >90% of his work prior to the concert, in rehearsals, so any set of decent players would be capable of performing the piece well conductorless. Or at least with the orchestra leader giving cues. Perhaps more than 'ready, steady, go'. And, yes, well-known pieces would go even better. With the dots to follow, it's not that difficult. If several complete strangers can play together, in perfect harmony, in jazz pieces, without a rehearsal...
    – Tim
    Jan 16 at 10:17
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    This happens from time to time - usually when the conductor is taken ill. Last time I was at a concert where this happened - Carmen (fully staged), if I remember correctly - another conductor stepped in to fill the gap.
    – JimM
    Jan 16 at 12:02
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    See related question here. Of course ensembles so small as a string quartet never need a conductor. As I wrote in my answer there a big romantic orchestra (worse even: with chorus) is hardly imaginable without conductor for anything else than well-rehearsed or very short encore pieces. Transmission time of sound is big enough to become noticable and not everybody may have the bow of the concert master in clear view.
    – guidot
    Jan 16 at 22:48
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Particularly in a large ensemble or when a performance occurs in a highly reverberant space, the conductor is especially helpful in keeping the ensemble together. Sound from one part of an orchestra or choir can reach other parts of the orchestra or choir at different times -- enough so to throw off the timing or at least create confusion or uncertainty.

The more experience the musicians have, the more ways there are around this problem (watching bow strokes, timing the echo, finding nearby instruments to cue off of), but a conductor gives the entire ensemble a common point of reference.

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  • Back of the envelope calculation: in a typical orchestra pit, sound takes about a 32nd note at 120bpm 4/4 (Moderato–Allegretto–Allegro moderato) to travel between the furthest points. That's more than enough to make throw off at least the microtiming, if not to make the whole thing fall apart altogether. Jan 16 at 14:58
  • I guess you meant 'cue'. If they're in a queue, they'll never catch up!
    – Tim
    Jan 16 at 15:33
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It depends on the size of the ensemble and the level of their playing and the quality of the conductor but mostly on the type of music being played. It's impossible to generalize, but the worst case result could be that the concert would be impossible to perform. The best case result would be if the concert sounded better without the conductor. Or the result could be anywhere in between: playable but with a loss of quality, playable with a replacement conductor etc.
Chamber ensembles (and, since you mentioned them, particularly string quartets) almost never use a conductor.

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  • Thank you for the answer and the point re string quartets. It seems I've misremembered something about Kronos being different (maybe amplification?) or misattributed something I've read about another group to Kronos.
    – Modal Nest
    Jan 16 at 13:08
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Watch an established string quartet start a piece. They breathe together, give each other a sort of mutual upbeat... Or maybe the first violin (or whoever carries the main opening melody) 'leads' a bit more blatantly.

In a larger orchestra (whatever its Socialist philosophy) someone - generally the concertmaster - HAS to lead. In effect he becomes the conductor.

They'll get through it. If it's a familiar piece, they might get through it very well.

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