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All of the conductors I've had in the past have had a very... English style of conducting. They show you what they want with the baton and then you play it, but God forbid that you play with or (gasp) before the baton. I appreciate this style of conducting because I'm able to clearly understand not only when the conductor expects me to play something, but also how.

But watching Valery Gergiev conducting Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade, I have no clue what in the actual heck is even going on. He has little or no ictus, his hands essentially move in fast twitchy circles with the occasional flourish for the whole time, and I can't see very much anticipation of the next part of the piece. He seems to be reacting to the music the whole time.

This sounds very complain-y, but don't worry. I think the music he makes sounds amazing. As a matter of fact, his frenzied, almost manic style of conducting produces a very energetic vibe that the musicians pick up on and carry through to their music.

So the question:

How exactly do orchestras interpret conducting styles like Mr. Gergiev's, and are there any unseen benefits to this sort of seemingly unclear style? Are there some conducting styles that are better than others?

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  • My understanding is that during a performance, world class orchestras don’t need conductors all that much. Mainly the conductor is there to remind them of what they have rehearsed so many times. May 26 '18 at 22:11
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    With some notable exceptions (I'm thinking of Barenboim's meticulously prepared Beethoven symphonies cycle in the 2012 Proms) world class orchestras get LESS rehearsal time per work, though they do develop a rapport with their regular conductor. (And the Barenboim cycle was with a world-class youth orchestra, not a commercial one.) Jul 13 '18 at 12:40
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Gergiev is my favorite conductor. I don't know if I have an adequate answer for you, but I can share some thoughts:

  • As Todd's comment suggests, conducting is a very small part of the conductor's job. The majority of the job is rehearsal and creating a common interpretation of the music that's being played. In this sense, whether or not a conductor is hard to follow is not as important a feature as one might suspect. (See also What does a conductor actually do?)
  • Having played in professional orchestras, sometimes interpreting the conductor's release isn't what's actually happening; rather, you're working with all of the other musicians and interpreting when they release, and when they start the note. The conductor can give a clear point in time for these events, but other times it's a rough suggestion, and it's up to the awareness of the orchestra to determine when exactly it is.
  • Gergiev's releases have always been very funny to me; how does mad shaking of a hand suggest a release? I seem to remember a video where he claims he's mimicing the gradual fadeaway of the echo in the concert hall. I can't find that video now, but the point is that he seems to have clear intentions for his movements, and he would presumably explain these movements in rehearsal if he needed to. (Speaking of his funny quirks, see also Why is this conductor holding a toothpick?)

You may be interested in watching this conducting masterclass given by Gergiev; I've queued it as a particular spot that I think is interesting, but really the entire thing is a great look at how Gergiev conceives conducting:

[Conducting is] like a snake... A snake bite is very rare. If it bites, fortunately or unfortunately, it really matters. So in a way, conducting is sometimes [wiggly like a snake]. But sometimes, it's [sharp like the bite].

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The days of conducting time and pulse for a whole concert ended during the time of Toscanini. What Gergiev does, and what in a different way Bernstein did, was conduct in the scientific sense of the word ‘conduct’. They are channeling current! The current is the passion, in some cases the shading, in other cases the dynamics. It’s like an electric current! It’s alive. They are trying to get the orchestra to see that the music is alive and they are trying to convey that life. This is why it looks strange. They are channeling the energy that came to the composer, from the piece then from the conductor to the orchestra. When the orchestra doesn’t fight the conductor, if it is a good orchestra and it is together it works like magic!

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