The Work Behind the Wand

The Work Behind the Wand

Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Conductor talks about his orchestra and his craft.

The role of orchestra conductor is fraught with irony. The orchestra’s public face has his back to the audience in performance. And, despite his prominent position and rhythmic gestures, if you want to judge a conductor you have to take your eyes off him, said Ulysses James, the conductor and music director of the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic.

“If one looks at the musicians and senses a strong sense of enthused but very concentrated and serious commitment to the music they’re making, and watches how they react non-verbally to the conductor, they’ll recognize how well a conductor is doing. That’s probably the best measure,” he said.

James says that judging himself by the second-by-second performance of the 60 to 70 musicians in his orchestra reveals the difficulty of his job. “I find that conducting is very demanding mentally because there are so many things that you have to be aware of at one time as the performance unfolds. You’re processing on many different levels: everything from the emotional side of music-making to the definite, cognitive side; trying to track specifically what’s happening note-wise and also tracking how the musicians are performing. [You're] also providing them with nonverbal responses and watching their nonverbal responses to make sure things are going well. It requires whole brain thinking from to moment.”

James said the conductor’s gestures are not commands. Rather they are invitations that “release the musicians to perform.” During a performance, when the conductor appears to be at his most commanding, he is actually engaged in an act of supplication. “My view of the conductor is that it’s someone who ideally serves both the music and the musicians,” said James.

“The conductor is someone who inspires musicians to play well. And that means that the conductor is someone who has spent the time to really have a concept of how the music should be performed so that it creates the most meaning for the listener.”

It is during the countless, unseen rehearsals that the conductor expresses his vision most forcefully. “The motions of a conductor during a performance are a little misleading,” James said. “Most of the work gets done during rehearsals.”

“Most people don’t think much about the logistics or the requirements to prepare for the performance,” said James. “There’s an immense amount of time and effort that go into that. [Even] most musicians don’t give it much thought. There’s a certain element of having to be a bit like a coach when you’re preparing music because you have to be willing to tell people when they’re doing things well and when they’re not doing as well as they should. But particularly in a community orchestra, that has to be done in a way that respects individuals."

OF COURSE, the work isn’t done by the conductor alone. “It seems to me conductors in general receive a bit more attention than they should,” said James, “because the people who really make the music are the orchestra members.”

The orchestra is divided into sections, one for each instrument. The leader of section is called the principal musician.

According to James, “The principal is generally responsible for organizing the section musically, so that everyone is playing the same way and making the best possible music.” The principal of a section is usually the best player, but as with the conductor, her performance onstage is only a small part of the role she plays in bringing a work of music to life. James said that a principal must have the ability to “inspire” the other musicians in her section.

“The most important member of the orchestra is generally considered to be the concert master. Who is in essence the principle of the first violin section, but who is [also] the principle of the orchestra.”

James said, adding that the most important role of the concert master is to ensure the other musicians are bowing their music correctly. “There are many ways to articulate music using a bow,” he said. “If there are problems or difficulties the concert master has the responsibility of resolving those problems and teaching or coaching other musicians to perform correctly … and that’s very important in all orchestras but especially in a community orchestra where there are players in the orchestra who may not be as aware of how to perform a particular piece of music as a concert master.”

BUT James said his biggest challenge is neither the arduous work of rehearsals nor the mental strain of conducting each performance. “My hardest job every year is to select music.”

The Metropolitan Philharmonic puts on only five performances a year, each with less than one and a half hours of music. “There’s got to be some reason for picking what you pick,” said James, whose preferences lean toward “music that is considered by many to be quote, modern, unquote. Its interesting that much of that music is as old as one hundred years.”

The orchestra’s June Concert will present three works by Scandinavian composers. Although all three were written around the beginning of the Twentieth Century, and all are difficult to play, they hold little else in common.

“There is always a claim for a distinctive style for any kind of national music,” said James. “And I think to a certain degree that is true, however I also think it’s somewhat misleading because if you listen to each one of these three composers, you can hear a lot of other composers of other nationalities in their music … I think it’s really an issue of whether the composer has a voice, not whether a country has a voice.”

James said Carl Neilsen’s “Helios Overture” is a piece that “depicts the sun rising, the day progressing, and the sun setting. It’s got an extremely wonderful structure. It’s very clear … It’s very exciting, especially as the day progresses.”

The second piece is an orchestration of a piano duet written by Edvard Grieg. Grieg had adapted Norwegian folk dances in the late 19th Century. “There are four dances,” said James, “three are extremely lively and full of fun, and one is a semi-art song, more peaceful, but has an explosive middle section … happy music I would say.”

The last part of the performance will be Jean Sibelius’s second symphony, from 1901. This symphony “doesn’t conform to any previous symphonic form like you would find in Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms,” said James, “It’s extremely evocative of very high peaks of energy that are arrived at through a long ascent. It is his most famous of the seven symphonies that he wrote. It’s a remarkable piece. It’s hard to explain. Words don’t do a very good job of explaining music, I don’t think.”