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The Silent Musician – Why Conducting Matters by Mark Wigglesworth

The role of a conductor has always been an intriguing one. Why do we have conductors at all? Can’t trained and experienced musicians play the music in front of them without the need for someone directing them from a podium? Who is this person, who remains silent throughout, with his back to the audience, and what does he (I’m not sure there are many she’s) contribute to the overall musical event?

This enlightening book, by respected English conductor Mark Wigglesworth, is a fascinating look at what a conductor actually does. It’s no mean feat, and by all accounts it’s a difficult job. Who would aspire to become a conductor anyway?

There are some interesting conventions in music. A handshake between the conductor and the leader of the orchestra at the start of a rehearsal or concert marks the connection between the two parties. There are even rules about when to clap.

It goes without saying that the conductor needs to understand the music that is being performed. This requires study of the composer’s life and identity, but even this can’t always give insight into the music itself. A conductor must be a manager of people (performers and musicians), a master of technique, a historian, an interpreter of the score, and a storyteller.

It seems there are so many variables at play. An audience today will have different expectations than an audience of an earlier period. Even instruments have changed over time. Do we hear the music in the same way the audiences did when it was first written? With the advent of recording, often audiences go out to a concert with a pre- conceived expectation of what a piece of music will sound like. What happens if a conductor challenges that? Both musicians and audience will have an opinion.

Wigglesworth addresses these, and many other interesting questions. His chapters cover the conducting of the music itself, dealing with musicians and other performances (operas present their own set of challenges).

In the final chapter Wigglesworth shares his more personal experiences and insights. One clear message that comes through is that we really do need to support orchestral music. Music is an ever- changing landscape, but it would be a shame to let the live performance become a thing of the past.

Review: Rachel White

Allen & Unwin, RRP 32.99