Mnemogenic Orchestra conductors aren’t actually doing a whole lot while they’re on stage. They’re basically dancing.
If this was meant as a joke, you’re honestly not really all that far off, if you’re strictly talking about public performances. I have heard professional orchestra musicians say as much.
Here is what they are definitely not doing:
- Keeping time in any way
- Influencing the interpretation of the piece at the performance
- Making performers or sections start playing when they are supposed to
A good concertmaster is more responsible for keeping the rest of the orchestra on time than the conductor. Andm that’s to say nothing of the fact that you can’t really trust a conductor’s baton to keep time even if they’re not doing the annoying practice of batting out the beat slightly ahead, because of the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound. What you’re hearing is taking longer to reach your ears than what you’re seeing takes to reach your eyeballs, and in a large concert hall where sound is going all over the dang place and ultimately it’s built to optimize how the sound goes out into the hall well and not necessarily to come back to you, that can actually make a difference (well, that’s what they say anyway, I usually ignored it and kept time by what I was hearing lmao).
A conductor’s job, strictly as part of the performance at a concert, and given the orchestra is well prepared (more on this later), should be this and only this:
- Cue for when the audience should clap for them by walking on stage (arguably they’re more primed to do so by the lights going down and the initial tuning though)
- Signal for when the performance of the piece/movement should start being played
- Maybe give subtle reminders for absent minded musicians on when they need to start playing after not playing for a while
- Signal for when the audience should applaud the performance and when which performers should bow
- Decide when a particularly long applause/standing ovation is done
- Above all, impress the public by looking like they’re doing something impressive in the moment
Sidenote, the earliest conductors were keeping time, a duty for which Jean Baptiste Lully gave his life, a description which is not much of an exaggeration.
Anyway, for what a conductor actually does (besides public relations, which, to be fair, is a big part of it, since conductors and their cults of personality have become so central to the mystique of western art music (thanks Wagner and Herbert von Karajan, you fucking proto and actual Nazis, respectively)), it’s primarily to prepare her performers for public performances, and secondarily to understand and interpret the music being performed.
For all but the best performers, it is generally understood that in an ensemble as large as an orchestra, at least one person is not going to know their part perfectly (mind you, they better know it near perfectly if they’re in a good orchestra). So especially nearest to the beginning of the rehearsal process, it’s the conductor’s job to identify deficiencies in technical execution, and to, er, conduct the rehearsal in the best way for her performers to work on correcting those deficiencies. Musicians who are in a union will have particular expectations for how rehearsal time is used as well since they won’t play a note uncompensated.
The secondary duty is intertwined with the first and can usually be accomplished at the same time, but interpretation of a score and how to get one’s interpretation of a score out of an orchestra is something that is done purely in rehearsal. Music notation, especially when it concerns analogue instruments with extraordinarily vast spectrums of subtle differences in articulation and expressive qualities, is not quite as precise as it may seem. Some of it is even more imprecise than others (for instance, composers specifying a specific, precise tempo, like with a beats-per-minute number, is only about 200 years old, because the metronome is only about 200 years old (its usage in this way was popularized by the inventor of the metronome convincing Beethoven to do it)). And even when lots of notation is calling for something objective (like with dynamic markings, forte is loud, piano is soft, therefore forte has to be louder than piano), there’s still a lot of subjective interpretation at play (how much louder is forte than piano? What’s the difference between pp pianissimo and and ppp pianississimo?) in playing western art music. Because of the complexity of this, it’s far too late to make major interpretational changes by the time of the performance and they are certainly never made in real time. The subtle things need to be decided on well ahead of time, and the orchestra must be instructed on how to interpret their individual parts into a cohesive whole by a conductor.
So, just in case it sounds like I’m saying conductors don’t really do anything during a performance, that’s not really true. It’s more that by the time of the public performance, the real actual musician-y part of a conductor’s job should already be more or less done. A concertmaster could cue an orchestra on when to start playing. But it’s pretty hard to hear how your individual interpretation of an orchestral part actually sounds. So as much as I’m loathe to give a centralized hierarchical authority any credit anywhere, a conductor does play a valuable role in cohering a performance of orchestral music into an aesthetically pleasing whole.