16 Feb 2024

Mastering the baton

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 16 February 2024

Theirs is the top job in the orchestra, yet they make no sound.

The best set the music on fire. The worst – well, if they're lucky, a good orchestra will just ignore them.

NZSO Conducting Fellow Reuben Brown conducts the orchestra at the Second Session, 2023

NZSO Conducting Fellow Reuben Brown Photo: NZSO

Kira Oldfield and Reuben Brown are two of the fourteen budding maestros who are part of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Conducting Fellowship Programme in 2024.

Kira Oldfield (NZSO Conducting Fellow 2024)

Kira Oldfield (NZSO Conducting Fellow 2024) Photo: Petra Oldfield

The two joined RNZ Concert's Bryan Crump shortly after the first of the fellowship's four 'modules' for 2024, in which participants prepare and then conduct music from the symphonic repertoire under the guidance of experienced conductors James Judd and Hamish McKeich.

Hamish McKeich

Hamish McKeich Photo: Tracey Valerie

James Judd

James Judd Photo: Miguel Alonso

In the case of module number one, that involved movements from Beethoven's 2nd Symphony, and Mussorgsky's (with a little bit of help from Rimsky-Korsakov) "Night on Bare Mountain".

Each module goes for five days. For the first two, Brown and Oldfield were conducting a pianist, for the final three they're let loose on the orchestra – or maybe the orchestra is let loose on them.

Is running through a score with a pianist was a less daunting than diving in baton-first with an orchestra?

"Definitely," says Oldfield, "and it also gives you an environment where you can try things without wasting 80 people's time."

Signature Choir and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra perform Mana Moana at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington. 1 December 2022.

The NZSO Photo: John Setter

Oldfield was originally a pianist themself, until they realised the instrument was making them miserable.

"I was preparing to go to conservatory ... I didn't have a good relation with music at the point, it was the summer before I started, and I would consider the piano and I would just cry."

Oldfield decided to do a science degree instead, but music came back to them.

"I picked up the violin. I always wanted to play the violin. I used to sit [as a pianist] in piano quintets and look at the people on strings and think 'I want to be them'."

Oldfield's 23rd birthday present to themself was a violin.

"It was such a different experience this time 'round, I started playing in chamber music and I started playing in an amateur orchestra ... I was just like, this is so much better than I experienced before."

In fact, Oldfield liked this new orchestra life so much, they wanted to conduct it.

Brown comes from a brass band background, which began in his hometown of Invercargill, playing the euphonium.

For him, it was the lure of the orchestral sound that got him on to the podium. While the euphonium is the "best-sounding instrument" in the world, there isn't much work for euphonium players in your average symphonic ensemble.

So, what makes a good conductor? Does a conductor even really need a baton? Won't hands and eyes do the job just as well? Does a really good orchestra even need a human metronome?

Crump cites the example of great maestro Carlos Kleiber. Good luck working out his beat with the sound turned down on the video, and he's not the only one.

Oldfield's response: "I think the orchestra needs you to start, stop, turn corners and go faster and go slower ... and they need to have absolute confidence that you know what you're doing so that you can help them".

And that comes, they say, from "a complete understanding of the music" before they get up on the podium.

This means, says Brown, not just really getting to know the score, but practicing at home with a bit – actually quite a lot – of air baton.

Which brings Crump to another question: technique.

Oldfield prefers going without a baton "in the big movements, where you want lots of power, and you want lots of ground stomping stuff, and then with the baton I found it easier to do the slower music".

Brown is the opposite.

"I found the more intimate movements ... were easier without a baton. With the larger openings, I found it easier to manipulate things with a stick."