From Blindingham Hall: What does a conductor do?

From the blog of Blindingham Hall, jointly written by Catherine Rose and me… I recommend reading from the beginning…

Letters the Seventh and Eighth:
From Rogers to Lady Effingham; and from Lady Effingham to Rogers

Dear Lady Effingham,

Thank you for your kind suggestions and I feel more confident now. Thanks to you I have my pecker up and I’m full of pluck. Classic FM is now permanently on the tractor radio and I don’t mind that Vauxhall the chauffeur has taken to calling me hoity-toity.

I did like that Brahms Hungarian Dance you suggested and I was singing it and dancing all round the shrubbery yesterday until Daisy the pastry maid asked if I was Brahms and Liszt, which I didn’t quite understand.

I even went out and bought a CD of some Mozart that I heard on the radio. My favourite track at the moment is this one; it just seems so bubbly and lively, and the way the music goes suddenly loud and soft just sounds like Mozart’s making a big joke and having fun.

Your advice about having someone to go with to a club is very wise. When I first arrived at Blindingham Hall, Mr Dawson asked me what kind of clubs I went to. I said that I liked the sort of club where the members were happy to see you, and he said that was his kind of club too. I said I was sure he only went to clubs where the members were fine and upstanding, and he smiled and nodded. What a nice butler Mr Dawson is.

Talking of having a guide, there are still many things I want to ask you about classical music. For example, in both concerts that I went to, there was one man who was late on stage – he arrived after all the others, and he wasn’t even a musician. He just had a white stick that didn’t make any noise.

When he appeared, the orchestra stood up, as if they were really cross with him, but he just smiled and waved at them to sit down. At the end, when they’d done all the work, he bowed to the audience and they didn’t. He even left the stage first, and then – before the orchestra had a chance to go home – he came back and bowed some more.

Who is he? What does he do? And is it always a man? Daisy the pastry maid said it was typical of a man to expect people to be pleased when he waggles his thing around. She said it would be typical if he finished first and then fell asleep during the clearing up.

I remain yours in humble gratitude,

Rogers the Third Under-gardener


Dear Rogers

How interesting – I had no idea I had a pastry-maid called Daisy. If her chocolate éclairs are anything to go by, she is a budding genius. How one lives and learns.

I am delighted to be able to have the chance to explain to you the role and indeed the person of the conductor. My previously long-lost son Jeck is currently moving on from his work as a trombonist in order to study conducting.  Having mastered all seven positions of the slide, he realised that being a conductor requires many more positions and indeed techniques to which he is keen to turn his hand.

Let me draw a comparison between the orchestra and my own dear Blindingham Hall. Lord Effingham (though absent) is the head of the household – the equivalent, perhaps, of the composer of the music. However, Mr Dawson is the head of the servant’s hall and it is he who oversees the vast and varied roles of the staff (the orchestra). A conductor has a similar role – he or she (for gender is no barrier) must provide a focal point, an inspiration and a driving force, and of course is there to take the blame when anything goes wrong.

For these heavy responsibilities, the conductor is often paid more than the whole of the orchestra put together. Quite why this is the case I am not sure. When it comes down to it, the orchestra is making all the actual sound. The only sounds a conductor makes are a slight swishing noise and a few grunts. I can think of many professions which can produce similar aural results but which command a lesser fee.

So: the reason the conductor comes on stage last is to give the orchestra time to tune up and warm up – you may ask Vauxhall about this as he is always going on about cars needing to do this sort of thing, keeping me pinned to the back seat for quite some time before we can finally drive away.

At the end, the conductor should bring the orchestra to its feet in order to acknowledge the applause graciously and en masse. Any conductor who does not do so makes him- or herself extremely unpopular with the musicians. However, unpopularity with anyone but the audience and record-buying public rarely troubles many conductors – in fact it is no secret that some at the top of their profession are veritable monsters. However, many are charming. Among my favourites is the lovely Bernard Haitink – so delightfully stolid to look at and yet he has a touch as light as a feather. Delicious – particularly in this.

There is plenty more to learn about conducting – it will have to wait for another time as my orchids need attention in the hothouse. I have a particularly fine one with the most enormous blossoms which have to be pollinated with an ostrich feather duster. Perhaps I should invite Bernard Haitink to do it for me.

Yours most sincerely,

Ophelia Effingham


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