Behind the Baton: The Art of Conducting

Symphony-goers know the conductor mainly as a tense back, flailing arms, and a big bow at the end. But before showtime their work involves everything from labor negotiations to history books. WHQR's Megan Williams looked into the conductor's creative role...

Raleigh, NC – Can we start with the baton? It just seems so integral to the conductor - that authoritative rap on the podium, the gesture that picks out one single instrument, or silences the whole orchestra. But assistant conductor Carolyn Kuan of the North Carolina symphony is surprised to even be asked about it. She laughs as she pulls the two slender wooden wands from their case. Even though she admits to a sentimental attach to some of her batons, Kuan is quick to point out they are just tools.

"If I were conducting with my hand," she explains, "it's more difficult to see than if I had a baton. So it's really just a matter of clarity, extension of my arm, but not an instrument at all. The orchestra is my instrument."

The orchestra is her instrument. That's really what's happening on the podium: the creation of a single musical idea out of dozens of disparate, and opinionated, performers. But before she stands in front of her living instrument, Kuan has to figure out for herself what that idea is. To do that, she studies not only a composer's stated intentions, but also historical events in the world around him.

"And then you try to decide, now, was the composer trying to write the music to reflect the world, or escape the world? So there are a lot of decisions to make, and you do the best you can, and you truly believe in it, and that's what you bring to the first rehearsal."

Kuan is a strict constructionist when it comes interpreting a composition. Her goal, as another conductor put it, is to advocate for the composer. There have been times when conductors took a more interpretive role. But Wilmington Symphony conductor Steven Errante says Kuan fits in with today's mainstream. "More recently, we've tried to be more purist in our approach and try to get closer to the composers intention, rather than trying to impose our own ideas on it."

For all that they strive towards the same ideal, different conductors do make an audible difference in the music their orchestras play... in tangible areas like tempo and grace notes, and intangible ones, like emotion. Kuan points to one of the pieces she'll conduct in Wilmington this week - Beethoven's seventh symphony. The score gives her a lot of options.

"So that was a piece I listened to a lot. I decided kind of what I wanted, but then I listened to a lot of recordings and talked to a various conductors for their opinions. Then I decided what I thought it should be."

A process of debate and synthesis that will all come together in Wilmington when Kuan takes the stage before her massive instrument.

Megan Williams, WHQR news

The North Carolina Symphony performs at 8pm Thursday, May 4th, at Kenan Auditorium. You can find out more about the NC Symphony at their website.

Support for local arts and cultural programming comes from WHQR members, and Landfall Foundation, an organization of residents who support projects enhancing health, education and the arts in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender Counties.