The maestro on the podium is one of classical music’s most recognisable figures – but what exactly are they doing up there? Clemency Burton-Hill finds out how conductors translate their visions into glorious sounds.

Long before Toscanini or Furtwängler, Bernstein or Dudamel, there was Pherekydes of Patrae, known in ancient Greece as the ‘Giver of Rhythm’. A report from 709 BC describes him leading a group of eight hundred musicians by beating a golden staff “up and down in equal movements” so that the musicians “began in one and the same time” and “all might keep together”.

The nature of the conductor has shifted and changed in the past thousand-odd years, but a certain air of mystique still surrounds those mysterious figures on the podium. Why is it that a single person, making no noise at all apart from the odd breathy grunt and armed with just a sliver of wood, or sometimes just their hands, can be held responsible for the sonic output of hundreds of instrument-wielding people? And how is it that the sounds that pour forth from this “mysterious podium dance”, as one critic has called it, occasionally reach the sublime, conjuring an artistic experience that nobody who hears it can ever forget?

Like the greatest artistic mysteries, a full answer evades us – thank goodness. In a more mundane way, we might think of conductors as the musical equivalent of sports team managers. You can’t quantify precisely what it is that they do – but you know it when you see it. While it is possible for large orchestras to perform without conductors, most choose to have one. So what it is, exactly, that they do? Whether visibly or invisibly, consciously or unconsciously, here are some of the myriad things they get up to on that podium…

Beat time

“The whole duty of a conductor is comprised in his ability always to indicate the right tempo,” said Richard Wagner, himself a supreme conductor as well as composer. The orthodoxy is that the conductor uses his or her right hand to hold a baton (if used – some prefer just to use their hands) and set the tempo, control it thereafter, signify the beginning of a new bar and deal with other matters of timing that help keep an ensemble of sometimes over a hundred individuals together. But while these elements are all vital components for a smooth performance, a great conductor is self-evidently much more than just a metronome wearing tails. The great 20th Century conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler famously – and very publicly – walked out of a concert given by fellow maestro Arturo Toscanini proclaiming: “That man is just a time-beater!”

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Convey an interpretation

The conductor is there to bring a musical score to life, communicating their own highly refined sense of the work through an individual language of gestures, which might sculpt the musical line, tease out nuances, emphasise certain musical elements while controlling others, and essentially re-imagine an old piece anew. These usually fall to the left hand.

While there are some common gestures, most great conductors have their own unique style, from Furtwängler’s spur-of-the-moment intensity to Valery Gergiev’s weird trembling movements, described by critic Daniel Wakin as “waggling his fingers in character with the music” and which Gergiev himself has suggested arises from his former incarnation as a pianist.

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“The best conductors are the best listeners”, says Tom Service, the broadcaster, journalist and author of the fascinating study Music As Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras. “They become a lightening rod of listening; a focus so that the players and the conductor can become something bigger than all of them – than all of us – at the same time as feeling fully realised as individuals.” For him, the late Claudio Abbado is the ultimate example of this, a conductor able to conjure “a hyper-awareness of awareness”.


“You have to impose your will – not with a hammer, but you have to be able to convince people of your point of view,” says Pierre Boulez, another legendary composer-conductor. Service points out that, although most conductors these days would describe themselves as democrats, “that simply can’t be true. It doesn’t mean democracy doesn’t work, but it’s not straightforward. It’s negotiated!” He takes the Berlin Philharmonic as an example: “That’s an orchestra of rampant individuals, who want to feel fully realised. But if the person up on the podium isn’t giving them a collective focus, then they are rudderless and bereft.”

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Be a conduit

Concertgoers may have their ears trained on the orchestra, but our eyes are invariably drawn to the podium. We too want to be steered, to be able to align the way the music sounds with the conductor is doing. He or she is a vital visual connection: the bridge between our eyes and the sense of what is happening in the music.

Put in the hours

Conductors may look like they have an easier ride, not having to master any fiendish passages of finger-work like the violinists, say, or risk the exposure and split notes of the wind and brass players. But “conducting is more difficult than playing a single instrument,” claims Boulez. “You have to know the culture, to know the score, and to project what you want to hear.”

A great conductor might have peerless musical instincts and intuition, but innate musicality will get them only so far. Cerebral creatures by and large, they will typically have spent many hours of preparation on the score before they get anywhere near the podium – often this will be of a most rigorous, even academic nature, encompassing historical documents such as letters, technical performance manuals from the period in question and biographies. “Like all the great mysteries,” muses Service, “the mystery that is music only comes from huge amounts of hard work.”

Get the glory

The cult of the maestro is still alive and well. “We like to think we are beyond it, that we are no longer in the era of, say, Toscanini. But we are very much in the era of Dudamel, of Rattle, of Nelsons,” Service points out. “We still want to identify these single names with performances, even though they are about collectives. The way of talking about it, thinking about it, remains quite obstinate.”

A truly great conductor can attain something alchemical, magical: what Latvian maestro Mariss Jansons describes as “a cosmic level of music-making”. That’s why they still get paid the big bucks – sometimes millions of dollars per year. Needless to say, the converse is also true: if critics hate a performance it’s usually the maestro who takes the flak.

Be a figurehead

A music director or chief conductor (that is, a conductor on a permanent, long-term contract with an orchestra) can be responsible for much more than just how a concert turns out. The young Venezuelan maestro Gustavo Dudamel is an example of someone whose personal charisma and leadership has put not only his country’s musical ensembles – including the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela – on the map, but its entire system of music education, which is now emulated all over the world.

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Immortalise a performance

Classical music is unique among musical forms in that the same works, many of which are hundreds of years old, get performed and recorded again and again, often many times each year. There is a reason why certain otherwise ephemeral performances live on in the memory, decade after decade, and it is invariably down to that figure on the podium – the eternal giver of rhythm, doing so much more than just waving their hands in the air…

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