Look! No Conductor!

For our concert with Sarah Connolly at Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall, we had a big Orchestra...but no conductor. Instead, our Leader Kati Debretzeni directed the Orchestra from the violin. How did that work? And why did we attempt this musical high wire act? Kati explains.
"We all have to communally provide the vision, energy and inspiration that a conductor would normally provide."
Kati Debretzeni, Leader

What does it mean to have a concert directed from the violin?

It means there is no conductor on stage, and the concertmaster is a sort of traffic controller responsible for keeping things together. There is no one with a baton whose energy the orchestra can feed off, so the shaping of the musical phrases is a communal endeavour. This is active rather than reactive orchestral playing, and the communal listening to each other is on a different level from a conducted concert, as is the personal responsibility of each and every player. Contribution to the whole is shared equally throughout the orchestra, as is the sense of achievement!

How does it make life different for the musicians?

It is a completely different experience. For the whole of the orchestra, playing a conducted concert means essentially executing a vision of a piece which is one person’s; the conductor’s. Here, that vision has to be created and be shaped by us, the players.

Directing from the violin involves making players aware of whom to listen to at any one point; generating the communal energy needed; being clear about what the communal shape of the music should be; giving the beat (with the bow instead of a baton) where needed; shaping dynamics through body language and, finally, delegating responsibility to principals and to the different sections wherever they need to take responsibility for an entry. All this whilst playing most of the notes…

For example, string players, especially in the middle and rear of sections, have a much more difficult job than in a conducted concert, as information can get blurred when transmitted from desk to desk about the ‘when’ and the ‘how’ of playing. In a conducted concert, a string player relies mainly on their eyes (seeing the conductor’s beat). Here, this is not always possible as the concertmaster is sometimes busy giving entries or playing, which means that the information is not as immediate. One has to rely on one’s ears a lot more, and listen to the different parts of the orchestra. Everyone needs to know the whole the score in an infinitely more intimate way than in a conducted concert.

Why do we do it?

Having a great conductor in front of you is a hugely enabling and gratifying experience as you can feed off their vision, energy and inspiration. Playing unconducted is immeasurably more difficult in terms of the working process, but it is enabling in a different way – it enables each and every member of the orchestra to be directly responsible for and invested in the convincing nature of the performance. We all have to communally provide the vision, energy and inspiration that a conductor would normally provide. Individual contributions can be more active and more meaningful, and if the performance is successful and convincing, there is ultimately no conductor to bask in the glory of the applause; it belongs to each and every one of us.