Commentaries

The Critical Orchestra®

The conducting workshop of the Kritisches Orchester is adding another facet to the comprehensive artistic and musical training of prospective conductors. The musicians involved are making a contribution of their own to conductor training. From their vantage point as instrumentalists performing in an orchestra they focus on two potentials: They offer conductors a direct insight into the wide gamut of the orchestra's expressive and creative resources and help them to examine continually what means are available to them to direct the orchestra safely and encourage it to make full use of its instrumental and creative skills.In the Commentaries we will from now on publish articles on how this complement is developed more fully.


"The conductors’ workshops with the Critical Orchestra have broken deliberately with the basic rule of playing music in an orchestra, i.e. following the conductor stringently, whatever he may dictate in an authoritative manner. At such a workshop, the up-and-coming conductor will be provided with a critical feedback from the instrumentalists he may perhaps ask to produce something sensible, while he is guiding them in a faulty manner.  

When launching the project, the Hochschule reacted completely in line with the spirit of the times by questioning authoritarian models of communication and developed a model concept that lets young conductors unfold their expertise as in contrast to an authority that is founded on traditional hierarchical concepts."

Dr. Elmar Weingarten
Director of the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zürich
Chairman of the Hochschule Council


Sectional rehearsals

"Dear participants, you will begin your rehearsal work involving the Kritisches Orchester with a divided rehearsal. At first you will work with the strings and, after the break, with the winds. Beforehand I would like to give you a few suggestions as to how you should use these rehearsals and what you should bear in mind. 

In orchestral literature, the string orchestra was the tonal and formal centre of the musical proceedings well into the 20th century.

Hence the need for aspiring conductors to deal at length with the characteristics, possibilities, tonal nuances and bowing techniques - in brief: the specific features - of the string instruments.

A string rehearsal provides an opportunity to address these specific features without foisting lengthy discussions about string-specific issues on the other players.

When studying a work in preparation for your encounter with the Kritisches Orchester or, in fact, any other professional orchestra you should give special attention to the details of articulation and phrasing in the string section and form a mental picture of the tonal options available. This includes becoming familiar with the bow strokes and the resulting phrasing and bowing, the bowing techniques (détaché, spiccato, sautillé, legato / tip, middle, frog, etc. / much or little bow, strong or little pressure, etc.), the tonal possibilities (sul tasto or closer to the bridge, etc.) as well as the search for maximum homogeneity of the groups in meeting the criteria mentioned above. 

If you play a string instrument yourself, this is a definite advantage, otherwise you should, in preparation for our Workshop, seek advice from experienced performers and ask them to explain and demonstrate the different playing techniques.

A lack of interest in the craftsmanship required to obtain a homogeneous sound and a distinctive profile in articulation and phrasing, which is unfortunately quite common, attests to a lack of respect for the work and the performers. The members of the Kritisches Orchester are way ahead of you in this respect and their expectations are correspondingly high. 

You can come across a wide range of perceptions and traditions today. For example, representatives of the "old German school" and musicians committed to historically informed performances have different ideas about sound, articulation and phrasing and put them into practice with different techniques.

As a rule, present-day orchestral musicians experience a wealth of interpretative possibilities. The demands made on them in terms of flexibility are considerable. What they expect of the conductor is proficiency and clarity.

This goes in particular for string instruments where translating an idea into sound involves far more technical prowess and craftsmanship than in the case of wind instruments.

Similarly, it will be necessary, in wind rehearsals, to address the specific concerns and problems of the wind section. 

When dealing with wind instruments, ideas about phrasing and articulation can be given concrete shape far more directly than when working with string instruments. Consequently, homogeneity can be achieved more rapidly.

The typical problems a conductor faces in regard to the wind section are the different registers of the instruments and the heterogeneity of their sound.

Each wind instrument involves single notes which break out of the homogeneous scale envisaged and require taming. In addition, the different registers must be balanced out (low clarinets sound particularly soft, low oboes are ill-suited to pianissimo, low flutes are not assertive enough, high flutes are hard to bring into line, bassoons in the p/pp region are usually too massive in sound compared with clarinets, horns are to be treated separately or as a complement to the woodwind section, trumpets and timpani tend to take on a life of their own; the kettledrum often serves as a bass instrument, occasionally as a fifth horn, sometimes as a percussion instrument, depending on the work and instrumentation, trombones and tuba should be seen as a set, etc., etc.).

Add to this the unpopular theme of "intonation" where you must be aware that each chord needs to be calibrated because a general re-tuning as is common for string instruments will not yield any results in most cases. 

The general rule is that wind instruments sound "ready" more rapidly and that a conductor must listen very carefully if he wishes to bring out the best in the players. 

Most eminent conductors, in preparing for a concert, have devoted special care to the bowing of the strings and to the articulations and colours of the winds. Follow their example!" 

Michael Helmrath, Music Director of the Brandenburger Symphoniker, who is in great demand at home and abroad as an opera and concert conductor, has been chairman of the entrance examination jury for several years and mentored the participants in the Workshop. His article Sectional rehearsals is a guide to detailed rehearsals with strings and winds.