Tuesday, April 19, 2011: Deciphering the Code

Moderator Pavel Trojan (left) watches as Tomáš Netopil conducts the audience

Deciphering the Conductor’s Code
The 66th annual Prague Spring international music festival will be held from May 12 through June 6 at various locations around the city. To kick off Opus Osm’s coverage, Zuzana Sklenková reports on a unique pre-concert event.

Clutching a magical baton, a conductor can hold a 70-member orchestra quiet, or incite a great passionate concerto.

How does he do it?

The chief conductor of the National Theatre ensemble, Tomáš Netopil, volunteered to show the basics of his art April 6 as part of Rozkvět Pražského Jara, a pre-Prague Spring series of public lectures.

At this meeting held at the Church of St Lawrence, the audience had a chance to look at the strange gestures conductors use and to finally understand what all that jostling and waving in front of an orchestra means.

The moment the conductor lifts either his hand or the baton and takes a breath, the music starts. The sudden pinching off of his fingers is the end.

Of course there is more to conducting than just the start and the end; there is the whole in-between. Here the conductor also sets the tempo, dynamics, and expression.

Conductor Netopil jokes with his receptive audience

He uses his baton as an extension of the hand. Mr Netopil used the metaphor of a whip and sugar when speaking about his hands. The whip hand is the right, that determines the tempo of the music and the dynamics, while the left hand adds the sugar to the music, ie, the expression and feeling, the style and the volume. In big orchestras the left hand also indicates entering of different instruments.

The white point of the baton is supposed to be visible to the musicians in the back of an orchestra. That’s important, because the right hand and baton give the gesture for the beat of the music. That’s the weird signature in the air you might have seen. Depending on the beat, the conductor copies either 2, 3, or 4 beat patterns in the air.

But Mr Netopil’s lecture wasn’t all theory.

The audience was transformed into an improv choir under the renowned conductor’s hands. Singing a Czech school folk song, Ach synku, synku, our little “choir” was able to identify – with some difficulty – the song’s ¾ beat and sing it slowly, and then quickly, depending how fast the conductor gesticulated.

Then, with the Student’s Quartet from the Prague Conservatory, Mr. Netopil showed how he works with a real orchestra. First they performed a standard interpretation of Mozart’s A Little Night Music, and then each player received a different instruction about the tempo, volume, and emphasis. This clearly showed how the conductor affects the interpretation of the music and can impose his vision.

Conducting is a very demanding profession, requiring an absolute feel for the music, body coordination, and the ability to translate music into clear sign language that musicians can follow. The audience learned that the Czech school of conducting is one of the most respected in the world, characterized by Czech conductors who are able to maintain firm, flat hand gestures – supposedly the easiest to see from that back row. – oo

– Zuzana Sklenková

About Mr Netopil
Mr Netopil also talked about his uneasy path to becoming a conductor. Originally studying the violin at the Conservatory in Kroměříž, he kept his conducting studies a secret from his violin professor. But then he discovered that at the Academy of Performing Arts entrance exams, conducting was scheduled before the violin exams. He decided to go for it.
A breakthrough in his career came after winning a conducting competition in Frankfurt. Since then has been leading orchestras in major opera houses around the world, and since the 2009/10 season he has been the Chief Conductor at the National Theatre.

Photo Credits: Photos and videos: Miroslav Setnička

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