I have never wanted to be a conductor. It requires a strong belief that your opinion is better than that of anyone else in the room. You also need to be ready to enforce your opinion should anyone fail to do as you say. A conductor has to know how often to throw his toys out of the pram and how often to make an example to keep things interesting. If he does it properly it will bring his orchestra closer to him – the conductor I’ve most enjoyed working with was also the one who made me do 5 or 10 min. of my first rehearsal with him kneeling on the floor to remind me to watch him properly. I realise that’s a pretty mild case of example-making compared to standing on one’s chair playing a nasty 3 octave of his choosing to the entire orchestra (here the conductor’s knowledge comes into play in order for him to pick a scale that’s difficult on your particular instrument), but it worked, nevertheless.
Good conductors have a reputation for being terrifying. While I wouldn’t say that every good conductor I’ve worked with is terrifying, I would say that there’s usually a little fear in the mix with all the most exciting ones. And conductors need to be exciting. If they can’t get the orchestra excited, what chance have they of exciting the audience who, let’s face it, only get to see their bottoms and a bit of arm waving. It’s a shame the audience never gets to see the conductor’s face. With television there’s more chances to watch a conductor grimace than there used to, but there’s so much written there that usually only the orchestra gets to see. Of course sometimes it’s just as well only the orchestra sees it – when something’s not going the way he wants there might be a fury on his face that the public might not be able to handle.
Conductors have a different relationship with the string section than with everyone else. The wind, brass and percussion are all a little further down the line towards being soloists and therefore get a little more trust than individual string players do. Those players and the conductor both know that they can hang the other one out to dry if they mess up or chose to upset things, so it’s a slightly closer relationship, somehow. The string players, on the other hand, are supposed to suppress any individuality and play as a homogenous army, doing his bidding unquestioningly.
I’ve never been anything but a string player in an orchestra so I don’t know how it feels for everyone else, but to me a good conductor is someone I’d go to hell and back for. Why? Because that’s what playing a symphony or an opera is like for a string player. It’s an intensely painful, physically exhausting ordeal. And you do it because your conductor asks it, and keeps on asking. So why do you keep on doing it? Because that same conductor will show you heaven. It’s all worth it when you reach that fortissimo climax and the conductor’s face is contorted in ecstasy and he’s asking for more, more, more; you thought you were already giving everything you had and yet you find some more. You can’t hear yourself play even though you’re using all your strength to make the loudest noise you can. The noise is greater than you and it swallows you and the only reason you got there was because that conductor took you on his journey with him.