The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Do symphony orchestras really need conductors? A comparative study done by NPR determines the answer. Plus, Candid Concert Opera performs Mozart’s “The Abduction From the Seraglio” next Saturday night. | December 2, 2012

ALERT: Next Saturday night, Dec. 8 — NOT Sunday, Dec. 9. as originally and mistakenly posted –, at 7 p.m. in Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, Candid Concert Opera (below) will perform a concert version (edited and without costumes or sets) of Mozart’s opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” The concert is FREE, although a donation of $12 is suggested. Codrut Birsan will conduct and English supertitles will be used.  For more information and reviews, visit

Candid Concert Opera Fledermaus ensemble
By Jacob Stockinger

Sure, you sometimes see and hear successful performances by chamber orchestras without a conductor, though it often seems they have a principal violinist or someone else who gives cues and maintains control or balance.

But the question remains: Do symphony orchestras really need conductors to perform at their best?

And if they do, what kind of conductor do they need most? A more authoritarian one? Or a more laid-back and collaborative one? (Below is a photo by James Garrett of The New York Daily News and Getty Images of Leonard Bernstein conducting a rehearsal of the Cincinnati Symphony in 1977 in Carnegie Hall.)


Famed maestro Herbert von Karajan once said he only need to convey four words to conduct: faster, slower, louder, softer.

But music is complex and symphony orchestras are big organizations.

NPR recently did a comparison study that was reported by its science reporter – which is a nice way to bring science to bear on the arts.

Here is the story – the unidentified music, by the way, comes from the first movement on YouTube of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (at bottom in a performance by famed perfectionist conductor George Szell) — and what the experimenters found:


  1. […] Photo of Leonard Bernstein from The Well-Tempered Ear. […]

    Pingback by Write Sense Media » What band leader edited this? — March 10, 2013 @ 10:25 am

  2. […] Classical music: Do symphony orchestras really need conductors? A comparative study done by NPR dete… ( […]

    Pingback by Smirnova plays Mozart « blog — December 6, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

  3. As always, you saved our day. We had the Abduction on the wrong day. Barbara Furstenberg

    Comment by Barbara Furstenberg — December 2, 2012 @ 11:11 am

    • Hi Barbara,
      How, I wish I couold say I accept your praise.
      But actually, I read the press release WRONG.
      The production is on Saturday, Dec. 8 — NOT Dec. 9.
      I apologize for the error.

      Comment by welltemperedear — December 2, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

  4. The calendar listing for Candid Concert Opera is incorrect. It should December 8th at 7:00 and not December 9th

    Comment by Robert — December 2, 2012 @ 11:02 am

    • Hi Robert,
      You are absolutely RIGHT and I am WRONG.
      The production is indeed on Dec 8 — NOT Dec. 9
      Thank you for your correction.
      I will corfrect the posting at once.
      I apologize to all readers and to Candid Concerrt Opera.
      Humbly and gratefully,

      Comment by welltemperedear — December 2, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

  5. I agree 100% with Herbert von K. These 4 elements are about all one can do to make a massed ensemble performance cohere. AND it is in the rehearsal that the real conducting is done. The show is largely a reflection of what has been rehearsed.
    The conductor, in performance, can only attempt to enforce the plans laid out in the preparatory sessions. All the rest, the baton waving, and enthusiasms are for exhorting the band to play to its fullest. They do not serve much of a musical real-time function, with the possible exception of cueing in complex metric environments.
    Now, were an orchestra to choose to exist sans conductor, they will have to have some kind of a consensus approach to their ideas about when to go faster or slower, or play louder or softer.
    I think of myself as the conductor of the progressive rock band PROG, which has been performing complex art-rock music for a decade. I am the only one who plays from a score, and I feel it is both part of my musical and performance role to be in some sort of loose control over the sonic and metric mayhem!

    Comment by Michael BB — December 2, 2012 @ 10:01 am

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