This afternoon I’m sitting adding pencil marks to a violin 1 part for Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. Not part of my usual orchestral playing preparation, but part of taking my role as ‘leader’ seriously.
So, the logical question once ‘What are conductors for?’ has been got out of the way: What do (orchestra) leaders do? (Besides walk on after the rest of the orchestra has tuned, get their own round of applause and shake hands with the conductor at the end, which is all an audience will ever get as noticeable indications of their having a different role to any other player.)
I’m played with some leaders who’ve seemed rather puzzled by this question themselves, and have been apparently engaged in justifying their special status in the programme design by interrupting rehearsals to micro-manage the playing technique of the strings (upper or entire), regardless of the schedule being pursued by the conductor. And others, strong in the early-20th-century legacy of uniform bowing for everything, take it upon themselves to carefully pencil in complete revisions to the composer’s / editor’s phrasing and expect the string section to copy them up and follow them.
Depending on circumstances, there can be an element of just wanting another person on the non-musical management team, and I’ve certainly been involved in fixing players and helping promote on this performance. (Speaking of which, buy your tickets now! It would be unwise, based on sales to date and previous Hashtag performances, to assume you’ll be able to get any on the door.)
There are a lot of musical chiefs on an opera – conductor, a good half a dozen vocal soloists who may well have quite well-established and carefully developed ideas about style and delivery, and that’s without the possibility of a separate chorusmaster or a répétiteur. Under the circumstances and most comparable ones (concerti, for instance), the last thing I think I should be doing as leader is throwing extra aesthetic preferences into the mix. Despite the name, I see ‘leading’ in this context (and most, actually) as more a process of middle-management – sorting out some of the tricky corners of the sheet music (where the part is ambiguous, or requires further annotation to be readily playable or be effective in the particular context) and acting as a first line of defence for string technical queries rather than passing everything up to the conductor (who, after all, may or may not be a string player – not that the winds and percussion get a specialist question resolver of their own, of course). Perhaps a certain amount of visual re-emphasis of entries (not that you really need that with a smallish, good orchestra and a good conductor.) But it’s a process of facilitation and to a large extent non-intrusion rather than metaphorical seeking to spray my territorial stamp around all the performance’s edges.
if when you come along a week Saturday you’ll see a performance that has achieved an amazing amount of musical cohesion given the orchestra only have three rehearsals; and one that is musically cohesive. But not one that shows the development of a context-invariable ‘Martin Ash style’ or throws spotlight onto me as a musical shaping force. In fact I’ll probably even forego that separate bow at the start.