Conducting from memory has become a requirement for most conductors these days. It's hard to find an orchestral concert on PBS where a conductor is not leading at least one piece without a stand and score front and center. It seems a little odd, because for most of the historical broadcasts I've watched from the 1940's through the 70's, this was not the case. Conductors had the score in front of them, not because it wasn't memorized most of the time, but rather almost as a reverent gesture to the composer's intent. In other words, for those of us who study these masterpieces, there is always something new we discover in scores no matter how many times we look at them. They are endlessly fascinating, deep, full of intellectual and emotional touches based in a craft that many times is perhaps divinely inspired. Yet lately it almost has become more respectful to conduct without the music. This has become the manner in which to not only honor the composer (you are showing it is all in your head), but also a virtuosic display in keeping with what audiences want to see. They want to be dazzled.
Certainly there is a wonderfully trite old adage - you should have the score in your head and not your head in the score! But with this changed sensibility, it is certainly a habit that I have formed due to the pressures associated with expectations as well as my own experience of doing it.
So - is conducting a symphony from memory hard to do? What is required? Does it make a difference as a conductor to have no music in front of you?
It's something I've been thinking about lately, since I conducted Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 "Italian" from memory last night with the Colonial Symphony at the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts in Madison, and this week on Friday, October 30th, I'll lead Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 from memory as well with the MSU Symphony.
The truth is conducting from memory is a function of three things: 1) time; 2) a decent memory for sound; and 3) trust in the musicians with whom you are making music. When I'm leading a piece from memory I am both seeing the score in my mind's eye and responding to sound in the present tense. If you sing along to a song that you've heard over and over again, you don't have to think about what lyrics will come next, or what the sound is like in the drums or guitars. It just is something that comes to you having heard one of your favorites perhaps for years. You've listened to it enough that your musical memory is so strong that you just react in the moment to what you KNOW comes next.
For a conductor this is part of that process - you have listened and studied to such a degree that you remember every detail as it occurs. Even when mixed meter is involved, your hands and body lead the mind - they just go where they need to as if they had a mind of their own! However, the difference between conducting and simply singing a song is the fact that you also have the picture of the score in your head with the notes associated. It's like memorizing a giant work for piano, with many lines in front of you. It just takes time.
As to the effect on you as a conductor, I have to be honest - it is liberating to not have to turn pages. In addition, when a stand is not in front of you, it's as if another barrier has been removed. Have you ever tried to give someone a hug with a stand in the middle?! When you remove that hurdle, it exposes your soul a little more fully and there is a visceral and kinetic connection between orchestra and conductor. It is palpable. The bond between music, musicians, and conductor becomes more transparent.
In addition, musicians know how much time it takes to memorize music, and when they see you as a conductor without a score, it means that you've worked very hard to not only know the music well, but somehow that you've respected them in the process. Beyond, it means you trust that they are going to do their jobs.
Audiences are the same - it strikes them as if you are doing something that requires intellect and ability. I've never conducted something from memory where someone from the audience hasn't commented about it afterward, and even in the press, many critics respond similarly with remarks. Read the NY Times reviews of Gustavo Dudamel from his first two concerts and you'll see what I mean.
When conducting a soloist, I usually try to always have a score in front of me no matter how well I know the music. Solo artists are capable of becoming "inspired" in the middle of a performance and doing something unexpected. This risk is managed a little better when the score is right there and I truly feel safer. In last night's performance, I led the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, which I could do from memory as I did the Italian Symphony. But I kept the score in front of me and as it turned out, my soloist Jorge Avila took some chances, which were musically beautiful. When slightly surprised, having the map in front of you is like walking on a tight rope with a safety net! Also when conducting a world premiere as I did last night by Harold Meltzer, I like having the music there since the score usually comes on the late side and beyond, a new piece without the history of works that have been with us for years takes a while to fully digest.
In the balance I think that this aesthetic is with us to stay. You can expect to see more conductors conduct without a score over time and it is a practice that, in my opinion, will only continue to grow in importance to audiences and musicians alike.