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April 1990 The Conductor’s Responsibilities, By Harry Begian

As a college student many years ago, I read that a conductor has three responsibilities: to composers, to players, and to his audiences. This declaration of a conductor’s responsibilities made such good sense that I have tried to adhere to it throughout my career as a conductor and teacher. At the many excellent concerts I have attended over the years, I have learned that most conductors of bands, orchestras, and opera accept these responsibilities, reflecting them in the music they choose to perform.
   Audience attendance at symphony orchestra, opera, and university band performances reached an all-time high into the 1960s. Most conductors seemed committed to presenting performances of the best music available for the listening pleasure of their audiences. From the 60s until the present, symphony and opera attendance have held their own while attendance at university band concerts has dropped.
   Decline in the size of band audiences is a major concern for many band conductors and has been the topic of panel discussions and seminars throughout the country. While many reasons are advanced for the causes, one never hears or reads that perhaps the main reason for the decline is poor programming. Far too many band conductors have forgotten, or consciously dismissed, a proper balance of musical responsibilities to both audiences and players.
   In the book Music After Modernism Samuel Lipman states, “The audience, which can give its immediate and warm-hearted approval to performers who play known and beloved music, can in no direct way influence composers; yet the long-run approval of the composer by the audience is vital for the composer’s self regard. . . not only can the composer not be told what to do. . .but the audience cannot long be expected to support what it neither likes nor understands.”
   Our many fine college and university bands had for years preserved band traditions and served as models for the band movement in this country. They charted the directions in which bands developed instrumentation and the music they played. In the late 1960s and into the 70s, one began to hear from a small group of university band conductors that they did not care to program traditional music from the band’s limited band repertoire; they would devote their musical energies to the performance and propagation of new music, original band works in the contemporary idiom.
   This approach to band programming had a direct influence on the younger generation of band conductors being trained by our universities. When this younger generation entered the conducting profession they adopted the programming philosophies of their mentors. Many of them became so intent on personal expression that they showed little or no responsibility for exposing players and concert audiences to a variety of styles and periods of music.
   It is my opinion, shared by a great number of band conductors, that programming of a preponderance of one kind of music is shortsighted and cheats our players. Through-lopsided programming that stresses only new, original, or contemporary band works, an aura of musical monotony is created, seriously affecting the performers’ enthusiasm and curtailing audience attendance at concerts. Such messianic programming should-be reconsidered if conductors are to accept their musical responsibilities to student players and audiences seriously. This does not in any way imply that conductors should lower their musical standards or pander to only that which audiences and players enjoy. Nor does it mean that we should revert to playing the inane and poorly transcribed music of the past.
   University band conductors definitely have a responsibility to present new, original band works on their concerts; but they should exercise greater care in selecting music that is artistically sound, displays solid composer craftsmanship, and has intrinsic musical worth. Examples of works that meet these criteria are the following: . . .and the mountains rising nowhere. . . by Joseph Schwantner, Divertimento for Band — “On Winged Flight” by Gunther Schuller, Symphony No. 2 by David Maslanka, and Symphony No. 3 by Alfred Reed. Earlier original contemporary works for band that meet the highest musical standards are the Symphony in B Flat by Paul Hindemith, Theme and Variations Op. 43a by Arnold Schoenberg, Sinfonietta by Ingolf Dahl, Symphony for Band by Vincent Persichetti, Dionysiaques by Florent Schmitt, Lincolnshire Posy by Percy Grainger, La Fiesta Mexicana by H. Owen Reed, Music for Prague 1968 by Karel Husa, Hammersmith by Gustav Hoist, Armenian Dances Parts I and II by Alfred Reed, and Fiesta del Pacifico by Roger Nixon. The myopic view that foists only one type of music on audiences and players is wrong, both educationally and ethically.
   It is amazing that after numerous discussions about the pros and cons of transcriptions over the past 50 years that band conductors haven’t come to realize there are basically only two types: good ones and bad ones. Transcriptions by Harding and Hindsley of the Richard Strauss tone poems are well crafted and suited to performance by the finest bands, as is Guy Duker’s scoring of Respighi’s Pines of Rome. In selecting transcribed works for performance one learns that the transcriber is an important indicator of the work’s musical quality and the craftsmanship displayed in its setting for band. A conductor can rest assured that the transcriptions done by reliable transcribers such as Leiden, Calliet, Reed, Paynter, Grundman, or Curnow, to name only a few, will be suitable and sound well when played by a wind band. To me the reasons for this are obvious: these arrangers are familiar with a wide range of music, are sympathetic to the wind band medium, and understand its timbral and coloristic potentials.
   To conductors who regard all transcriptions as anathemas, I say that transcriptions have been considered a legitimate practice throughout the history of Western music. Bach, Mozart, and Liszt are but a few of the great composers who transcribed music of their own as well as that of other composers. Unfortunately, there are far too many bad transcriptions for band: transcriptions unsuited to band performance or executed so poorly they discredit the original composition. Unacceptable transcriptions are those in which the transcriber has freely changed harmonies, textures, and rhythmic figures or made deletions.
   However, having listed these objectionable transcription practices I would also venture to say that many bands today perform in concert as many bad original works as bad transcrip
tions. In consideration of this, I believe con
ductors need to review the band transcription literature and sort out those that are worthy of performance. This we must do. The disinterested players and apathetic audiences are saying it is not justifiable to play music only because it is new, original, or contemporary music for band.   
   American society has always had a fascination with all that is new, whether in trends, clothing, automobiles, or music. With the desire to see the band’s repertoire grow, band conductors clutch at any new music written for the medium. This is understandable; what is not acceptable is that too often we equate the word “new” with the word “good.” Too few conductors take the time to study a score for themselves instead of relying on the assessment of others. Because these conductors don’t trust their musical perceptions or intuition, they seek outside help to select music and decide how to play it. Conductors who ask others what to play and how to play turn out carbon copy performances that can never convey commitment or strong convictions about the music.
   When teaching graduate music students, it is distressing to observe how little they know about music literature and music history. This leads me to believe that very few band students ever play or hear music of the masters in their high school or college bands. It may also indicate that many of them do not attend symphony orchestra concerts and operas. In pondering this matter I have come to the conclusion that their playing experiences are confined to the new educational music published for bands and a type of “non-music music” (it looks like music, reads like music, but sounds terrible).
   I believe strongly that band players who never experience the expressive qualities of good music in performance and who are continually forced to perform music of inferior or questionable quality will leave our bands or give up their instruments altogether. The drop in enrollment in some university bands and music departments bears this out, and I am certain this trend is due in part to the quality of music played in high school. The monotony of playing and hearing the same kinds of musical sounds, textures, and rhythmical devices can only discourage and disappoint our players and audiences.
   Having isolated programming as the main reason band conductors fail to fulfill their responsibilities to composers, players, and audiences, it is time to suggest what can be done to correct the matter. In doing so I speak from 50 years of experience. Over that period of time I have conducted many excellent bands, symphony orchestras, and a few operatic productions. I have been fortunate through most of my career to play for fairly large audiences. I have never experienced a dropout problem with any of the groups I have conducted. I believe that this has been largely because of the music we played and the manner in which we presented it in concert.
   Much of what I learned about performance, conducting, and programming came from intensive listening and observation of professional musicians. Through listening to players and observing concertgoers I learned much more about music, programming, and a conductor’s musical responsibilities than I ever did in a college classroom. Early in my conducting career I concluded that concert audiences attend concerts to hear performances of a variety of music played well, with serious conviction. I also developed sensitivity and regard for the musical likes and dislikes of players. I came to the realization that sincere commitment to what we perform is immeasurably effective in the final outcome of how well a musical work is performed.
   In conclusion, I offer what I believe to be truths and guidelines for conductors. First and foremost, band conductors should concern themselves with fulfilling their responsibilities to composers, players, and audiences. To do this they must perform the very best music available, prepare it well, and present it to a public audience with strong commitment and musical conviction. A good work presented in a shoddy performance will not credit the composer and will not bring pleasure to players or audiences.
   Play a variety of types of music and structure programs with the principles of unity, variety, and contrast in mind. Include some high-quality transcriptions in your concerts, making sure that they are faithful to the original work and that they are musically convincing.
   By all means, include good contemporary works in your programs. If you study them thoroughly and prepare them with care, you will reflect credit on the composer. Select, organize, and present balanced programs. Avoid program
ming only one kind of music for public presentation; repetitive sounds and techniques are boring. Resist the notion that the words new and original are synonymous with good. Feature fine soloists on your concerts, both vocal and instrumental. Finally, do include a lowly march or two, even if you play them as encores. Audiences love them and want to hear them played well by a good band.            □

  Harry Begian holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan. Director Emeritus of the University of Illinois Bands, Begian has appeared as a conductor, adjudicator, and lecturer in the United States, Canada, and Australia.