Analyzing Leonard Bernstein's Joyful Conducting

Jun 7, 2018

Conducting is both art and science

According to Robert Krulwich, Leonard Bernstein's conducting can be analyzed scientifically. Krulwich is a Radiolab co-host and, for more years than he cares to count, produced a blog called Krulwich Wonders for NPR.

As I dug deeper into Bernstein's work on the podium, one of those blog posts caught my attention: "What Happened To Leonard Bernstein's Hands?"

I had not really thought to any great degree about what goes on when the conductor seems to be doing, well, nothing — until I had a conversation with David Danzmayr, who was then in his first full season as music director of ProMusica Chamber Orchestra.

If you watch Danzmayr conduct, you will, at times, see his hands drop as the orchestra continues to play. He said when the musicians are all locked in, moving as one large instrument, sometimes you just let them go, stay out of the way. A glance, an eyebrow, a subtle nod of the head will suffice.

In "What Happened To Leonard Bernstein's Hands?," Krulwich cited a conversation he had with Ezra Block, who explained it like this:

"My friend George Steel, director of the New York City Opera, calls this technique 'eyebrows only,' though as you can see, his chin is working, his eyes are darting, his mouth is up, down. He's liking, noticing, saying thank you using only his face muscles."

Here is the video to which they referred. 

 

Bernstein could dance on the podium with the best of them. His grandiose flourishes sometimes seemed more like an artist wielding a paintbrush rather than a conductor with a baton. It all was uniquely Bernstein.

This August, music-lovers around the world are celebrating the life and career of one of the most amazing musical forces of the 20th century. Bernstein was born Aug. 25, 1918, and all this summer Classical 101 will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth with special programs and digital content.

On Symphony Showcase, we’ll explore Bernstein's legacy as conductor, composer and performer. For many of us, Bernstein is best remembered as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. So, throughout June we'll work our way through their acclaimed recordings of Robert Schumann's four symphonies, along with his Cello Concerto and works by Ravel, Respighi and Haydn.

If you'd like to watch Bernstein conduct the Schumann symphonies, there is a DVD version.

Be listening Thursday evenings at 7 for A Bernstein Summer on Symphony Showcase with host Boyce Lancaster.