Violinist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider Shares Top Tips for Leading a Concerto Without a Conductor
Violin soloist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider shares his tips and insights for leading a concerto performance without a conductor
In the days of Bach and Mozart, a conductor-less orchestra was the norm as music performed then was less demanding of the performers (compared to the major works of today like Brahms and Bruckner), were also much smaller in size and led by the concertmaster who would at times stand up to cue an entry or conduct bow-in-hand. Are we able to re-enact this scenario where a concerto can be performed without the need of a conductor?
Acclaimed Danish-Israeli violin soloist Nikolaj Znaider shares his expert advice on the topic.
Violinist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider Lets Us In On Some Tips for Leading a Concerto Without a Conductor
Don't do it ... only joking of course, but it is quite difficult. The first difficult point is that you turn your back on people you’re supposed to lead. You’re playing away from them, so the sound is going away and it is harder for them to hear you.
Choose your repertoire wisely ... light accompaniment is helpful because the orchestra can hear you. I would start with Mozart, and maybe Beethoven. I’ve done Mendelssohn many times, but found it very difficult. I’ve also tried Schumann but to my detriment, it is very difficult without a conductor."
Position yourself carefully and trust one another ... a small semi-circle or oval works, as long as no one is too far from you. What’s important to me is that the playing never becomes too vertical. The danger of playing and directing is that one may play slightly less refined in order to stay together. It’s finding that balance between still narrating the piece in a way that is expressive and finding something practical that everybody can react to. That’s why the more trust that is involved, the better.
Buy the concertmaster dinner. The concertmaster is one of the people who can feel and hear you strongest. There are a couple of practical entrances and upbeats that can only be given by somebody who likes you.
Split the violin sections ... or don't. I do rather like to have split violins ... I think it brings a nice sound quality to the performance. At the same time, it is nice to have something a little more bassy. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong.
Enjoy the energy. There is an added sense of participation from the orchestra. Simply, they feel more empowered when there isn’t somebody standing and waving a stick. ... it actually works really really well.
Don't base musical decisions on what's practical. One danger is playing too clearly.
Know your music, obviously. Make sure to rehearse your accompaniment and make clear of the phrases. This is something that chamber orchestras do incredibly well, they phrase everything.
Let the music call the shots. Let the music dictate. People say play it like chamber music, because they say we listen and react to each other in chamber music, but really, what we should say is: play it like music, since that’s what we have to do always, in all music.
Don't play Schoenberg! You’re making a very big mistake there…
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Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, passionate about supporting the next generation of musical talent, is president of the Carl Nielsen International Competition, which takes place every three years in Odense, Denmark. He plays the “Kreisler” Guarnerius “del Gesù” 1741 violin, on extended loan to him by the Royal Danish Theatre through the generosity of the VELUX Foundations, the Villum Foundation, and the Knud Højgaard Foundation. Szeps-Znaider inaugurated his first season as music director of the Orchestre national de Lyon in September 2020. Prior to that, he conducted the Orchestra’s 2019–20 season opening concerts, and together they toured Russia in February 2020. Szeps-Znaider is a regular guest conductor of the world’s leading ensembles, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.