I use this phrase when I try to explain what a conductor does. In the end, this is all it is: embodying the expressive intent of the composer. That’s what conductors do; that’s our real job.
Am I done now? Everyone understands about meaning, music, and conducting?
Perhaps I might clarify further.
Emotional intent is expressed by the composer through rhythm, pitch, texture, timbre, dynamics, and form; all notated with lines and dots. We conductors try to read, analyze, and interpret the page accurately so that we might show it in our bodies and lead the ensemble to express it in sound.
We analyze the music to discover an interpretation. Then we work with the ensemble to communicate our interpretation so that they can make it happen aurally. That can mean setting tempo, keeping meter, cuing entrances, cutting of the ends of phrases–in general, that’s what all the arm waving is about. But it also means feeling the emotion that the composer is trying to express, or at least feeling the style/character/affect, and letting it fill us up so that it comes out in our movements and influences the members of the ensemble. That may be why the popular image of conductors includes making faces and untidy hair and being exhausted at the end of a performance.
So what does a conductor do? Why can’t someone who’s never been in our shoes nail down exactly what we’re doing up there on the podium?
A conductor is a music theorist and historian.
A poet and a linguist.
A philosopher. A student of Zen.
A singing, dancing actor.
A leader and teacher.
A shepherd and a guide.
I love my job!
And that’s just the work we do to rehearse and perform. The other work of being a conductor–the business of being in the arts–is a whole other world. It’s fascinating; but I’ll probably only write about that part insomuch as it supports or undermines our ability to achieve all of the above.