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August 24, 2011

Midweek Madness: Leonard Bernstein's hands-free Haydn

For this week's dash of Midweek Madness, I thought I would jump the gun a bit and combine it with something that would actually be more appropriate to post on Thursday, which is Leonard Bernstein's birthday (he would have turned 93).

But this video of the incomparable Lenny with the Vienna Philharmonic is ...

so much fun that I thought it would serve my purposes perfectly right now. In this fabulous demonstration of hands-free conducting in a Haydn symphony, what Bernstein does with just his face is more than some baton-wavers will ever accomplish with their whole bodies.

Of course, it's a bit of a stunt. Of course, it's got ego all over it. Who cares? It's irresistible.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:11 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes


Do Bernstein's face movements really constitute conducting, or does this performance suggest that a conductor who rehearses his musicians well does not need to conduct? Is conducting all an act? (I am not a musician, and ask these questions honestly.)

You ask the eternal question every orchestral musician asks? Who needs those guys with the big heads and big salaries? There certainly are situations where a conductor is ever so slightly superfluous, as the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra demonstrates every season. Still, someone has to give a down beat and, usually, a cut-off (the concertmaster does that duty when no one is providing it from the podium). How well this works is pretty much determined by the score. A straightforward, one-rhythm case will be easier to get through than something with major tempo, phrasing or dynamic shifts. In this example, Bernstein's rapport with the players was so keen that, as you suggest, all the work was done in rehearsal. Everyone was comfortable with going rogue. He was known to do this look-ma-no-hands thing with the Viennese from time to time, his way of honoring their ability and stature, I think. What I think is so cool about this clip is that Bernstein is still attending to all of the details he worked on in rehearsal. He's just using facial expressions instead of a baton to remind the ensemble. And whether the players looked up or not, I'd bet they felt every move of the eyebrows. TIM

I sang in the Choral Arts Society of Washington throughout the '80s, and can remember several Natl. Symphony concerts when Bernstein started a movement and then just stood there.

That's what authoritative conducting means, in my book. Thanks for the comments. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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