How to conduct with both arms at your side

How to conduct with both arms at your side


norman lebrecht

May 31, 2014

This is Leonard Bernstein’s legendary performance of the finale of Haydn 88 with the Vienna Philharmonic, in which he never lifts a finger. The musicians have learned how to read his facial expressions and the audience in the front rows – just watch those faces – sit there wondering what the maestro gets paid for and expecting the performance to collapse.

It’s a magical human transaction, rooted far back in the history of conducting – it was a party trick of Arthur Nikisch – and achievable only with an orchestra of the highest sensitivity.

Lenny knew his Wieners. Would he ever have tried this in New York?

bernstein arms


  • Michael Endres says:

    Wonderful ! My favourite combination : Lenny and the VPO.
    And seeing the great Gerhart Hetzel as concertmaster brought back memories from student times ( wonderful chamber music lessons ).

  • Peter says:

    ‘Lenny knew his Wieners’… you could not say that in New York, where a politician called Weiner (pronounced Wiener) got into trouble over twittering images of his Wiener to young ladies

  • anonymus says:

    Nothing magical in this. Orchestras like Vienna Phil do not need a conductor to play this kind of music together and in tune. Bernstein was gracious and great enough to admit this in front of the audience. Anyway, great conductors do most of the work in the rehearsals, out of the eye of the public.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    I once saw on TV a black and white clip where Bernstein conducts the NYPO in the opening of Brahms’ first symphony and walks away, telling the audience that they don’t seem to need him. The orchestra keeps playing gorgeously. I believe it is from the Young People’s Concerts, but can’t find it on youtube.

    I also remember Evgeni Svetlanov in a fall 1977 concert, conducting the Philharmonia in Tchaikosky’s Pathetique, where he let the orchestra play alone the climax of the third movement. As far as I could, from the side of the RFH side stalls, he just stood at attention and resumed . The orchestra played wonderfully.

    Another recollection, this time from Athens’ Herodes Atticus Theater, summer 1979. Barenboim walked away after a few bars of conducting the encore, the Prelude from Bizet’s Carmen. The Orchestre de Paris played the entire piece impeccably. Barenboim got a brief applause as he was walking away, and they all got a big ovation at the end.

    Question to those of you who know more about conducting and orchestral playing: could one walk away on a Bruckner adagio or at in an opera?

  • Stephen Owades says:

    The New York Philharmonic has a long-running “party trick” (to use your term) of playing Bernstein’s Candide Overture entirely without a conductor, as a tribute to Leonard Bernstein—and doing it very well. That’s a piece with a lot more tricky transitions than the Haydn 88 finale too. So I’d expect that Bernstein would have been equally as confident conducting the New Yorkers with his eyes and face as he was the Viennese on this occasion.

    I had a fair number of opportunities to sing under Bernstein’s direction with the Boston Symphony, and he was a very communicative conductor using all parts of his body. Limiting himself to just his face and shoulders, as on this occasion, didn’t reduce his ability to convey his intentions, particularly if he had reasonable rehearsal.

  • newyorker says:

    Sure, an opera orchestra like the Met or Vienna could do a very familiar opera with no conductor – but I would imagine some starting/stopping places would be messy if nobody was watching the stage. Unfamiliar repertoire or Richard Strauss would not be advisable this way, however.

    I agree with the above posters that nothing magical is going on in this Haydn 88 clip. Lenny isn’t so much conducting with facial gestures, as NL says, as he is simply showing a facial tick for preparatory beats, which communicate nothing except “keep going, a tempo!” I’m a huge Bernstein fan, but his smiling smugly at them in this witty piece is not helping them to play it better.

  • newyorker says:

    .. oh, the other question regarding a Bruckner adagio… sure, absolutely they could play without a conductor. But with nobody shaping the music, the results might be dissatisfying regarding the shaping and pacing of the piece without a single vision to unite around.

  • Omer Shomrony says:

    This is indeed lovely, but one needs to acknowledge that this was a mere ENCORE coming right after that same movement – which, in the original instance, was conducted regularly. This small fact makes Bernstein’s playfulness and courage much more understandable.

  • Harold Stover says:

    Not so much the faces of the audience but the brief glimpses of the faces of the musicians at the very end – even the old pros of the VPO were digging it.

  • Angela Cockburn says:

    Don’t underestimate the role of the concertmaster here, as well as, in this case, the cello section leader. Both of whom Bernstein acknowledges.

  • John Mark Rozendaal says:

    This performance is cute, but to me it sounds like a smug, risk-free reading, lacking the verve and wit that this movement can offer.
    Performances led by Szell and Furtwangler both made me laugh out loud.

  • James says:

    While I’m not particularly a Bernstein fan while seeing this video I thought to myself “very cute” and also what would von Karajan do? I recall seeing videos of HvK conducting with his eyes closed so read those visual cues. But since this video is of the Vienna Philharmonic look at their annual New Year’s Day Concert videos where many different conductor’s shenanigans are on display. With respects to the Bruckner adagio I suspect the only thing amiss would be misplaced cymbal crash in the 7th. (sorry percussionists I know you can count bars too).

  • Nick says:

    Once saw a similar ‘trick’ with Svetlanov conducting the old USSR State Symphony Orchestra in the last movement of Rachmaninov 1. Admittedly it was only for the march in the first minute or so, but with no downbeat and hands at his sides, it was mightily impressive.

  • jim says:

    The conductor’s work is in the rehearsal. During the performance, the musicians depend upon the conductor to set tempos and handle transitions, cues, etc. Beating time during the performance is not necessary. The conductor, however does have another very important job – drawing the audience’s attention to the significant details of the composition. So in reality, a good conductor is not so much cueing the orchestra as he/she is cueing the audience about what is happening in the composition.

    • m2n2k says:

      The point about conducting for the audience is partially true, but it is still a bit of a simplification and an obviously imperfect generalization. Some good conductors do exactly that, while others including some great ones do not do that at all. For example, in this very instance Maestro LB is not showing practically anything to the audience, but it does not make him a bad conductor. On the other hand, there are some who conduct mostly for the audience, yet remain just as mediocre as if they didn’t.

    • Ellen says:

      Five or six years ago, I saw a Japanese conductor in front of the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Amsterdam Concert Hall. In his introduction he announced that conducting was not necessary, as the musicians knew everything from the previous rehearsals. He was a guest conductor. Still the orchestra played magnificently.
      I was impressed by the conductor’s revelation and the credit he gave to the orchestra.
      Unfortunately, I forgot his name.

  • Anastasia Micklethwaite says:

    Back in 1985 I took part in a wonderful concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam with the NYO where Kees Bakels conducted the end of Shos 4 with his eye brows. It remains one of my most special memories of glorious music making with that incredible orchestra. Thank you for bringing back such happy memories!