Mahler unconducted

Mahler unconducted


norman lebrecht

May 23, 2015

Can’t be done, right?

All the symphonies need someone at the front, giving shape and direction.

That’s what we thought.

The Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra of Los Angeles, a conductorless ensemble, decided to perform the fourth symphony without external interference.

See what you think.

kaleidoscope chamber orch


  • John Borstlap says:

    Quite an achievement, although a (good) conductor could have added some refinements in phrasing and balance. But Mahler IV is the only symphony of his that offers an unconducted opportunity because of the generally regular pulse in which it is written. You cannot play the other symphonies like that.

  • El Grillo says:

    That’s indeed Mahler without the stern furrowed brow of control coming from the big smile on the podium with “his” waving stick, gregariously embracing the phrase.

    It’s refreshing. Yes, it can be done without conductor, as well. No problem. Any conductor would do well to listen to this just to hear the music emerge on its own in a different way.

    And no, I’m not saying it’s better one way or the other, but this is completely legit.

  • Luciano says:

    Anything can be done without conductor provided you have enough rehearsal time. There was a full orchestra in Russia that did everything without conductor in the 1920s. But they had to rehearse for weeks before every performance.

  • Macoschi says:

    Cannot wait when they do 3rd symphony… 🙂

    And its another proof that the orchestra needs a conductor. Its lacking a line, an idea… and its not together many times 🙂

  • william osborne says:

    Truly fine musicianship and ensemble work. And they do a lot of new music too. A reminder of what a pity it is that a metro area of 12 million people only has one full time orchestra, and an opera company with what amounts to about a six week season. So much talent and human potential is being lost. People praise the LA Phil, but it is only a tiny fraction of what LA could be if musicians like these had more support.

    • John Cheek says:

      Thanks for being a downer as always Mr Osborne.

    • suzanne says:


    • LA resident says:

      What an absolute ignorant comment. Do you live in the LA area? Or are you just googling “orchestra in LA”? Los Angeles is home to more than 1 full time orchestra. And the LA Opera is more than a 6 week season. Stop spreading false information.

    • LA resident says:

      so we shouldn’t praise the LA Phil? What are you talking about? Maybe you should start an orchestra if it’s such big issue for you

  • Patrick says:

    “without external interference”

    A wonderful and impressive performance, even with the unnecessary snarky comment in the accompanying article.

  • Adrian Bryttan says:

    By the time a conductor-less orchestra gets to an actual performance, they have formulated and rehearsed all their decisions regarding style, transitions, tempi, articulations etc. The problem is that during an actual performance, there must be room for unanticipated “inspiration”, a response to all the musical threads occurring that particular night. There are moment to moment adjustments that need to be made. With one person at the helm, at least you have a chance to move beyond correctness and precise ensemble.

    With group decisions, there is a also tendency to go for safer, middle-of-the road choices for tempi. (It was said the Orpheus Orchestra distributed tapes from multiple rehearsals to each member to canvas opinions on tempi and other musical decisions.) So, rather than painting in bold, dramatic strokes all the subtle rubatos, transitions, driving inner voices etc. the result is more generic. Sometimes they will nod and stress individual beats rather than going for the big arch, and how can it be otherwise? I listened to the Kaleidoscope’s Mahler and also their Afternoon of a Faun and was impressed by their ensemble and musicality, but found it too mezzo-mezzo and not memorable.

    Of course, there are unmusical and downright bad conductors who have not much to say out there. Kaleidoscope is a talented bunch of expert and musical players. Unfortunately, groups like this will always be limited in what they can do…

  • Jevgeniy says:

    An honestly fine achievement. But does the rubato work in this movement fare as well as when there is someone up front helping to shape it? I don’t think so.

  • May says:

    1. not bad at all, however a conductor could have helped with balancing the instruments and achieving more rubato, and the soprano would have greatly benefitted.
    2. I suppose ever since Gilbert Kaplan conducted Mahler, this is the logical progression

  • Conor says:

    Wow! 12 million people and 1 orchestra! That’s such a pity. Personally while the musicianship and ensemble work is outstanding, I think real risks simply can’t be taken with a group this size, and so the result, while really very, very good, and arguably very artistically important, feels to me somewhat pasteurised.

  • Eric Koenig says:

    OK, now let’s see them take on the Eighth, with exactly the amount of musicians as there were at the world premiere!

  • Robert Holmén says:

    There have been a number of conductorless orchestra experiments, most famously in Russia after the revolution.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, but none of them inaugurated a new trend: the music works better with a conductor ( if he’s good).

  • mr oakmountain says:

    A fine performance, and a video that young people should find truly inspiring.

  • Philip says:

    With enough rehearsal and the right minds, I believe Mahler 4 can be done without a conductor, but this performance RUINS that arguement!
    The Sleighbells should NOT ritard, even when the strings do. They split apart – that’s the whole point! It’s supposed to be discontinuous, not smooth. That’s what makes it modern, a “symphony in quotation marks,” as Adorno said. If anyone has any doubts, look at Mahler’s own reminders in red:
    And that’s how the performance continues, one gesture after another with default leading and following and obvious ways of “getting through” the piece without sounding “Bad.” It’s “nice,” safe playing, totally contradicting the adventurous spirit of Mahler, who needs boldness in conception and execution. I still imagine that in the right hands it can be performed by a conductorless group, but this performance makes me think it’s further away from being feasible than I would have thought had I never seen this. No one bothered to go into the mind of this amazing man. There are so many things wrong with this that I had to stop listening. Sorry, but watered down Mahler isn’t Mahler at all!

  • Michael says:

    I was at their performance of Mahler 4 at a church in Pasadena. What an experience! And they do not use permanent principals, rotating different players to the front of the section for each piece they perform.

  • Blair Tindall says:

    We are acquainted with Orpheus, yes?

  • Brian says:

    I love chamber music. However, I think the symphonic music of Mahler does not lend itself to performance without a conductor. With a good conductor, there is actually much greater freedom, nuance, and spontaneity. Of course, the problem is the shortage of good conductors!

  • José Bergher says:

    Persimfans. From 1922 to 1932.

  • Felipe Tristan says:

    NICE JOB! Although, they’re all constantly looking for a ‘conductor’ or lead person across the orchestra. This would have been even “hotter” if performed from memory.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Andreas Richter says:

    There is an orchestra in Paris called Les Dissonances with the violinist David Grimal leading from the first stand but playing symphonic repertoire like Brahms and Bruckner without conductor with amazing results

  • Felipe Tristan says:


    Although, they’re constantly watching for a ‘conductor’ or lead person within the orchestra. In that case, this would have been even better if performed from memory; thus resulting in a fascinating music-making interaction.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Spot on. What more could be said?