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Director from the continuo

Performances are directed, but not conducted.

Most of the director's work is in rehearsal

This is a tricky moment in a live performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo, the connection between the last chorus and the final Moresca dance. There are more than 70 performers involved. 

Can you see the conductor?

No? That's the whole point: they didn't conduct such music in Monteverdi's day.

Was it together?  Yes!

(You can check the Orfeo video here)

How was it done? Read on... 

Andrew Lawrence-King comments:

One of the most striking anachronisms in today's Early Music scene is the presence of so many conductors standing in front of ensembles that, in the period, would have been led from the continuo. 

Does the presence of a conductor make any difference?

  1. If not, why not make a big budget saving, and be more historical too, by removing the conductor. 
  2. But if the conductor does make a difference, then we should be even more keen not to have one, since this difference will be highly inappropriate for music from the pre-conductor period.

I believe that conductors make a big difference. I hear their presence clearly on many recordings. In live shows, they usually stand front and centre, distracting attention from the singers and spoiling the audience's view of the performers. We all know that conducting is un-historical: why accept it? 

My personal approach is to confine my directorial interventions to the rehearsals. Just like a theatre director, I work in rehearsal to give the performers the skills and confidence to play the show themselves. In the concert, I play continuo. When I lead, I give signals by what I play, with an absolute minimum of hand gestures. This is what Agazzari describes in 1607 (the same year as Monteverdi's Orfeo): 

Come fondamento sono quei, che guidano, e sostengono tutto il corpo delle voci, e stromenti di detto concerto: quali sono, Organo, Gravicembalo etc. e similmente in occasion di poche e soli voci, Leuto, Tiorba, Arpa etc.

The Continuo are those that direct and support the entire body of voices and instruments of the ensemble: these are Organ, Harpsichord etc, and similarly (for few or solo voices) Lute, Theorbo, Harp etc.

Agazzari's treatise, Del sonare sopra'l basso  discusses various ways to improvise over a bass-line, distinguishing between between fondamento (fundamental, i.e. what we now call continuo-playing), and ornamento (decorative, i.e. division or variation playing).

Similarly, the anonymous c1630 guide for the artistic director of a music-theatre, Il Corago,

states clearly that the leading continuo-player might sometimes wave a hand to direct a large ensemble, but the rest of the opera should not be conducted. 

Not having a conductor means that the director has to run rehearsals differently.

Not having a conductor empowers individual performers to take responsibility for the whole ensemble.

Not having a conductor encourages certain performance practices and rules out others.

Not having a conductor changes everything! 


How is it done?

Read about Andrew Lawrence-King's approach to ensemble direction here.

And In the performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo, that change into triple rhythm for the final Moresca was managed like this:

  1. We kept a steady Tactus beat across the change (i.e. observing a strict triple Proportion and avoiding any ananchronistic rallentando. So everyone understood confidently what the rhythm should be.  
  2. Every single performer was given individual responsibility for maintaining the Tactus beat (with rehearsal exercises to make that concept a reality).
  3. The crucial signal was given by a continuo-player: in this case, the percussionist, whose clear sound and stick-waving gesture communicated effectively to the entire ensemble. 

Watch the Orfeo video here.

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