Swiss conductor Christopher Morris Whiting sees his role in the orchestra as the guide of a sports team
Christopher Morris Whiting, music director of Switzerland’s Winterthurer Symphony Orchestra says the role of the conductor is quite mysterious. “It’s a mysterious role because the conductor himself makes no sound and so why would he be necessary for music. So I see my role with this orchestra more as the guide of sports team, say football, where there are trainers and managers who do not play but coach, lead and make decisions for the team,” says Christopher who recently performed in the city with the Winterthurer Symphony Orchestra and the Bangalore School of Music. Christopher is also a violinist and conductor of a Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich. “I am helping them achieve a professional level. I am sort of a coach. But in the concert, the role of the conductor is to create the music with physical gestures while the musicians are creating music with their instruments and their voices. I am helping them shape their music, inspiring them to play together, to create the performance in the moment.”
A conductor, he says, also spends more time looking deeply into a composition, because he or she has to have as much mastery over the music as possible.
“It’s about what he can hear, what he can understand, what he can do so that when he is presented with a score of a piece like Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, he can hear it in his mind and he can see how it should sound. In music nobody ever understands a piece 100 per cent. The task is just too big, so we simply try to improve all the time.”
And rehearsal is an important part of it all because a piece of music can never be fully perfected.
“So we always feel somewhat inadequate and that makes us humble when we try to make music because there were always greater masters. It also inspires a conductor. If he’s a good conductor he will work harder. If he’s a bad conductor he probably thinks its good enough already. And the orchestra knows the difference.”
The role of the conductor, explains Christopher, has evolved down the years. “Orchestra music has become progressively more complex over the centuries. The role of a conductor long ago would have meant being a leader of a group of playing musicians. Then it changed in the Baroque era to one who would take a stick and pound the floor with the rhythm. In the 19 century composers would lead orchestras in their own compositions,” he says, pointing towards Mozart and Beethoven, who would lead with the violin or piano respectively or just as conductors.
“Composers like Richard Wagner began conducting their own pieces as well as those by other composers like Beethoven. From the time of Wagner the role of the conductor became more specialized. There were still great composers such as Gustav Mahler who were great conductors. But the conductor became somebody who knew and understood composition but primarily conducted.”
He believes that it is an unfortunate development that conductors these days neither compose nor perform. Perhaps conducting might have become too much of a specialization. “So I would like for myself to stay closer to the performance of music. I studied some composition. I don’t think I am a good composer at all. But I want to continue to perform a violinist and stay close to the orchestra inside the orchestra.”
According to Christopher, getting close to a piece, is about getting close to what the composer was feeling and thinking.
“And that is expressed through these dots in the page. Getting closer to what he was feeling and thinking begins on the technical level of what he wrote, how it sounds, why he wrote something in a certain way, what it means. So the more I understand what he wrote, the closer I come to what he might have meant by it. So when we perform, we are putting the listeners into his world,” he says.
“When we look at a painting, we can see it but there is a certain distance. When we make music, we create a work of art and we are surrounded by it. It’s like stepping inside of a painting, living in the world that is the painting.”