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Is a conductor the best person to write a book on why conducting matters? To explain technique or give insights into repertoire, certainly. But what are the chances of an impartial analysis from the very person whose job is in question? Is it any fairer, the same conductor might retort, to have an orchestral musician review it?

The tension, whether fruitful, joking or damaging, between the roles of conductor and player is one of the many subjects that the author covers in his illuminating account of what goes on when an orchestra gathers before (not, he insists, under) a conductor. On this particular point, he takes care to argue that the conductor’s privilege entails a responsibility: ‘We are in a position to make a considerable difference to the quality of the players’ musical lives and this is a task that should be embraced very seriously.’

Wigglesworth’s book, despite an ominously solemn introduction contemplating the nature of time, reveals him to be pragmatic and undogmatic in his approach. It has plenty of passing advice but is no how-to guide; it clearly draws heavily on first-hand experience, and there are probably as many quotes from T S Eliot as any specialist source. But he does cover specialised topics – conducting without a score, say, or the vagaries of working in a theatre pit – in some detail, and includes plenty of reflections on musical life and its conventions, and the conductor’s part in it all.

The text is conversational without being rambling (how many musicians have learned the hard way to be wary of engaging conductors in conversation about conducting?) and Wigglesworth has a fondness for the kind of observation that often helps when discussing something as abstract yet evocative as music. These may be poetic or inspirational but also down-to-earth, such as his rationale for avoiding indulgent rubato: ‘The dog that stops at every lamp post takes a long time to get to the end of the street’.

TOBY DELLER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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