The Radio Conductor

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Conductor Leon Barzin in the 1930s

From the April, 1944 WQXR Program Guide:

Mr. Barzin, conductor of the WQXR Orchestra, is also conductor of the National Orchestral Association. He is one of the few men regularly conducting both for radio and for the concert hall. He has certain ideas about leading an orchestra over the air waves which we hope will throw new light on broadcasting musical programs.

American conductors preparing for an active career in contemporary music must equip themselves to deal with every kind of musical problem. In the past it was usually sufficient for a symphonic conductor to limit himself to symphonies, an operatic conductor to operas, and a director of lighter music to performances in hotels, restaurants and nightclubs. These were definitely established categories until recently, and so considered in the public mind. But today, the broadening musical scope of radio has broken down the partitions separating one kind of musical performance from another, and the conductor in a radio station must be a musical jack of all trades.

The trend in this direction set in as soon as music began to broadcast over the air in quantity. I well remember, back in 1919, when commercial radio was getting its first start in the old Telephone Building, and I was getting my start in music, that I was obliged in the course of a single day to play first for an opera, then in the popular A & P Gypsies Program, then a symphonic interlude, and finally a round of jazz. Such variety gives a prospective conductor the wide-range of musical knowledge and the all-round adaptability necessary if he is to become an effective working part of the broadcasting industry.

Besides musical adaptability, a radio conductor must acquire another special skill --a technical grasp of the needs and potentialities of the microphone as a means of giving music to the public. In the beginning, radio conductors and technicians were continually at odds. The conductor, on the one hand, was primarily interested in the musical values of his work, and struggled to convince the technician of the importance of blending the sounds of the different musical instruments into an interpretive whole. The technician, on the other hand, was interested mainly in reproducing faithfully the actual sounds made by the individual performers. Mutual understanding was the order of the day-- the technician damning the "temperamental conductor that no one could work with," and the conductor lamenting the fact that an engineer, not knowing one note of music from another, could never be made to "understand."

That was the beginning. Today, both the conductor and the technician have come to realize that the "balance" of the orchestra is their mutual problem, and have learned the difficult art of working hand in hand. Today the once quarrelsome departments know how to integrate and co-ordinate their efforts, and have conquered the problems inherent in the broadcasting of good music--the problems of balance between soloist and orchestra, intensity control, balance among the various choirs of the orchestra, microphone placement, and the proper seating of orchestra personnel.

Besides flexibility and technical understanding, the radio conductor is also obliged to develop an enormous repertoire, always subject to outside influences--the policy of each individual station, the reaction of the listening public, and the type of program preferred by the sponsor. He must also have complete mastery of his orchestra, if he is to project an interpretation sufficiently convincing for millions of listeners to whom the conductor himself is completely invisible. The difficulty there is that the conductor can make his appeal and achieve his effect only through sound, unaided by the possibilities of visual appeal.

Add to these problems the need for split-second timing and the high pressure under which radio stations operate, and you will have a better understanding of the difficulty of acquiring a conductorial radio technique. Problems of timing alone often present great difficulties. The sudden curtailment of as little as a few seconds necessitated by an important announcement--so frequent in these violent times--may cause a last minute change in the program. Thus, the conductor may be forced to upset a carefully balanced program and to make a last-minute substitute of a number less in harmony with the rest of his broadcast.

In my own career, I feel exceedingly fortunate in the variety of my musical experience, a variety which equipped me to deal with the radio problems I have already described. I accepted the post of conductor of the WQXR Orchestra partially to prove the important point that nowadays a conductor--especially a radio conductor -- should not be pigeon-holed by American audiences as a specialist in symphonic, or operatic, or choral music. He must be prepared--and he must be allowed--to fit himself into any musical category, and acquit himself with distinction.

The art of conducting for radio is about to enter a new phase--the development of Frequency Modulation broadcasting--which will make even greater demands on specialized skills. One of the great advantages of FM is that it reproduces voice and instruments with complete fidelity. The conductor is thus faced with great possibilities. FM will accentuate quality and amplify the range of sound, giving the interpreter complete freedom towards the truest reproduction of the composer's intentions. All of us in radio know by experience that broadcasting is an ever-changing, ever-evolving technique and the conductor has to be ready to grow with it.