Sir Antonio Pappano: masterful orchestra conducting requiring herculean strength

After attending a London Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano on 15th February 2012 I realised the sheer physical effort that is required to lead an orchestra and take the public on an emotional journey.

The programme at Barbican Hall included Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, Korngold’s Violin Concerto and Bartók Concerto for Orchestra.

Earlier that afternoon Sir Antonio Pappano gave a talk about his career and shared his advice to young music students (the Guildhall School of Music is next door to the Barbican Centre). Right at the start he mentioned that conducting an orchestra requires physical strength, particularly in the upper body as the arms direct the mood and tempo of the musicians ensemble. He admitted that his arms are not particularly strong so he counterbalances this weakness by focusing on elegance of movement.

The conductor’s gestures set the tempo, volume, intensity while cueing instruments in and wrists, forearms, shoulders and back are all engaged. Pappano’s conducting style is physical to say the least, embracing music with his whole body.

This particular style of conducting would put the average body under a lot of strain: leading a music ensemble using mostly the upper body makes one “feel the burn” as the rhomboids, deltoids and trapezius muscles orchestrate the sweeping movements. During Rachmaninov’s piece in particular, the responsibility of the conductor was to symbolise the anguish of death which was spectacularly depicted in Pappano’s hypnotising arms shapes. The pectoral muscles bring the arms together to the front of the body and the shortening of these muscles through over use weakens the muscles in the upper back.

Sustaining the constant tension required to lead a two hour concert creates fatigue in the muscles.

See Sir Antonio Pappano’s masterclass on Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: in this video you can see how Sir Pappano uses his upper body to communicate his artistic direction to pianist Geoffrey Paterson and tenor Simon O’Neill.