Even the best ensembles, when they get to a certain size, need the help of a conductor. Quartets and Quintets are small enough that the musicians have the essential ability to see each other’s faces. They can look directly at each other, hear each other’s breathing, and read each other’s body language. But when the group gets beyond 6 or 8 musicians, they start to sit in rows, and no longer have the same capacity to receive these critical cues from one another.
In chamber music, a conductor carries out the essential role of communicating the agreements that have been made amongst all of the musicians during rehearsals. Tempos, emotions, dynamics, and breathing are a few of the elements that provide the framework for the music, and the conductor is simply a mirror, reflecting these details back to the players. The conductor does not contribute anything to the actual ‘sound’ of the musicians, but his or her ability to effectively interpret and convey these details, fosters ensemble, and results in the blossoming of great music. The best conductors view their role as a partnership, initiating overall direction and inspiring the best in each player. Together, a large ensemble and its conductor bring the notes on the page to life.