Like a ringmaster leads a circus, conductors direct classical music concerts, presenting various acts or compositions while serving as an intermediary between the audience and the performers.
But the show must go on, with or without, and River Oaks Chamber Orchestra is here to prove it’s possible to have a concert without a conductor, with the return of its annual conductorless concert this weekend at the Church of St. John the Divine.
Ontario-based concertmaster Scott St. John will guide the ensemble from his chair through three commissions, including a world premiere by composer Dan Visconti that shares the title of the concert, “Legendary Love,” and honors Houston’s punk-rock icon Christian Kidd of The Hates. The performance will feature two new works by Mark Buller as well, alongside “Legends” by Antonin Dvorák and “Wood Notes” by William Grant Still.
The concertmaster, also known as the first-chair violinist, acts as a spokesperson of sorts for the group, St. John said. He or she typically tunes the orchestra, coordinates the bowing techniques and articulations of the string section, performs solos and interacts with the maestro onstage. With no one on the podium, however, he or she assumes the leadership role but does not single-handedly influence the sound as a conductor would. This provides the musicians with a greater amount of freedom to perform one’s own interpretation, St. John said.
“You really have to offer a lot more from your own experiences and your own way of playing,” he said, comparing the level of independence to that of a jazz band. “Although we don’t improvise, per se, you can do quite a lot within the boundaries of what the composer has printed.”
The baton is shared among the group, as specific musicians, typically soloists, are assigned to represent and lead certain sections.
St. John’s position requires him to know the score inside and out for each instrument, and if timing goes amiss, he uses the scroll of his violin to correct the issue. For instance, a massive upbeat represents the fourth beat while a large downward movement represents the first.
“If everything was in 4/4, it would be a lot easier,” he said, laughing. “Some of the newer music that we play is tricky that way because sometimes the time signatures are quite complicated.”
In a way, the musicians must dance together, creating a unified sound in the same way a corps de ballet forms a unified vision. It takes a larger amount of preparation, St. John said, but the result is rewarding.
“It’s a little bit like a chamber music group, where there’s a lot of subtle signs going on as to what the beat is and where you’re going to play exactly,” he said. “Basically, it turns a string quartet into a 40-person string quartet.”
“We like conductors,” he said, “but it’s fun to go without.”
‘ROCO In Concert: Legendary Love’When: 5 p.m. Saturday Where: St. John the Divine Episcopal Church, 2450 River Oaks Blvd. Information:$35; 713-665-2700, roco.org