Carrying a Big Stick: Oregon Baton Maker

Conductor and his baton with brass band in Covent Garden.(Photo: garryknight)
Conductor and his baton with brass band in Covent Garden.(Photo: garryknight)

I read a story in Oregon Music News recently about Alan Pierce, maker of fine batons for some of the world’s elite conductors. Riccardo Muti and Bernard Haitink own Alan Pierce batons. And Oregon Symphony trombonist James DePreist bought more than 300 of them when DePreist was the orchestra’s music director.

So what’s the big deal about conducting batons? In a profession that requires a conductor to transmit often complex and subtle physical cues to get dozens of musicians to respond in the same tempo, dynamic and mood, one’s body language can never be too precise.

That’s where the slender, fine-tipped wands, which look to the untrained eye like a schoolmarm’s pointer, can come in handy. On the other hand, an unwieldy baton can hamper a conductor’s freedom of movement, and all batons can be dropped mid-performance by hands not quite used to wielding them.

A baton must fit a conductor’s hand like a glove, or even better, like an extension of the hand itself.

In other words, conducting batons are controversial; some conductors use them, others don’t. And it’s all a matter of personal preference. Pierre Boulez, for all his acclaimed precision, famously gives the baton a miss, preferring to communicate with his actually rather lively and supple hands.

I had an experience once with a very famous baton that seemed, even without a conductor, to have expressive powers of its own. I was in London wandering around the display area of the British Library and came across a small wood and glass case containing an autograph score of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

As if that weren’t extraordinary enough, right above the score, resting horizontally nearly the full width of the open pages, lay the baton Ralph Vaughan Williams used to conduct the symphony. That baton alone spoke volumes of history without moving – or being moved – an inch.