British maestro John Eliot Gardiner found a dictionary that defines the word "conductor" as "a current passed from one sphere to another."
While that definition comes from physics, Mr. Gardiner maintains it's an apt way to characterize the person who stands in front of an orchestra and, through various bodily gyrations, gets that orchestra to produce musical sounds.
Mr. Gardiner makes his observation in "The Art of Conducting: Great Conductors of the Past," a splendid video just released on the Teldec label.
The 117-minute video, available in both VHS and laser disc, is based on a two-part series originally shown on the BBC. It deals with 16 of the century's foremost maestros performing, rehearsing and conversing about their mysterious craft. In some cases, the film clips have never before been released to the general public. The results are fascinating for anyone intrigued by what conductors do.
Among the high points:
* John Barbirolli repeatedly rehearsing four notes from Bruckner's Seventh Symphony with the Halle Orchestra.
* Arthur Nikisch conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a 1913 film clip that, while silent, tells a lot about his baton technique.
* Richard Strauss, age 80, looking utterly bored as he leads the Vienna Philharmonic through a 1944 performance of his "Till Eulenspiegel."
* Bruno Walter, ever the iron-willed gentleman, rehearsing Brahms' Second Symphony with the Vancouver Festival Orchestra in 1958.
* Arturo Toscanini exploding in rage during a 1946 rehearsal of "La Traviata."
* Fritz Reiner leading his Chicago Symphony Orchestra through Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in a hotel ballroom in 1961, near the end of his career.
* Leonard Bernstein rehearsing the London Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony by grunting, cajoling, leaping and, when everything else fails, insulting the string players to get what he wants.
The others in this cast of conducting superstars -- Thomas Beecham, Fritz Busch, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, Serge Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski, Felix Weingartner and George Szell -- are equally intriguing.