Daily Bow: Inside the World of Conducting

Daily Bow LogoThe conductor is one of the most iconic members of a symphonic organization: in this one, instrument-less, silent figure at the front of the orchestra, we see a representation of the music we hear coming from the many individuals before us. Although the conductor produces no sound, he (or she) is the highest-profile individual, standing apart from the instrumentalists on stage, gesturing and, to all appearances, conjuring the music from the orchestra through magical gestures. To classical music neophytes and veterans alike, the role of the conductor often seems to be a simple but inexplicable one: to get everybody on stage to play together by waving your arms in the air. The reality of the conductor’s position is a much more nuanced and more complicated one, especially in today’s classical world. Gone are the days in which the conductor is a quaintly autocratic figure ruling from the podium–today’s conductors are not only responsible for navigating the orchestra through music in performance, they are also required to play the roles of executives, politicians, businessmen, and public relations specialists, both within and without the orchestra. In short, as an article in the Financial Times says, “they concentrate the efforts and skills of an orchestra in one powerful individual, so that the paying public experiences the music, its emotional highs and soothing lows, through the personality of the maestro.”

As a result of the changing climate in classical music, the must-have list of attributes in a conductor is changing from simple musicianship to include all sorts of PR-friendly characteristics. No longer are conductors the dusty dictators of the orchestra, running their own private musical fiefdom away from the public eye. Instead, conductors are expected to be personable, professional, and engaging–they are not only chosen to run an orchestra artistically, they are chosen as ambassadors of the music itself. Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the L.A. Philharmonic, is the current poster boy for the new model of the modern maestro.  At 31, “he is the epitome of the 21st-century maestro – dynamic, articulate, media-friendly and, above all, young.

The rise of Dudamel and other young conductors, including as the Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons (33) and the UK’s Robin Ticciati (29) reflects the changing priorities of classical music as it seeks to fit the climate of the modern world. As Andrew Clark of the Financial Times writes,

To survive, the orchestra sought to redefine itself as an educational and recreational tool for the whole community, rather than a once-a-week concert-giver for rarefied souls in a municipal temple. Not only that, it had to advertise itself as a driver of creative excellence, so that it could justify the support it received. All this meant presenting a much wider spectrum of music, from baroque to crossover – sometimes in a less forbidding style than the concert format. To lead and personify this change, the orchestra needed a figurehead capable of appealing to a wider public than the traditional maestro did.

Music and public relations often require two very distinct and separate skill sets. The maestros of days gone by are often remembered with affection (and some fear) in anecdotes, usually laced with a keen feeling of dictatorship. Yevgeny Mravinsky, the great Russian conductor, was always preceded by a reputation of autocracy. Mravinsky was unable to either confirm or deny such reports of his character, as he never gave interviews. Which, come to think of it, probably did as much to confirm reports as any unfavorably autocratic-sounding interview would have. Mravinsky’s no-interview policy would never be acceptable in a modern orchestra. Indeed, every move of the modern conductor is subject to scrutiny by an ever-more-democratic society of orchestral musicians. Often, it is it the instrumentalists of the orchestra who have the greatest insight into the efficacy of a conductor as a leader and ambassador.

“All successful conductors are incredibly intelligent, and all have a big ego, which is fine – that’s the job,” says Anthony Sayer, a cellist in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. “What happens in the concert hall is an emotional connection, or lack of it, between orchestra and audience. To produce that, the orchestra needs inspiration. Nobody should think we don’t need conductors, or that anyone can stand up and do it. An orchestra is a big body of diverse opinions, which the charisma of a lively, powerful person can harmonize.” The perfect candidate to fill such a position has yet to be determined. The old attitude suggest that “conductors start at 60,” while the newer tendency is toward young, fresh faces with charisma to spare. The results of this trend have been mixed: sometimes, young superstar conductors have a lot of raw talent and energy, but less experience with weighty repertoire. It remains to be seen whether this generation can prove itself with the standards, for they have not had, as their older peers like Bernard Haitink, time to learn these heavier pieces away from the limelight.

That being said, though, a member of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (who asked to remain anonymous) says: “The conductors coming through [the door] today haven’t had the time and space to develop in the way their predecessors did. They want to be everywhere, and quickly. But recently we had a young conductor [the French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 37] who has it all. He treated us with respect, he knew how to rehearse, he had ‘good hands’.” Age seems not to be a foolproof indicator of success with an orchestra–the formula is more complex than that.

Much of the success lies in not only the relationship of the conductor and the listening public, but in the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra he leads. This relationship is the subject of Tom Service’s book, Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and Their Orchestras. Like Clark’s article, Service’s book seeks to shed light on the mystical world of conducting. This mystical and mysterious quality alluded to in Service’s title grows somewhat less mystical and more readily understood throughout the book, which details the relationship between the maestro, the music, and the instrumentalists who produce it. A June 23rd review from “The Economist” says, “The most illuminating chapter is perhaps the final one, about the relationship between Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Famously reticent, Mr Abbado gives little away himself, but his players say it all for him—a fine confirmation of his gifts as a conductor. He is special, the musicians explain, not merely because of his clarity of vision, authoritative analysis or the mysterious energy of his gestures, but rather because of the way he listens. He appears to live the music, inviting them to live it with him.”

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