A Conductor’s Lament (Part 2)

Regularly our blog gets approached with the wish to publish „guest articles“, very often with the intent of some kind of self-promotion. But the following text (published in 5 parts over the coming days because of its length) is different. Rarely have we been approached with a text as explosive this one.

It is a thorough and deeply informed criticism that is not written by a journalist or a musicologist but by an insider of the business: a conductor.
From his or her own words it is explained that he/she has a name in the business and a therefore wants to remain anonymous as some statements could be perceived as career-hindering. I hope that the publication in this blog will incite a fruitful discussion about the future of classical music. As all criticism it should not be perceived as destructive but as constructive. Whatever the reaction to the following series will be, I hope it will acknowledge that many points in this article are quite close for comfort and cannot be completely denied.

The following text is reproduced with the permission of the author and unabridged. It will be followed by an interview with the author.

PART 2: In which the „lamenting conductor“ talks about the reasons for writing his essay, the historical perspective of conducting and decisive (and mostly not positive) developments in the later 20th Century that were shaped by conductors like Karajan.

The intermediate generation and its failure

Karajan’s career lasted over 60 years. When it began, Richard Strauss was still conducting. Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch where in the middle of their careers. Karajan himself cited Toscanini, Kabasta and De Sabata as having a huge influence on him. When he died, a new generation of conductors was in the process of taking charge of the industry he had helped transform.


This new generation, who had the privilege of witnessing the golden age conductors when they were young, were less interested in what Karajan (not to mention his forebears) were expressing musically. It was Karajan’s commanding role in the music business and his lionized persona that guided their careers more than anything else. Together with the changing industry around them, these conductors solidified the new approach to the profession – leaving behind the traditional role and responsibilities associated with the conducting profession. The result? Musical giants like Klemperer, Mitropoulos and Walter were replaced by the boilerplate conductors that dominate our industry today.

The so-called “improvement” in orchestral playing

One of the most striking things we learn from conversations with today’s orchestra musicians is their opinion regarding the low degree of influence conductors have on their playing. Unfortunately, their impression is largely correct – and not merely due to ignorance about the conducting profession (see the chapter on the orchestra).

It is virtually undisputed today that the technical level of today’s orchestras is far superior to that of orchestras in the postwar years. On a superficial level, it would seem that the technical perfection we used to associate with Reiner and Szell is now commonplace among the world’s orchestras. But this is simply because the individual technique of the average instrumentalist today is better than it used to be seventy years ago. When Liszt composed his Piano Sonata, one could count on one hand the number of pianists who had the technique to even approach it, whereas every pianist today is expected to be able to master it. The same is true for all instruments. As a result, the proportion of orchestras today that can technically command a Brahms symphony is greater than it was seventy years ago. The most celebrated orchestras today (Berliner, Concertgebouw, Boston etc.), seem to be able to reach the extraordinary technical level of Reiner’s Chicago, or Szell’s Cleveland orchestra, and with much less effort.

However, “orchestral technique” is not the sum of the technical level of its players. The orchestra and the conductor have to engage in an effort to develop it, using the technical tools the players have at their disposal. This is exactly the place where the big deterioration has taken place. The tragic paradox is that the advance in instrumental playing was accompanied by a decline in the level of real orchestral music-making. This individual technical skill has become something of an excuse for orchestras and conductors to hardly engage in forging an organic orchestral technique, leading to shallow musical performances becoming the norm.

When the only criterion for a good performance is the orchestra sounding “clean”, no wonder all orchestras are considered better than those of past eras. Barring some exceptions, the post-Karajan conductors have taken advantage of this technical improvement by excusing themselves of artistic responsibility.

Some of the most celebrated conductors of recent decades were able to conduct the world’s top orchestras for years without having to resort to any musical statements (except in a few rare and fleeting moments arising from natural musicality). As the orchestra musicians say by way of a compliment, their conductors simply “let the players play.” For the musicians, the critics and the public, the conductor’s charisma is the product. Such conductors use nothing more than their natural charisma and showmanship to feign a deep musical understanding.

Orchestras tend to be very flattered by this. The “great” conductor doesn’t have to say anything – he can immediately show it; and the orchestra is so “great” that it just gets it. This is where the most flagrant arrogance in music takes place. Both conductor and orchestra indulge in a façade of self-importance and hypocrisy. Having to witness this display during a performance of a Bruckner or a Schubert symphony is the worst insult for a music lover.

For the sake of comparison, great pianists spend months contemplating and practicing a piece until it is thoroughly understood, and this translates into a comprehensive and meaningful interpretation. Of course, orchestras and conductors do not have the luxury of months of rehearsals. But orchestral music demands no less than piano music, and so the conductor must make no less of an effort in confronting it. This requires the deepest engagement in preparation, which then finds its expression in fastidious rehearsal work. With the great conductors of the past, every aspect of the music received attention and no musical question remained unanswered. That so few conductors are willing to make this effort today, and worse, that hardly any orchestra demands it of them, is evident every day in almost any orchestra’s rehearsals.

Speaking with musicians who worked with Abbado one often hears: “the rehearsals were devoid of content, he had no idea about what he wanted to say. But then came the concert, and the inspiration was just there.” One cannot deny the important element of spontaneous inspiration in concert, and these musicians were surely sincere in saying they felt what they did. I would like to argue, however, that this inspiration was only apparent due to the superficial standards of musical engagement with conductors – leaving nothing but the afflatus of the concert moment to fill this musical void. In his final career years, Abbado worked in an environment in which it was already taken for granted that the conductor’s role is merely to “inspire” musicians in concert. Great orchestras that he conducted in Berlin, Vienna and London did not think they required any rehearsal input – only live inspiration. Is it a wonder that during his long career, Celibidache had to repeatedly fight for his high rehearsal standards until the Munich Philharmonic finely gave him a home? Some take issue with his musical results, but we cannot deny that they are a feat of depth and detail that only painstaking orchestral work can accomplish – work that in our era seems completely out of place.

The problem starts long before one even comes to consider elements of interpretation like style, phrasing, etc. The laxity of standards today has extended to the point of not even demanding basic familiarity with the orchestral score. I once had the dubious pleasure of watching Abbado rehearse a piece by Bach. Even a total amateur would immediately notice that he was unfamiliar with the score, had little to say about it, and was merely allowing the players and soloist to play as they will. Compare this to a video of Karl Richter conducting a Brandenburgisches Konzert from the harpsichord. The difference between a “mere conductor” and a musician was never clearer.

One can sum up the problem as a clash between two different attitudes towards the material in music making. It used to be common sense that the musician performs the piece from within the material – the most obvious example being the composers of past eras performing their own music. Today, however, it seems natural to treat it solely from the outside. The consequence of this problem will become clearer later, when I discuss how the preparation work of conductors has changed completely in the last sixty years.

The recording and commercialization

Capitulating to the ego-driven aspects of Karajan’s influence, the intermediate generation of conductors was often much more interested in the business sides of music, then in the act of making music itself. The social and economic developments around them gave them an opportunity to fulfil their interest better than ever. The recording legacy of this generation presents us with innumerable examples for the miserable state in which art is being completely abducted by money and a musical outcome can only function as a commodity.

The recording frenzy of the second half of the 20th century ushered in the corporate music industry, destroying any standards of quality along the way. As the prestige of conductors became identified with their recording contract, orchestras began pursuing them for this reason more than their professional and musical qualities. Giuseppe Sinopoli’s contract with Deutsche Grammophone, which enabled him to assume musical leadership over some of the best orchestras in the world, is a famous example for what has become a widespread phenomenon in the music world.

The obvious positive aspects of music recordings (bringing music to people homes, etc.) are not to be underestimated. It is, however, the degradation of our art by the economic powers presiding over the recording industry that I am concerned with here. We must acknowledge that the recording industry allowed a new music elite to take over classical music. This elite does not share the artistic and moral standards of their predecessors, and their blind pursuit of money and power created a musical culture that makes it nearly impossible for professionals to concentrate on the music itself. In fact, many of the main players in this new elite are not musicians at all – they are producers, agents and managers. Conductors, however, hold a special place in this elite as potential upholders of artistic standards and integrity. As they gave up this role in order to secure a position of privilege and power in the new music industry, they contributed the most to this tragedy.


(to be continued)

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