A Conductor’s Lament (Part 3)

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.

Today

If the post-Karajan generation stood with one foot in the tradition of the old generation (or rather, they witnessed it, which makes their betrayal even worse) their successors today seem to have lost any understanding of what the profession is about. Young conductors today are not only given the bad example of their predecessors (the number of charlatans in 1980-2000 already far exceeding that of the old generation), they are presented with a profession suffering from extremely low musical and ethical standards. Making a career as a conductor today has little to do with musical ability and interest. The abysmal level of executives in music institutions, the usurpation of the profession by agencies and public relations consultants, and the low standards of music education today are some of the factors behind this debasement of our art.

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Shortly after finishing my studies I had the opportunity to attend a singer-orchestra rehearsal of a Wagner opera in one of the world’s greatest opera houses. The rehearsing conductor came fresh from his big breakthrough, having made a name for himself with orchestras and opera houses all over the world. To my astonishment, as the rehearsal went on, the conductor left less and less of a doubt about his unfamiliarity with the score. His tempo transitions were shaky at best, his rehearsal had no sensitivity to form, and when he stopped to correct the singers, and began singing to them by way of instruction, his singing made it clear that he did not bother to learn the singers’ parts. It was an almost unbearable occasion.

Even bigger was my astonishment when I saw that this renowned “Wagner orchestra”, as well as the world-class singers of the production (most of whom were already famous for the exact role they were rehearsing) and the conductor’s assistants, all gave no sign whatsoever of being disturbed by the conductor’s obliviousness. As I later found out, there was nothing exceptional about this rehearsal.

The conductor’s bubble of power

Of the many dismal impressions this occasion left on me, one struck me most of all. The conductor had the greatest responsibility of all the participants. His unfamiliarity with the score and superficial work that resulted from it, however, did not yield any sign of discomfort from the orchestra musicians, soloists, or assistants. How is that possible?

As I will discuss further below, it is unrealistic to expect orchestra musicians to have a full grasp of what the conductor is doing. Singers too must concentrate on their role, and thus are not in a position to easily evaluate a conductor’s work. And the fact that many of them lack serious musical training doesn’t help matters. Yet, here the conducting work was on such a low level, that something else had to be at play.

I later found that this conductor, like all conductors today, was protected by what one might call the conductor’s bubble of power: an institutional assurance of one’s reputation in the industry, determined by the various interests invested in a conductor’s career. A conductor gets to stand in front of an orchestra only after a series of events involving his agency, the orchestra’s management, the PR agency pushing his or her career, etc. From the moment the contract is signed, all parties involved have a financial incentive to ensure that the performance be seen as a success. In the case of “star” conductors, the whole industry is involved. These conductors are the face of the industry – a flashy entry point for the consuming public. The bubble of power not only unites all those who are invested in a conductor, it is also a warning sign to everyone else not to doubt the absolute authority of the genius conductor.

If, say, a singer is invited to take part in such a production. In her first encounter with the conductor she sees she is dealing with a charlatan. But what can she do? These days – nothing, but conform and do the job. Any musician knows that a conflict with a conductor of this stature would be disastrous for her career. The bubble of power will protect the conductor’s career, and everyone else must go along with it. How often have I had to watch great singers being musically overrun by incapable conductors? No wonder that with time they hardly even bother to pay attention to their conductors in the first place.

If the case of the singers is understandable, even more curious is that of institutions like orchestras and opera houses. In today’s hyper-commercialized music industry, the survival of these institutions depends on their reputation and public image. Thus, bad conductors are repeatedly invited by orchestras based on reputation alone – and their bubble of power protects them from any consequences, even when the performance is a complete sham. The result is a wholesale erosion of musical standards, to which musicians gradually become used to and accept as if it were the art itself. Musical quality is thus replaced by a veneer of quality in the form of industry reputation and social cachet.

To demonstrate how the bubble of power functions even within powerful institutions like orchestras and opera houses, consider the following example. A few years ago, a rising conductor with hardly any opera experience at all was invited to conduct at one of the world’s great opera houses. After the second orchestra rehearsal, where his inability to conduct the piece and his rude behavior led to an unbearable work atmosphere, the conductor himself announced to the opera house that he has no intention to go on with the production. Although to almost all involved it was clear that his continued involvement would be disastrous for the opera house, the management bent over backwards to appease him. The orchestra was told that the opera house and orchestra would suffer greatly from a public conflict with this rising star and his powerful agency, and was asked to apologize to the conductor. This agency, also representing many singers, was of course involved in numerous working relations with the opera house. The conductor returned a day later, and drove the production into an inevitably poor musical result, the stamp of which can be heard to this day in every revival of the piece in that opera house. What matters in this episode, however, is that the opera house maintained its great reputation by preventing a conflict with an esteemed maestro.

The modern conductor’s inner world

Preparation: recordings and the score

Coming into personal contact with conductors often allows for a glimpse into their conception of the conducting profession. One of the most striking things we see nowadays is the shallow and ignorant attitude towards the most rudimentary aspect of the profession: musical preparation.

While the expectations from instrumentalists in their preparation for rehearsals and concerts has maintained some of its traditional characteristics, those of conductors have changed through and through in the last decades. Some of the “old standards” I mention below are so basic that it seems ridiculous to even have to discuss them, but given the state of our profession, I believe that we should.

Among the maladies occurring in the music world with the invention and popularization of recordings, one of the worst ones was its influence on the way conductors learn and prepare the score. In his admittedly overly-pedantic book on conducting The Composer’s Advocate, Erich Leinsdorf complains about having encountered – even as early as 1930 – a fellow conductor learning a score from an LP recording. If in Leinsdorf’s time this “idea” was still novel, today it is the unquestioned norm.

Now, in order to actually define what preparing a score means, I will have to be a little pedantic. A preparation of a score could be generally seen as a two-stage process. The first stage is, naturally, learning the actual text – the instrumentation, musical and dynamic instructions, and (dare I say it) the notes. The second stage is crafting one’s interpretation of the score. The two stages are, of course, not differentiated chronologically, but always interweaved.

In that sense, the conductor’s preparation is very similar to that of every instrumentalist. A pianist will learn the notes he has to play, and with time (during practice) will develop a conscious interpretation. But here’s the rub. A pianist unconditionally must go through the first stage of learning (not to mention memorizing) the text itself, down to every last detail. One cannot play a Beethoven sonata simply by having a vague notion of the piece. Every note must be committed to memory. In contrast, conductors can conduct a piece from start to finish without having really studied the score. To conduct a piece (whether it is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or La Mer), the conductor needs nothing more than to command the rhythmic aspects of the score. A real musical result will not be achieved with that alone, but if the conductor’s arms are waved on cue and with confidence, the orchestra will play and most of the audience will go home satisfied. This may sound ridiculous, but it is true. What is truly ridiculous nowadays, however, is that conductors actually conduct without having studied their scores – in rehearsals and concerts – with their orchestras and public not noticing or caring the least about it.

Say a conductor must prepare to conduct Richard Strauss’s Salome. To know the score means – at the very least – having learned to perceive it in one’s inner ear. In the case of Salome this is an extremely difficult task due to the piece’s tonal complexity. I have met a handful of extraordinary musicians who could learn Salome without playing it on the piano, but they are not representative of most musicians. Even with a piano, however, the score of Salome, with its nearly atonal harmonies and contrapuntal style requires months to get into one’s inner ear. In any case, whether accomplished on a piano or not, learning this score is an extremely long and laborious process.

One, however, could also “learn” Salome without having it in one’s inner ear. Being a relatively complex piece rhythmically, this will be harder than with a Mozart symphony, but ultimately it is the orchestra musicians and singers who must execute these diverse musical difficulties, while the conductor keeps time for them. (Having more than once taken up modern music concerts at the last moment without having the time to properly internalize the score in my inner ear, I can attest that this trick unfortunately “works”, that is, nobody noticed that I scarcely had an idea as to which notes were being played but only knew the rhythm. Any relation between this act and making music was of course coincidental.) Richard Strauss was also kind enough to add metronome markings, so a conductor studying the score of Salome in this manner could even learn to wave his hands in roughly the right tempo.

In our age of abundance in recordings, a conductor who is unable to absorb Salome into his inner ear, can at least learn to follow the main melodic lines. And if it is possible with Strauss, it is all the more possible and easy to accomplish with Mozart. In fact, this has become the modus operandi of so many conductors today, that studying scores in the literal sense is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Moreover, this new “approach” is not even called into question anymore. It is accepted as a way of “learning music” just as any other. As a result, it has become possible to embark on a successful conducting career without having acquired even the most basic musical skills. Worst of all, young people of real talent are reared in this negligent atmosphere and thus do not fulfill their musical potential.

On a practical level, this problem manifests itself daily in the most gut-wrenching manner, when conductors are unable to recognize the most blatant textual errors (wrong notes). I have witnessed conductors of international repute making it repeatedly obvious that they hadn’t the slightest clue as to what should be played, with the orchestra showing little concern for that fact. The ignorance of these maestros is compensated by the improved conditions of orchestra parts (new corrected editions and old parts that went through many careful hands) and the musical diligence of some orchestra musicians and assistants.

Embarrassingly enough, we ought to address the question that underlies this whole issue: why should a conductor even know the score? Why should he have it in his inner ear? First, an authentic connection between an orchestra player and the conductor depends on sharing consciousness of the material – the text. The notes being played are the most essential ingredient of musical expression for the players, who must therefore know their part. The conductor must establish a common ground with the player, and this can only be done by sharing a knowledge of the text being tackled. Even if orchestra musicians and singers today have lost awareness of this essential element (having become accustomed to musically illiterate conductors) it nevertheless exists at every moment, and they cannot escape its constant influence in rehearsal and performance. A conductor who lacks this common ground with the players through knowing the score cannot communicate musically with the orchestra, yielding a performance without content.

The second reason has to do with the obligation of the conductor to build his interpretation thorough understanding of the text. Imagine an actor playing a role in a Shakespeare play without knowing a word of English. He may be able to parrot his part but not understand its meaning, let alone that of the entire text. A conductor following the melodic line or rhythm without knowing the actual score in all its details is doing the same. Just as the actor voices the play, the conductor moves to the music, but there is but a superficial connection between his movements and the meaning of the music.

Nonetheless, preparing to conduct by listening to recordings alone is often thought to be possible thanks to the natural musicality of some conductors. According to this assumption, a conductor can instinctively interpret the music after he “has it in his ears” (not his inner ear). This reduction of music to what one can merely “pick up” as a listener is highly degrading to the art of composing. Anyone who tries to understand the rationale behind every note in a Beethoven symphony would appreciate the importance of knowing exactly what these are if one is to perform it. A real familiarity with the score (as well as the uncompromising will to continually probe it) is therefore an obligation an honest musician cannot neglect.

This brings me to the second stage of score preparation, namely, the development of one’s interpretation of the score. If, thanks to recordings, the “learning” of the text has been made possible for every charlatan, the interpretation process suffers these days from a no less debasing phenomenon: the lack of originality and musical honesty. As described above, the previous generation of conductors already took major steps in standardizing and homogenizing interpretation and performance. This process has gained even more momentum since, and we have now arrived at a state of total stagnation in musical ideas.

Every musician requires many years to develop his own sense of style, his sound, and his musical stamp. With conductors, one could argue, the time needed is even longer, not having their own instrument to practice with whenever they like. The fact that every musician takes his first steps with a teacher makes imitation a necessary part of his development. Thereby, one begins to absorb the elements of style. But every mature musician will attest to the fact that one becomes a sovereign artist when one stops imitating and forges a new voice.

If in the past musicians searching for their own artistic identity had traditions to fight against, in today’s recording age, it has become even harder to do so. Every young musician knows the moment in which, after weeks of dealing with a new piece, he is tempted to listen to a recording of it. This is only natural, and with the right dosage could also be regarded as part of the learning process. Every talented musician also knows the moment when he feels that listening to recordings might become an impediment. The interpretation ultimately has to come from within him, and every outside influence may hamper his creativity.

However, this risk has escaped the minds of conductors today. Recordings are now being used so nonchalantly and without awareness of their influence, that most conductors do not even hide the fact that recordings are often the main inspiration for their interpretation. Many of them, being asked how they learn a score, won’t even hesitate naming recordings as a main tool. Alas, a musician who doesn’t share this notion of originality cannot be helped. It is his own artistic conscience that must show him the right way, and when it doesn’t, he is lost and bereft of artistic integrity.

It is important to stress that this problem is not confined to conductors. Musicians of integrity and originality are now few and far between. When an opera singer resorts to imitation, the outcome is so trite and forced that it is almost unbearable to an experienced listener. The voice being such an idiosyncratic instrument makes vocal imitation much more blatant than with instrumentalists. Conductors, however, control interpretations involving dozens of musicians. When they are mere imitators, the entire orchestra is interred in a musical sarcophagus.

Music and Career

In general, one could divide the classical music world into two categories. The first, the humbler one, consists of the small orchestras and opera houses. These are usually found in the provinces and small towns. In Germany, for example, the small opera houses make about eighty percent of the total. As can be expected, these houses are generally quite mediocre. Discovering young talented singers, musicians and conductors at the beginning of their career is their biggest occasional stroke of luck. These talents, however, are usually lost very quickly to the big opera houses, as their offers can scarcely be refused. This and the small house mentality are what promise the continuation of mediocrity these cities are so happy to live with. For the young talented artists, these places are merely a launching pad for their career. They know no loyalty, which is hardly surprising. Small opera houses in Germany treat their young musicians as badly as the law permits. Singers, in particular, suffer from horrible working conditions and are happy to find better jobs in the cities, where they enjoy more prestige and better pay.

These days, entering the second category – that of world of top-level orchestras and opera houses – presents young artists with a fact that will have a huge impact on their career and artistry. The power structure of the classical music industry demands that they spend at least half of their time on what we might call career maintenance. The ubiquitous loss of artistic standards means that this maintenance has little to do with art, consisting instead of networking and flattery, or what musicians like to call “politics.” Since instrument players and singers must at least possess a modicum of “technique” in the sense discernible to almost any listener, whereas a complete charlatan can pass as a conductor, the situation is much worse with the latter. The conducting profession, which requires the highest degree of dedication and artistic integrity, has thus been reduced to “politics.”

A conductor who insists on artistic integrity can only feel total alienation in this cynical environment. In order to be able to work, however, he must succumb to this façade of a culture, in which networking is more important than learning a score, flattery more important than technique, hypocrisy a legitimate means to achieving musical ends, and being a good socialite the most important quality of all. How else can the conductor charm the wealthy benefactors who fund his career?

As my career developed, I found myself quickly having to betray my naïve notions of integrity. The higher my fellow musicians climbed up the hierarchy, the less honest they were. As I brushed shoulders with them, I witnessed an interesting psychological phenomenon. The social structure of the profession breeds its own ethic, and before long, an insular social bubble is created with a moral code that is quite different from that of the outside world. In this insular world, lying has a special status, since it has an artistic justification. Leading figures in music institutes may lie straight to your face with no scruples whatsoever, simply because they think they have a vantage point – a unique access to the whole artistic picture. This mentality, which seems so natural at the heights of power, trickles down and permeates all music institutions, creating a culture of dishonesty, in which any “naïve” attempt at honesty is shunned. And from verbal dishonesty the road to musical dishonesty is short.

This phenomenon is well known to musicians today. To make a career, you have to be an accomplice – and how lonely then is the honest artist. As a result, many of them quit altogether, being unable to adjust to this world and sacrifice their integrity. The music world is then left for the characterless.

Conductors, as I mentioned before, thanks to their place in the musical hierarchy, carry a greater moral responsibility than any other musician. Nothing is more damaging to the profession today than conductors who accede to these poor moral standards. The younger generation of conductors today spends a huge amount of time on activities that contribute to their career but nothing whatsoever to their artistic development, or that of anyone else. Most of these activities takes place on social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). One is amazed by the abundance of shameless self-promotion among young conductors today. The conductor is now a public relations specialist.

Additionally, every conductor has to have an agent to do anything in the business. This entails hours of planning around networking options, knowing who is who, and what is the next publicity move for one’s career. Strategic meetings with your agent are at least as important as a rehearsal, and meeting with a new artistic director much more important than learning a new piece. Going to a premiere you don’t care about just to “show your face” is par for the course.

The impact of this problem on time management is enormous. Conducting is perhaps the most time-consuming profession in music, yet today half of one’s time is wasted on activities that have nothing to do with music. Conductors, who typically start their career later then other musicians, need time to develop. And it is the young conductor who must now waste the most time on building his career, when he could be spending it on learning how to be a conductor.

No less damaging is the anxiety and pressure surrounding the need to maintain one’s career in this manner. But the young conductor has no choice. He must put his Beethoven scores aside, and tend to more pressing matters: networking, publicity, and finagling his way up the hierarchy. If he is a conscientious person, some qualms are bound to surface sooner or later.

The gravest problem is the inevitable influence that these extra-musical activities have on one’s artistic personality. A conductor who works in an environment of mendacity such as the modern opera house or orchestra and acquiesces to this culture “behind the scenes”, inevitably becomes a dishonest musician on stage. This lack of integrity manifests itself in the utter mediocrity we are forced to witness during performances today. There cannot be a separation between the act of making music and the long preparation for it – including the psychological and social arrangements that make a performance possible. A dishonest process will thus result in dishonest music – or to be more precise, no music at all. The result is that the greatest masterpieces are being overrun by characterless conductors.

Knowledge

Another component of our profession that has been fatally neglected is the basic knowledge of music. The musical erudition that conductors were expected to have sixty years ago has shrunk to a musically useless set of tools conductors carry with them from one orchestra to the other, which they employ for occasional humor and diversion during rehearsal. The orchestras, who rarely encounter competent conductors, seem content with appointing an unending series of conductors who have practiced their hand-waving and quips, until the trend changes and the next “hot” conductor comes along. Amazingly, the term Handwerker (craftsman) to denote those conductors who insist on real work with their orchestras is used today in a disparaging way.

Conductors now spend much of their rehearsal time making shallow remarks about the alleged character of the music, entertain the orchestra with hackneyed jokes and fake gestures, while the most elementary aspects of orchestra playing are being ignored. Conductors that are concerned with intonation, balance, articulation, orchestra colors and bowings are so rare today, that a young musician who desires to learn the art has almost nobody to learn from. The big orchestras live under the illusion that they can just take care of all these “technical” issues themselves. Conductors who insist on spending time on these details are still sometimes welcomed, but not often, and are certainly not seen as a necessity. The severity of this problem can be seen if we take, for example, the issue of orchestral balance. Only the conductor is in a position (literally) to ascertain the balance. And in designing and perfecting the balance, all other technical aspects come into play – intonation, bowing, articulation and dynamics. As a result of conductors abandoning such basic musical responsibilities, the orchestra’s musical potential cannot be fulfilled.

As in the technical, so in the theoretical aspects of music, the decline in artistry seems to know no end. A profound sensitivity to musical form, harmony, counterpoint and instrumentation are unmistakable pillars of the work of great conductors. Their utter absence in today’s conducting scene is evident to any serious observer. It is then unsurprising to see the explicit lack of interest conductors show in conversations about music. The ludicrous tricks so many conductors have devised for “learning” a score (markings based on nothing more than bar counting, yielding scores full of many-colored highlighting, not to mention the ubiquitous use of recordings) reveal the disinterest in the basic elements of composition. All these would, of course, require years of careful study – and that might come at the expense of networking and schmoozing. Who has time to deal with music when we must constantly tend to our careers?

Template-based musical performance

With the increasing lack of musical knowledge, conductors had to find a replacement – something on which they could base their “interpretation.” The solution was found in what I would like to call music-making by templates. This musical malady has its roots in the influence of the so-called “historically informed” performance tradition, associated mainly with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Elliot Gardiner, Phillipe Herreweghe and Roger Norrington. This is not the place to pass judgment on the artistic achievements of this school of music interpretation. It is, however, of extreme importance for us to note that their interpretational paradigm is largely based on information that is extrinsic to the score. Decisions regarding articulation and orchestra size, the avoidance of vibrato, the forcing of tempo relations, and of course the use of period instruments – all are decisions based on sources external to the score. The results achieved by these methods sound quite different from musicians working with intrinsic musical knowledge, creating the illusion that the performance is a result of deep artistic consideration and sound judgment. It is no wonder that the way of achieving them aroused interest with musicians in an era of deteriorating musicianship.

The over-reliance on extrinsic interpretational sources have become a malady not merely with historically-informed conductors, but with conducting at large. A conductor basing his interpretation primarily on external sources (such as contemporary literature) makes musical decisions a-priori with little regard to organic aural feedback – in other words, actually listening to the orchestral results under the specific conditions at hand. For example, deciding categorically that Mozart should be played with little or no vibrato leaves no place for a sensitive ear to decide how much vibrato is actually needed in the specific room, on the specific instruments and most importantly, with the specific musicians who are taking part in the performance. Similarly, forcing a tempo relation (a much-loved praxis) merely because it is “stylistically informed” can often lead to absurd tempo choices. Playing a Mozart symphony with a laundry list of instruments based on the fact that an orchestra in 1786 had a certain number of players is meaningless in isolation. It can become meaningful only when taking into consideration the actual sound of the orchestra in a certain space. The problem with all these examples is that the attention of the musician and his search for meaning in the music, lies no more in what is in the music. Instead of meaning, one deals with cosmetics.

The real problem arises when extrinsic concepts replace an interpretation style based on one’s intrinsic understanding of a score. It is not a coincidence that one often finds that those conductors who fetishize extrinsic stylistically precepts are also those who lack ability in the musical aspects a conductor really has to deal with, like intonation, balance, phrasing, feeling of form, harmony, etc.

The extrinsic templates function as an ersatz interpretation. Like an interpretation, they determine the musical result to a great extent, but unlike a real interpretation, they ignore almost everything the score has to offer. It is one of many examples of resorting to a preoccupation with the most facile elements of art, only to avoid its deepest essential core. Template music-making is thus a manifestation of the superficiality of today’s music industry. One of the recent tragedies in music is that the “historically informed” performers succeeded in convincing the “normal” orchestras and conductors that the music of J.S Bach must only be played under certain imposed conditions, as if the trained musician has no means to decide on instruments, bowing, and vibrato other than a priori rules. This development alone, namely the complete abandonment of Bach’s music by modern orchestras, should make us question the fetishization of “historically informed” performance.

(to be continued)

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