A Conductor’s Lament (Part 4)

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.

The orchestra

Contrary to what most orchestra musicians would like to think, they can never be in a position to fully evaluate their conductor. The reasons for this are diverse, and being one of the biggest problems in the profession, it is more than worthwhile to try and explain them. I will try to distinguish between aspects of the problem that are in the nature of the profession, i.e., have always existed, and aspects that are typical for our time.


It is only natural that in a huge organism like the orchestra each musician will tend to concentrate mainly on his own task, often having little sensitivity towards the tasks of his fellow musicians. A third trombone is not expected to know anything about the fingerings of the violin player and one could go so far and argue that only in very good orchestras the players show a tendency to care about how their own playing affects the playing of others.

The conductor, being responsible for the whole outcome, does not have this leisure, and must be aware of all that is happening at any moment in the orchestra. This difference in responsibility is the root of the biggest tension between conductor and orchestra, and one that cannot be resolved. This fact underlies the inability of so many orchestra musicians to notice if it is an artist or a charlatan standing before them. It seems to me that in our time this problem has become worse than ever – or at least much worse than it ought to be.

The music education and culture of today’s musicians

Coming to evaluate higher education in music today, one is struck by how narrow it is. In Germany, for example, one can go through violin studies playing Beethoven’s violin sonatas and concerto, without having studied any of his piano sonatas, symphonies, Fidelio, etc. The level of music theory and music history lessons is so low, that an accomplished player hardly receives the tools to deal with simple orchestra scores, and worse still, the tools to understand the masterpieces of the standard repertoire in their historical and cultural context. How often does one meet young violinists who can play a Mendelsohn concerto “brilliantly”, having not even taken a glance at the full score, not knowing any other of Mendelsohn’s masterpieces, not to mention anything about his place in music history.

Here lies the root of the problem. The universities rarely confront their students with the complexity of music and its moral and cultural meaning, and thus deny them a real understanding of music itself. The narrow-mindedness towards the music the students encounter at this stage sets the tone for their careers. The clarinet student who has no interest in the violin repertory, has no interest in the life of the great composers and in the form and style of their works, will not discover it upon entering the orchestra.

In addition to that, higher music education in Germany does not include other disciplines. Even a basic familiarity with history, philosophy, and language is deprived of music students, and so the musician not only lacks the sensitivity towards the complexity of music, but also the relationship between music and other human activity.

Together with the so-called development in the technical aspects of instrument playing, (and I write ‘so called’ because I deny that such a development is truly possible without spiritual development in music) the profession has suffered a disastrous regression in musicianship. A violin player these days can typically master the scales in Tristan und Isolde faster than his predecessor fifty years ago, but does he have a deeper understanding of the opera itself? Or worse, does he even care?

We are now at the point where a conductor often faces a group of musicians who lack the tools to grasp the complexity of a musical score, and thus can seldom appreciate the challenges of performing it. In the eyes of many orchestra players today, the purpose of rehearsals is mainly to enable a group of musicians to play the score as they read it. In other words, “to each his own and the rest will come” – preferably with the least amount of interference from the conductor. The preoccupation with the music, with its style, its meaning and symbolism, is all but neglected.

This has direct influence on the ability of the orchestra to properly evaluate a conductor. How often have I been forced to watch an orchestra of renown playing enthusiastically for a conductor, not noticing that he hasn’t the slightest familiarity with the music they were playing, of the style, of their instruments, of the balance, not to mention the lack of any musical statement. That most conductors arrive unprepared rarely seems to concern orchestra musicians. This state of affairs is so unbelievable that I had to witness it countless times before I came to accept that this is the norm.

The power relations between orchestras and conductors

It has often been said that the era of the dictator-conductor is over. One would be hard-pressed to find in today’s music world someone who would openly express a negative opinion about this development. With time, orchestras won more control over their activity, including the decision of who gets to conduct them and who is hired as chief-conductor.

Using the sterile argument that they take part in a democratic act, orchestras have been using this development to gain more artistic control, increasingly rejecting conductors who insist on getting involved in musical and administrative decisions of any kind. This makes the work more convenient while giving it a democratic guise.

Suspending for a moment the ethical question of the conductor’s personal behavior, it is important to stress that an orchestra cannot function ideally without a “musical dictator.” The internal power structure of merely the orchestra itself (excluding the conductor) does not allow for resolute decision making. With no one capable of making musical decisions that stem from a unified vision, we are inevitably led to a lack of any vision whatsoever – to a mediocrity. A Beethoven score, for example, confronts us with never-ending questions one has to answer in order to achieve any integrity in performance. Even if every individual musician does his best with his own part, there cannot be a consistent perspective without an overseer, that is without a musical “dictator.” The orchestra musician understands that instinctively and yet, a direct antagonism between him and the conductor exists from the nature of the situation. For the musician, the conductor is a necessary evil. Therefore, in his eyes, conductors should deal only with “necessities.”

One has to admit, that in the days when Toscanini, Szell, Reiner and Karajan could do anything they wanted, some of the social outcomes would be unacceptable today. Nobody can seriously argue that an orchestra should work in a state of terror. But the counterreaction which has taken place with the disappearance of the dictator-conductors has gone so far that the relationship between orchestra and conductor has become a farce.

The most obvious and harmful example of this is the practice (now taken for granted) of orchestras choosing their own chief-conductor. The argument in favor of this follows the general acceptance of an electoral system in a democratic society. This is nothing but a genetic fallacy. Even if one agrees that democracy is a good system of government, it hardly makes it so for every other social structure. As I argued before, in orchestral practice, where the highest goal is artistic quality, a democracy prevents that in the first place.

An orchestra that chooses its own chief-conductor assumes that the musicians can understand the whole scope of problems, duties and challenges of the conducting profession. As I have shown, this is impossible, and even the boldest orchestra musician will not argue to the contrary. Therefore, the musicians are not in the position to make such a decision in a circumspect way.

One often tends to argue that the relations between an orchestra and a conductor are largely based on chemistry and that only the musicians can judge and appreciate that facet. But chemistry is not a static phenomenon. It changes every day, every performance, every rehearsal. How often does one hear orchestra musicians admit that they falsely evaluated the chemistry with a conductor? Even more importantly, the chemistry sought after by the orchestra musician will not always be the chemistry leading to the best artistic results. The tendency and the desire of so many musicians today to see themselves on equal footing with their conductor ignores the fact that they want to be equal only when it suits them. The musician and the conductor are not on a par. The conductor does not hold the instrument and the players do not hold the stick. They also don’t go to board meetings, don’t engage in arguments with other musicians during rehearsal (hopefully), and don’t prepare the full score. Therefore, it is important to understand that the musicians will necessarily relate only to a part of the question. On this matter, I would also like to object to the notion of chemistry as an abstract thing which can only be felt. With this premise, one quickly loses the ability to judge anything. Even if it is something you can only feel, there at least ought to be clear criteria distinguishing certain cases of “chemistry” as irrelevant. If the board of an orchestra finds out that the conductor is a murderer who can’t read music, and the orchestra feels “chemistry” with him, there is not much left to say.

The balance in the relationship

One of the biggest problems arising from orchestras having power to choose their chief- conductor is the inversion of the power dynamic between them. When the orchestra has hiring power over the conductor, he will tend to retreat from a position of artistic authority, and thus to shirk his central duty as a performing musician. Take the example of a conductor who must conduct an orchestra that is considering him for a chief-conductor position. Whether he is a person of great character or spineless, insofar as the word of the orchestra counts towards hiring, an artistically honest outcome is unlikely.

As a result of this “democratic” hiring process, the orchestra members feel empowered. They say: “if this one wants to be our chief-conductor, he has to prove himself both as an artist and as a person.” Unfortunately, the former criterion almost invariably gets neglected in favor of the latter. In their position of power, the musicians opt for the conductor who is expected to provide the most pleasant and convenient experience at work. This implies almost exclusive attention to the conductor’s character and personality. The attention is thus already drawn away from music, and the artistic bar is automatically lowered.

If art is lucky and the conductor is one of powerful character and integrity, his efforts will almost always be in vain. Honesty can only be met by honesty. The conductor may well try to reach his goal. His condition, however, makes this impossible, as he is forced to prove himself to the orchestra and not the composer. Almost invariably today, the conductor will be spineless from the outset and all his energy will be directed towards appeasing the orchestra. He will try to avoid any conflict, especially around musical questions. For if he is to be hired, the orchestra has to love him – and conflict will not achieve that.

Imagine that a wind player goes against the conductor’s opinion about how his part should be played. The musical duty of the conductor is to change it. The player, however, may well be insulted by this, leading to a personal conflict with the conductor. Ten minutes later, say one of the musicians acts in an inappropriate manner. Again, the conductor must take a stand against it. But if he does, the player will in all likelihood turn against him, not to mention other musicians may feel threatened and draw consequences, that is, opt for a “nicer” conductor. In any case, the careerist conductor will not take this chance. These and many other similar thoughts will go through the head of the conductor, to the exclusion of the music itself. These are just particular common scenarios that exemplify what has become the relationship between orchestra and conductor.

With time, this problem has manifested itself in every encounter between conductors and orchestras, with the chief-conductor hiring process being an extreme example. As a rule, guest conductors are also invited back only with the permission of the orchestra.

Of course, psychology plays a huge part in the conductor’s work with the orchestra. In order to get the best out of the musicians one must be able to sense their feelings, opinions and character. However, the need of conductors to appease their orchestras has given rise to such a servile attitude that one can hardly take the profession seriously anymore.

Today, it has become normal practice after a guest appearance to cast a vote among the orchestra players in order to decide if the conductor deserves to appear before them again. In my work at a world-renowned music institute, I have witnessed numerous guest conductors doing everything in their power to appease the orchestra so that they could secure their coveted future engagement. This manifested itself in numerous ways that can only make one cringe – from dishing feigned compliments to shortening rehearsals. Worst of all, conductors do not insist on their will even when it was clearly different from that of the orchestra. The most obvious example of this is when the conductor gives an upbeat, yet the orchestra plays a different tempo out of habit. Few are the conductors today who actually stop and demand their tempo. The orchestra-conductor power relation shows itself in this millisecond more than a thousand words could describe.

A few years ago, a colleague of mine was given the opportunity to conduct one of the world’s top orchestras. The very short rehearsal time included three hours for a symphony well known to the orchestra. When the chief conductor – himself one of the top names in the profession – was asked by my colleague for advice, the latter was told not to use all the rehearsal time and let the orchestra leave early. The chief conductor added that he always tries to do so, having learned from experience that the orchestra went home happier and played better for him at the concert. We can assume that this conductor was in no way able to judge if the orchestra played better. He was right, however, in stating that the orchestra went home happier.


(to be continued)

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