Interview with the „Lamenting Conductor“
In the past weeks we published the essay „A Conductor’s Lament“, in which a professional conductor (who chose to remain anonymous) takes a very critical look at the current classical music business and how it affects and changes the once respected art of conducting. I promised to close this series with an extensive written interview with the author in which he/she reflects on the themes brought up in the essay and offers insight on the motivation to write it. Here it is:
1. In your “Conductor’s Lament” you paint a pretty bleak picture of the current classical music life. Do you feel there is hope for improvement? What could be done?
One of the sad things I had to come to terms with as I was writing this piece, is that I have no definite solutions for many of the problems it raises. I thus gave up on the idea of making this some kind of “recovery plan” for classical music. Instead, my objective was to simply direct some attention to these problems, which would hopefully invite some discussion and maybe even solutions.
That the situation is very bleak is felt every day by many, so I believe this critique reflects a very widespread opinion, albeit a tacit and inchoate one. Few today study this degeneration, not to mention explain and bring it to light. Nevertheless, there is a common notion that many things must change. Unfortunately, the problems in this profession run so deep that a deep shift in consciousness among almost all involved would have to take place in order for significant change to occur. As of now, the music industry is showing no signs of this happening, and so I am afraid things will become worse before such a shift happens.
2. You work as a conductor yourself – even though it is perfectly understandable that you want to remain anonymous, could you imagine lifting the veil of secrecy at some point? What could be the consequences?
I have no desire to do that for two reasons. First, I am convinced that it will take the attention off the things discussed in the essay. This critique should be assessed on its merit and veracity, not its author. It is precisely because of the personality-driven spectacle that has usurped our art that the author’s identity would invite a whole host of reactions that have nothing to do with the matter at hand. Second, a critic of this sort is uncommon in our professional circles and, as explained in the piece, the power structure of the industry shields the powerful musicians, agencies and managements from any criticism by ousting any dissenting voices. Simply put, exposing my identity would almost certainly cause irreparable damage to my career.
3. Popular Music has a fair number of artistically successful “rebels” – artists that stubbornly retained some kind of artistic independence and who had careers that they were mostly in control of, names like Frank Zappa, Prince or David Bowie come to mind for example. Why is it that in classical music these personality types are so rare? Is the classical music crowd meeker and more “well behaved”?
We should remember that many of these popular music “rebels” had made their way to the higher echelons of an industry that generates huge profits and enjoys popularity among millions. It is naturally easier to express “dissenting” ideas or to experiment with innovative aesthetics from this secure position. There is also the cultural aspect: classical musicians are usually a product of centuries-old institutions, and this leads to some degree of conformity. Moreover, classical music has only rarely been associated with political and social ideas in the same way that various genres of popular music have. Nonetheless, it is quite depressing that among the successful musicians (many of whom are conductors) there is hardly any willingness to make any kind of statement that breaks from the musical, social, and political conformism that our industry is steeped in. It is a testament to the lack of character of most musicians today, as well as lack of interest in what makes our art special. In the case of the moderately successful musicians, we can hardly expect them to openly dissent, as they are still struggling to make a living. I understood very early on that if I am to break out of the low-level circuits in this career, I would have to keep my mouth shut.
4. Do you know classical musicians – also conductors – who do things differently, who try to retain artistic integrity without “selling out”? What consequences did it have for their careers?
Although I know a few conductors who share my ideas about the state of the profession, hardly any of them express these opinions openly. However, I do know many great musicians who do their own thing – so to speak – on a high level of musicianship. It is usually a way for them to live meaningfully in this profession while keeping their dissatisfaction at home. A great collaboration with an orchestra can be very rewarding. This does not mean that their general opinion about music today is becoming more positive, but only that they’ve built their own “career bubble”. This indicates a general helplessness in the face of what is happening. One doesn’t even know where to start in order to address this crisis.
5. In the last instalment you describe the power of music agencies and the phenomenon of the “wandering guest conductor”. We all know that this is very true – most conductors usually go “on the road”, then settle down as chief conductors of very often more than one orchestra or opera house around the world while continuing to guest conduct as much as possible. Some chief conductors of orchestras are seen only a couple of weeks per year by their orchestra. Even if they are ingenious or really serious with their art they will never be able to create a unique artistic standard. What strategies could be employed to end this endless carousel? Can the power of the agencies be broken? Wouldn’t the orchestras and opera houses be quite happy to be more independent of them?
The problem with the current phenomenon you described – conductors taking on more then one orchestra and guest conducting the rest of the time, with no real investment in any of the occasions – has two sides. One is the fact that so many conductors, neglecting quality music making or not understanding what that must involve. The other side is that of the musical institutions, who work with conductors within that framework. Orchestras today demand very little from their conductors, as the lack of artistic standards has come to be the norm. Only an ignorant orchestra manager could think that his orchestra needs an itinerant conductor. This is a manager who allows the market, not musical standards, to dictate how musicians are allowed to make music. This is where agencies and PR play a huge role. After all, they take advantage of such ignorant management in order to squeeze as much profit as they can from their hyped product-conductors. In other words, agencies can only do their business with the aforementioned conditions the artists and orchestra dictate for them.
6. Even though you use the past as a more positive example when it comes to the craft of conducting, we all know that every age of classical music had its problems. For example whereas the musicians of today are dependent on the commercial interests of their agencies or record labels as well as their media image, composers of the past were pawns of either the church or the nobility and also had to worry about their “image” (Mozart is a good example), also the historically successful opera scene of the 19th century was dominated by greedy impresarios and “shady business” much like (or even worse than) today. Will our art persevere despite negative circumstances?
This is a huge question I don’t even dare answer. I will just say that one has to wonder if the great music of the past, which has proven its staying power, deserves the treatment it is receiving today. We’ve been hearing concerns in the industry for years now that classical music could soon disappear, and I think this is something the musicians themselves aren’t even able to imagine. The fact that their art has survived for so long is in this sense almost a dangerous illusion, as if they think: no matter how bad things are in the business, the great composers of the past will save us.
7. You describe how the great conductors of the past had very close working relations with the composers of their time – today this is relatively rare, the orchestra repertoire is shrinking instead of expanding and contemporary pieces are usually “hidden” at the beginning of a concert (so that the audience can come later if they don’t want to become too disturbed by new music.). Wouldn’t we profit from bringing the world of contemporary music and conducting closer together again?
We absolutely would. The roots of these problems are much too complicated and deep to go into here. I do believe, from my own experience that the idea that “modern” music is a recipe for keeping the public away is wrong. I witnessed this first hand many times. Good music that convinces musicians will always convince the public as well. I would even go so far as to say that musicians are morally obligated to perform contemporary music. Contemporary music being buried in the program is yet another sign of ignorance on the side of management and the musicians as well, and is condescending to the public, who are thought to be unable to understand “difficult music”. We are very far away from the right balance between pieces old and new in our programing.
As a side note, I think that the importance of composers’ personal collaboration with conductors, which has been a staple of our culture in the past, has not subsided in the least today. This pertains to technical matters of notation and level of difficulty of execution, for example, not to mention deeper artistic questions.
8. Music Criticism has also seen a kind of decline in the last 50 years – is this decline perhaps also part of the problem?
It is undoubtedly part of the problem. The instances of critics having a real constructive artistic influence are so rare, that they have been essentially reduced to being tastemakers or recommendation providers for concert goers at best, and at worst as mere public relations conduits for musical institutes and artists. I would like to think that critics could play a bigger role in changing our profession for the better, and in particular in pointing out when a deterioration is taking place. Instead, we just see that most of them acquiesce to this process and even propel it further with their ignorance. I think many artists today hardly take music critics seriously anymore, and are content to use the critics as marketing agents instead.
9. Careers in classical music invariably begin at a Conservatory or University – institutions that are by their nature slow to adapt or change. Universities in the UK or the US often have increasingly high study fees, whereas many Music European Universities are state subsidized. Do you feel there is a difference in the quality of artists they produce? What would you suggest to bring these institutions into the 21st century?
I have not seen a significant difference in the quality of musicians between the continents. Although there are cultural differences between musicians from different countries, which find their expression in their various strengths and weaknesses on stage, I think that the musical globalization we witness today has counteracted that for the most part. If I could wish for one big change, it would be for a real integration with other disciplines, including those that have ostensibly little to do with music and the arts. Moreover, a stronger political and social awareness is necessary in our profession today. The German higher music education system is a testament to the artistic bankruptcy that results in divorcing our art from other disciplines. This cultural isolation is a recipe for producing ignorant and disinterested musicians.
In the same vein, I am worried about the one-sidedness of instrumental studies these days. I think that composition studies should be an integral part of the education of instrumentalists and conductors. As a result, the ability to appreciate a composition is often not fostered among musicians today.
10. And finally: what motivated you personally to write the Conductor’s Lament? Was there a specific experience that made you make that decision (if you can talk about it)? How do you find inspiration to continue in your profession?
There was no specific experience that motivated me, but rather a culmination of many years of being worried and unhappy with the state of things. Of course, one’s own experience and state of mind also plays a role in how sensitive one is to these problems. However, let’s be honest – you would have to live in serious denial to not feel that something is very wrong with classical music. When I began writing this piece I had no intention to make it public, but simply wanted to organize my thoughts in order to see how I can continue in this vocation.
The full text of the „Conductor’s Lament“ can also be found here: