All this talk of conducting, then I come across this little article
tonight, thought it would add to the story here (the last bit is great!):
Opinion: Conductors and the cult of charisma
In his Gazette review of two recent Orchestre symphonique de Montréal performances (“Perahia finesses, Vengerov is feisty,” Oct. 27), Lev Bratishenko writes: “The concerto was played with, or perhaps around, Nathan Brock on the podium. I have rarely heard him, but the [OSM]’s Conductor in Residence does not seem to have [Kent] Nagano’s seniority and he does not have [the soloist, violinist Maxim] Vengerov’s physical intensity” (italics mine).
Rarely heard him? A conductor is seen, not heard. A conductor does not make any sound. As Zubin Mehta once said during an interview on the Charlie Rose show: “You have to realize that it is the musicians that are making the music.”
Unfortunately, the current image of a symphony-orchestra conductor is all about glamour and charisma, and that is what the audience now expects. People view the conductor as the only one who produces the sound and the music, as if he or she could do this by a magical wave of the baton.
The conductor’s role has taken such a place of importance that it dwarfs even that of the composer whose work is being performed. Album covers and concert-hall marquees put the conductor’s name in larger letters than that of the composer. But which of the two is more important?
In the beginnings of orchestral music, when Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) worked at the court of King Louis XIV of France, the conductor’s role was that of timekeeper. He would hold a large pole, five or six feet long, in one hand, and raise and lower it to keep the music in time.
Conducting took on a more dramatic role with the music of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler in the 1880s. Silhouette caricatures of Strauss and Mahler conducting showcase their contorted body movements.
Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) refined the conductor’s role and was a master of the art. Toscanini’s ability to communicate his musical desires with a baton was clear and concise, devoid of extraneous movements.
Today, however, there seems to be less of a taste for that understated style; conducting has turned into a show in itself. People go to a concert to see the conductor. My neighbour recently told me that she would love see (insert your favourite conductor here) conduct — rather than saying she wanted to see and/or hear the orchestra.
Bratishenko’s review refers to Nathan Brock as “not [having] Nagano’s seniority [or] Vengerov’s physical intensity.” Why should he? The soloist was Vengerov; Nathan was simply following the soloist and keeping the orchestra together with him. Any extraneous motions would have detracted the audience’s attention from Vengerov. Nathan used the only motions needed to complete a well-done job.
Bratishenko continues: “it was an uneven match, though I suspect there are few conductors with the determination … to bring this soloist to heel.” Is the suggestion that the conductor should try to control the soloist? I hope not.
Seiji Ozawa, the former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was fond of saying that the most important thing for a conductor to do is to “stay out of the way of the musicians.” The less the conductor does, in other words, the more effective he or she becomes.
In the same issue of The Gazette, classical-music critic Arthur Kaptainis writes about a dedicated arts lover he had met in Philadelphia who told him that she had hoped the Philadelphia Orchestra would get as its conductor Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, citing “that beautiful hair, all those curls.” Kaptainis says, “Critics are probably united in wishing such criteria did not matter. But they do, and (orchestras’) boards of directors are aware of them.”
Things have changed since the Toscanini years of straight-ahead conducting with substance. Now what we get is the show of charisma and glamour that audiences expect. Leopold Stokowski was one of the pioneers of this commercial approach, always wanting to be in the spotlight. Toscanini had such a distaste for Stokowski that he was quoted as saying that he didn’t “wish to see his stupid face again.” But then again, Toscanini was the best known and highest-paid conductor in the world.
This brings us to the story of a pet-shop owner who had three parrots for sale: one for $2,000, one for $6,000 and one for $50,000. Shocked by the prices, a customer asked for an explanation. “The first parrot can sing a Mozart aria,” the shop-owner said. And the second, asked the customer? “Well, he can sing all the Mozart arias!”
Impressed, she asked what the third one did. The response: “Oh, he doesn’t do anything, but the other two call him Maestro!”