How Orchestra Conductors Have Changed

When I started out in the industry a little over two decades ago, conductors weren’t to be approached. They were untouchable: geniuses at the very least – deities in extreme cases. On the rare occasion the Principal Conductor of the London orchestra I worked for rang the office, we were under strict instructions to put him through to the CEO the very moment he growled his name. It was even suggested one member of staff might like to remove her eyebrow piercing before meeting him.

Before long, a new Principal Conductor arrived and things started to change. Almost immediately, the new incumbent enquired as to why he wasn’t being asked to conduct children’s and family concerts. He became, I believe, the first Principal Conductor of a London symphony orchestra to do so and is now Music Director of Germany’s best-funded opera house. He wasn’t exactly approachable. But he wasn’t afraid to approach others – whoever they might be.

The reason conductors have changed is that the musicians they lead have changed

As we reflect on the development of our cherished musical traditions, it seems glaringly obvious that conductors have changed – on the podium and off it. The reason conductors have changed is that the musicians they lead have changed. And the reason the musicians they lead have changed is that the societies those musicians inhabit have changed. That doesn’t necessarily render the music-making we experience any less intense or meaningful.

I say ‘on the podium and off it’, but you notice the shift more acutely off it. In the old days, you’d be sent to interview a major conductor and the experience would tend to be one of distance – a chasm separating you and the subject (there were exceptions). A new generation of conductors is changing that. Two years ago I was sent by Gramophone to interview a major conductor – one who appears to be getting all the top jobs right now. He texted me afterwards, to say thanks and to ask for details about something I’d mentioned in passing. It seemed symptomatic of the way many younger conductors see themselves in relation to the rest of the world and its inhabitants.

Some conductors have always had their feet on the ground – Antonio Pappano is an obvious example, the grafter who just gets on with the job. On the whole, younger conductors have been formed by the more informal, better-connected world we live in without letting it compromise their artistry (it is, of course, a more collaborative job these days). I tend not to make a big impression on people I interview; you hope the discussion will be remembered, more than the instigator of it. But some important conductors I’ve met recently, one of them a recent Gramophone cover star, don’t think twice about sending an ad-hoc WhatsApp message about something banal or funny. They look after their children, they do the shopping, they get stuck on broken-down trains and they fall off their bikes. Sometimes they post about those things on social media. It turns out they’re human beings, just like the rest of us. Who knew?

You get a fast-track on this during the triennial Malko Competition, which named its winner on Saturday after an intense week in Copenhagen examining of the art of conducting from every possible angle. Malko does a good job of puncturing the prejudices and snobberies that surround the idea of ‘the conductor’. A week before the competition began, those of us working on the continuous broadcast of the event were sent details of some of the competitors’ backgrounds and off-stage lives (this year, there were 24 contestants from 20 countries). Cue a whole raft of unconscious biases and judgments inside my head, sifting out which of these individuals were likely to succeed and which weren’t – based, probably, on which of them most strongly resembled Herbert von Karajan.

Those pre-judgements were upended not by PR, not by people jostling to make themselves likeable, but by the most honest and rigorous of processes: six days and four rounds of the toughest conducting competition there is, in which every second of each conductor’s rehearsal and performance (and lots more besides) was broadcast live on TV and radio. Conducting remains one of the toughest professions on earth, one that demands an airline pilot’s cool-headed calculation, an orator’s ability to inspire and a philosopher’s sense of perspective. Apparently, you can possess all three and still live in the real world.

If you didn’t see the Malko Final on Saturday – in which three conductors led performances of Brahms symphonies and Nielsen’s Cockerel’s Dance with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, having tackled seven other works from four centuries including a world premiere and a concerto, the latter with zero rehearsal and much of the repertoire only revealed at an hour’s notice – you can watch it again below:

If you did see it, you’ll know what fearsome artistic and technical gifts its winner Samuel Lee and his runners up Ana María Patiño-Osorio and Dong Chao are blessed with (the latter two are under 30). In the Final, Lee conducted both his Nielsen and his Brahms without a score. His talent is breath-taking and his inner poetry is wondrous.

As always, there are conductors at Malko who don’t make it to the later rounds but impress nonetheless with their abilities to stand in front of a world-class orchestra, structure a rehearsal and sell their ideas on music said orchestra has mostly played before under renowned conductors.

More than 400 conductors applied to compete at this year’s Malko Competition, though only 24 were selected. Among them was the Peruvian who makes his own snappy TikTok videos to an audience of tens of thousands of followers. There was the Brit who prefers to conduct in prisons and shopping centres than in concert halls. There was a serious-minded opera specialist who came to classical music late, via heavy metal.

In a competition setting, we meet them as human beings – under pressure, away from home. They seem so very human, because they are. Then they step onto the podium, and prove they’re also just a little bit special.

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