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America’s top-earning maestros

February 26, 2014 by Norman Lebrecht

77 comments.


The Los Angeles Times has been reading the music organisation tax returns for fiscal 2011. Its chart, published in September but only just brought to our attention, finds two conductors earning over $2 million and six more above $1m.

The chart:

1 Muti (Chicago) – $2.17m

2 MTT (SanFran) – $2.03m

shock – shock – shock- shock

3 Christoph Eschenbach (Washington) – $1.93m

Eschenbach.Christoph_creutziger_01

4 Charles Dutoit (Philadelphia) – $1.64m

5 James Levine (Met) – $1.52m

6 Gustavo Dudamel (LA Phil) – $1.43m

7 Alan Gilbert (NY Phil) – $1.34m

8 James Conlon (LA Opera) – $1.18m

 

How the heck did Eschy squeeze nearly $2m out of Michael Kaiser for heading an orch that’s plainly going nowhere? It tends to confirm that ‘Turnaround King’ Kaiser, the Kennedy Center chief – took his eye seriously off the job in his last years on the job.

 


Comments (77)

  1. Cztph says:

    Conlon 1.18 mil??

    to me that is the most undeserved salary on the list.

    1. MWnyc says:

      I’m mostly a fan of Conlon, but I think he may be a bit underemployed at L.A. Opera. (I mean in the sense that it isn’t nearly as busy a company as Conlon’s previous employer, the Paris Opera.)

      Some of that salary may be to keep Conlon from going elsewhere. The particular circumstances of that job (an often-absent boss who is not a conductor but likes to conduct) probably make it a bit difficult to attract top-level talent.

    2. Lilly says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Cztph.

    3. Martin Fass says:

      It is discouraging and depressing to have it affirmed that in the world of classical music, conditions are no different than elsewhere in a world of capitalism out of its mind; the working person, the musician, is on as low a salary as possible, while conductors are paid too much…even those who are not collecting millions each year.

      No wonder there are certain highly capable conductors who cannot find stable positions, must try to support themselves with a few guest appearances, while the celebrities go on and on from the podium…and never mind the high ticket prices, the empty seats, the aging white audience.

      By and large, the “top” conductors are, as the current BBC Sherlock (and all the Sherlocks who were here before him) would say, “Boring.”

      1. Erich says:

        The idea that conductor salaries are “no different” than other professions is just plain wrong. According to the Washington Post, CEO pay in the top 350 firms went from a low of 20 times average worker pay in 1965 to 383 times in 2000, and as of June, 2013 sits at 273 times higher. This decrease comes mainly from restructuring pay and benefit packages due to bad press, because we all know Wall St. is richer today than they were in 2000, or 2008 for that matter.

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/06/26/congrats-ceos-youre-making-273-times-the-pay-of-the-average-worker/

        To take everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Eschenbach made $1.93 million in 2011. NSO base pay that year was $126,984.

        http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/172979161.html

        That’s approximately 15 times the base musician salary. If there are administrative people making, say, $40k at the Kennedy Center, Eschenbach earns maybe 45 times what they do. It’s a lot of money, but it’s not a LOT of money.

        It’s just not the same thing. Why can’t people do two minutes of googling before posting comments?

        1. Dave T says:

          It is the comparing of conductors’ salaries to those of the the CEOs of the top 350 companies which is just plain wrong. These each have revenues of at least $7 billion, some as high as nearly half a trillion $! They employ tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. By contract, a big orchestra has a couple hundred workers and revenues of a tiny fraction of the least of those 350 firms (source: two minutes on Google). Why you, as well as others on this blog, continue to contend that conductors, musicians, or anyone associated with any arts organization, should have their compensation compared with that of leaders of gigantic for-profit corporations is specious, to say the least. No, it’s just not the same thing.

          And, yes, for a little outfit like the NSO, $1.9 million is both a lot of money and a LOT of money,

        2. Nick says:

          With all respect to Erich, Eschenbach just does not work on an annual basis. As Marvin M. says below, like most other conductors on the list I expect he will give somewhere around 12 weeks or thereabouts to the NSO. So the comparison to musicians’ average annual salary is much closer to 60 times – not 15! It is a lot for a little! A quick glance at the NSO’s website shows that next season Eschenbach conducts nine of the30 listed programmes.

          1. Nick says:

            Apologies. That should read 11 of the 30 listed programmes.

          2. “GIve” is perhaps an inappropriate choice of verb, in the context of this discussion! 🙂

  2. Daniel Green says:

    But Charles Dutoit isn’t with Philadelphia. Do you mean Yannick Nezet-Seguin?

    And what about the “shock” of Alan “Who” at the NYP? The very personification of mediocrity.

    1. MWnyc says:

      First sentence of the post: “The Los Angeles Times has been reading the music organisation tax returns for fiscal 2011.”

      Yannick’s tenure began in September 2012.

  3. Brian says:

    The figures are all raise questions given the salary scales of the rest of those organizations. Is a conductor really worth 10 or 15 times that of a rank-and-file player or administrative employee? Is the competition for top talent really so heated that conductors can demand these numbers? Granted they often bring in the big bucks from donors but many also put in much shorter seasons than your average violinist or tuba player and probably have a lot more perks too (car services, benefits, fancy dressing rooms).

    1. robcat2075 says:

      “Granted they often bring in the big bucks from donors …”

      I recall after Andrew Litton stepped down from the Dallas Symphony he cited the need to work at extracting money from donors as a major unpleasantness of the job.

      A conductor who is good at that, who can bring in way more than he is costing may well be worth the salary that seems otherwise high.

      I’d also submit that a conductor who can get the job done in the minimal rehearsals and carry it through to every concert has a job that is at least 10 to 15 times as demanding as “a rank-and-file player or administrative employee”.

    2. MWnyc says:

      “Is the competition for top talent really so heated that conductors can demand these numbers?”

      Yes, actually, it is.

      robcat2075 gives some good reasons why. Beyond that, conductors really do make a difference (however much some orchestral musicians might want you to believe otherwise). To take one especially vivid example, there is a huge difference between the way the Minnesota Orchestra sounded under Osmo Vänskä and the way it sounded under Eiji Oue. Osmo was clearly worth a great deal more to the Minnesota Orchestra than Oue was (even if Richard Davis and Michael Henson preferred to think otherwise).

      Edo de Waart and Herbert Blomstedt did good things with the San Francisco Symphony, and they (in particular de Waart, known to be a good orchestra builder) surely helped make the orchestra what it is today. But the San Francisco Symphony was not making the Gramophone Critics’ Poll list of the top 20 orchestras in the world until after MTT got there. Same but more so with the Los Angeles Phil under Esa-Pekka.

    3. Well said, Brian.

      I just felt uncomfortable reading how much more the maestros make than the players. Granted, the conductors can be a big draw, and can make extraordinary changes to the quality of the orchestra, as Mr. Vanska did in Minnesota. Just the same, there are so many pieces these players could easily toss off on their own, without a conductor.

      1. Anon says:

        That’s part of the problem though – players are apt to just “toss off” pieces (and for fairness, conductors are not immune from that either).

    4. Anon says:

      “Is the competition for top talent really so heated that conductors can demand these numbers? ”

      Brian – well, yes, which is self-evident from the fact that organisations are willing to pay that much.

  4. David Boxwell says:

    I’ll infer from this that the Kennedy Center can operate at a loss. How, I don’t know.

    1. MWnyc says:

      The Kennedy Center is actually funded in no small part by the Federal government.

      1. David Boxwell says:

        Well then, if the teabaggers ever found about Eschy, they’d shut the whole dad-blamed gubmint down.

        1. MWnyc says:

          Tried it. Didn’t work.

  5. ruben greenberg says:

    How much would it cost to prevent Eschenbach from conducting?

    1. Margo says:

      I like that! It may be a wise investment to protect the public from further extortion.

  6. I could be uncharitable and un-PC, but I won’t be.

    1. Doug says:

      It requires much more skill to rob from the populace at large than just a captive audience and eighty five musicians.

    2. Marvin M says:

      Making a comparison with bankers is misplaced, as banking and finance is within the private sector and U.S. orchestras are NPO (non-profit organisations). The salaries of music directors in major U.S. orchestras are paid for by the generous contributions of donors, sponsors and corporations, all giving their own money to support their community’s cultural sphere. So, while bankers may be overpaid, it is at least more palatable, as banking is, for the most part, within the private sector and accountable to shareholders and their clients. A classical symphony orchestra in the U.S. goes non-stop, cup in hand, asking for donations and contributions from private citizens, corporate sponsors and regional and federal government. That is the difference! It proclaims itself to be a non-profit institution, yet, as you made the comparison so well yourself, it resembles a finical racket. Remunerating conductors with compensation packages of nearly 2 million dollars per year, for 10, 12 or 14 weeks of work is appalling. Yet the suckers, the donors and patrons, keep falling for it year after year. Imagine, eschenbach works with the NSO and the Kennedy Center for 14 weeks per year at a remuneration of 1,93 million dollars per year. That translates to $137,857 per week!!! Not even a banker makes that, as most all of them work 52 weeks per year, not 14! If the classical business thinks that it can continue like this and hoodwink its donors, sponsors and the public, then it is delusional. Just thinking about this makes me sick and makes me not want to support these institutions, neither as a donor nor as a concert goer. It stinks!

      1. MWnyc says:

        If only the shareholders of banks really could hold overpaid bankers responsible for their salaries. Or their clients, for that matter. (What do you suppose would happen if Chase account holders started demanding that Jamie Dimon’s pay be cut?)

        At least the donors, sponsors and corporations who are voluntarily giving their money to pay for music directors’ high salaries are well aware of it – and they probably have more power to affect a music director’s salary than Chase checking account customers have to affect Jamie Dimon’s.

    3. Dave T says:

      Sasha:

      … and earns a whole lot more than the guy who collects my trash of Tuesdays. So if that guy and the fellow who conducts the orchestra were to leave town, guess which one I would miss the most?

      I’m not defending bankers, they can stand up for themselves but just what is your point?

  7. Marvin M says:

    This list is indeed full of surprises and I totally agree with the “shock – shock – shock” comment in the blog that to see Christoph Eschenbach appear in third place of the best paid conductors list is a disgrace. Michael Kaiser and the Kennedy Center Board must have been out of their minds to have allowed that to happen and I’m sure that Deborah Rutter will put an end to such an egregious rip-off of both taxpayer and donor funds once she takes over. How in the world was Eschenbach able to get the Kennedy Center to pay that kind of yearly fee after his disastrous tenure in Philadelphia and his lacklustre worldwide performances to date. The NSO is, as stated in the blog, going nowhere under his leadership and it all looks and sounds like a repeat of the ‘Philadelphia Story’. How is such a thing allowed to happen in a supposedly financially difficult period for all arts institutions and particularly one that receives federal funds as well? Don’t these people have ears and can’t they see and hear that this is an absolutely second-rate conductor, who nowadays is not on an upswing, but rather heading south, as each recent performance I have heard confirms? The business should get its act together, otherwise how can anyone expect aspiring young conductors and musicians to chose to work in and believe in a business that rewards mediocrity and allows it to go on and on, as is the case with Eschenbach? It is baffling, true baffling!

    1. MWnyc says:

      Well, presumably the Kennedy Center has a contract with Eschenbach that it must honor; Deborah Rutter and the board to which she will report may or may not choose to renew his contract, but I rather doubt they’ll terminate it without a demonstrable breach on Eschenbach’s part.

      Same for the “Philadelphia Story”, as you put it. The Philadelphia Orchestra did not renew Eschenbach’s contract, but, having engaged him, they honored it (as well they should have).

  8. Erich says:

    The Philadelphia Orchestra was struggling through bankruptcy in 2011 when Dutoit wasn’t even an MD. James Levine was stepping down from Boston and rarely made it to the podium due to ailments (boston.com reports him (or his company) earning $1.6 million from Boston in 2006 and $1.9 from the MET that same year). I don’t know how many weeks Muti conducted in 2011, but his current contract calls for “at least 10.” I have nothing against any of these people, but Eschenbach is conducting 14 weeks with the NSO this season and is also the Music Director of the Kennedy Center, and THAT’S what shocks you?

    Did Eschenbach used to make fun of you in school or something?

    1. Marvin M says:

      I agree that all of these “salaries” are exorbitant, but some stand out as being more egregious than others. Eschenbach is, by far, the most shocking of the entire list, simply because if one makes a quality and result to cost base analysis, it is more than obvious that this is a total rip off and an affront to any concerned tax payer or donor. I don’t need to repeat here what is general knowledge, about the litany of conducting disasters and multiple failed music directorships that Eschenbach has attached to his name. If you find that hard to understand, then I would only ask you the following:

      If you were the chairman of the board of a major prestigious company, one that strives for quality and excellence and you were searching for a new Executive Director and along came a person, who had recently been thrown out of another prestigious “company” (read the Philadelphia Orchestra) and shortly after was thrown out of another prestigious company (read the Orchestre de Paris) and had recently been castigated for poor performance at several top international conferences (read Vienna Philharmonic/Salzburg Festival), in all honesty and sincerity, would you not find it outrageous that you would hire than person for an even higher salary and dismiss any comment on that by saying, “Did that person (read Eschenbach) used to make fun of you in school or something?” Case closed. I don’t think that this needs any further clarification on my part. Apparently the classical music world operates on a different principle of how remuneration is based and apparently, like Wall Street, it rewards failure, mistakes, errors and outright mediocrity. And then you wonder why the multitude of orchestras in the U.S. are in dire straits?!! Wake up! Mr. Eschenbach may be your friend, that is fine, but just try to see that quality should be rewarded and failure, mediocrity and greed should not…certainly not in a sector that is standing on one leg and often begging for financial assistance from the community, from the government and from its patrons. Enough is enough!

      1. MWnyc says:

        “And then you wonder why the multitude of orchestras in the U.S. are in dire straits?!!”

        The “multitude” (if that’s what it is – and it isn’t) of orchestras in the U.S. are in dire straits because of the 2008-09 stock market crash and the economy’s subsequent weakness. Both endowment income and the amount of money donors felt able to contribute fell a great deal.

        With a one- to two-year lag, many U.S. orchestras (and other arts institutions) get hit by serious financial problems after every stock market crash; conditions have seemed worse than usual over the past dozen years because it’s the first time in living memory that we had two big financial market crashes within a decade.

        (Note: By “dire straits”, I mean genuine crises, not the constantly-discussed long-term problems of audience age and perceived cultural relevance that face U.S. orchestras. The Milwaukee Symphony has been in dire straits; the straits in which the Big Seven (or Eight or Ten) orchestras are sailing – yes, even Philadelphia – don’t qualify as dire.)

    2. William Telison says:

      You say that The Philadelphia Orchestra “was struggling through bankruptcy in 2011…” That bankruptcy came just after Christoph Eschenbach’s extremely disappointing, failed and highly criticized tenure, seeing his contract not being renewed and most members of the orchestra and public glad to see him gone. I live in Philadelphia and witnessed firsthand the terrible atmosphere and mostly poor concerts produced by this man. Do you not think that Eschenbach’s own avarice and rapacious greed didn’t contribute to nearly bankrupting The Philadelphia Orchestra, apart from his general poor conducting and undersold concerts? Why in the world would the Kennedy Center pick him up and pay him even more to do nothing really substantial in four years? Michael Kaiser should be held accountable for this swindle of public and private money.

      1. Nick says:

        The primary job of any orchestra’s Board of Directors is surely the employment its two senior personnel – the Chief Executive and the Music Director. The sad fact is that there are few Board members in the USA even remotely qualified to make such decisions. Search committees can only take them so far along the road to an appointment. In the end it is a Board’s responsibility. It would seem as though the Kennedy Centre’s Board failed in even its basic due diligence duties.

        Other arts Boards can be equally at fault, as with the disastrous decision surrounding NY City Opera’s ill-fated appointment of Gerard Mortier. How many more arts organisations will end up going out of business because Boards fail in their basic responsibility?

        1. MWnyc says:

          “Other arts Boards can be equally at fault, as with the disastrous decision surrounding NY City Opera’s ill-fated appointment of Gerard Mortier.”

          At the risk of veering too far off-topic —

          The New York City Opera Board under Susan Baker made any number of disastrous decisions, but I don’t think the hiring of Gerard Mortier itself counts as disastrous. Merely ill-fated.

          Remember that he never fully started work there; Baker had basically been running the company herself since Paul Kellogg left (and maybe for a while before he left). And while Mortier’s plans for the company might not have worked out if they were tried; they were interesting and even exciting; if they had succeeded (meaning if the product was good), they would have given a new identity to a company that badly needed one. (The Metropolitan Opera under Peter Gelb has been moving ever further into the territory City Opera occupied when it was founded.)

          The disaster surrounding Mortier was the Board promising him a $60 million budget when it turned out, just a few months before his first season was to start, they would only give him $35 million. (And, if we can believe George Steel, about half of that $35 million was imaginary.)

          1. Nick says:

            I fully accept you may know more about this affair than I. But surely your last paragraph highlights my point? Promising Mortier a budget of $60 million was an act of absolute folly! Susan Baker is on record as saying that the company had suffered “year after year” of losses with an accumulated deficit of around $15 million at that time. Where did she expect her Board to raise that sort of sum annually without further increasing the deficit – substantially? Coming form Europe, Mortier had no great experience in raising major sums from individual donors, yet he abolished the post of Executive Director – presumably once again with the Board’s agreement!

            I agree his appointment in early 2007 preceded the financial crisis. But as the media pointed out at the time, the 2007/8 and about half of the 2008/9 season was already inked in. The cost of cancelling that entire 2008/9 season and keeping the State Theater dark during renovations may have been Mortier’s idea, but the Board must have endorsed it. A case, surely, of a Board backing itself into a corner entirely of its own making!

          2. MWnyc says:

            I think you and I agree, Nick.

            It always irks me when people blame Mortier for Susan Baker’s mistakes that led to the demise of NY City Opera.

      2. MWnyc says:

        “Do you not think that Eschenbach’s own avarice and rapacious greed didn’t contribute to nearly bankrupting The Philadelphia Orchestra … ?”

        However much one might dislike Eschenbach’s music-making, “avarice and rapacious greed” is unfair. It’s not as if he stood in the wings at concert time, refusing to go onstage unless his demands for extra money were met.

        He negotiated a contract with the Philadelphia Orchestra for a pay rate that was commensurate with similar jobs in the U.S., and he and the Orchestra abided by that contract. Orchestra management ultimately decided that, in effect, they weren’t getting their money’s worth and did not extend the contract. Fair enough.

  9. Peter says:

    Presumably, too, this is only a proportion of what these conductors _actually_ earn, given that they are also touring extensively?

  10. Jonas says:

    I’m surprised about the absence of Welser-Möst.

    1. Dagmara says:

      Jonas, Franz Welser-Möst is absent there while when the financial crisis in US broke, he himself proposed that for the good of financial state of the orchestra he will cut 20 percent of his salary, and he actually did that in March 2009. So basically he now earns too “little” to be on that list.

  11. ruben greenberg says:

    The very fine French conductor, Emmanuel Krivine, conducts La Chambre Philharmonique, a period-instrument orchestra that specialises in the playing of Classical and early romantic music. He receives exactly the same fees for each concert as any rank-and-file player of this orchestra. Mind you, he probably makes good money elsewhere…

  12. Pixy Harris says:

    Bankers grow rich on our money too so I don’t see how the private sector argument comes into it. A great conductor is far more valuable and rare than a banker. If I lived in the UK I would put my money in a Building Society where the abuses are far less. Bankers get out as quick as they can with as much money as possible – and move to another bank.

    Muti certainly deserves his salary not only for doing a difficult job requiring years of study and experience but also at over 70 for working while jet-lagged. Indeed, he is not payed enough in view of the infinite pleasure he provides.

    1. Anon says:

      Pixy – if you’ll allow me, you’d be silly to do that. Building Societies have not been immune from terrible management, “the mutuals” have been every bit as bad as the others, despite their we’re-so-lovely cuddly clothing.

  13. robert says:

    The comparisons with bankers is illuminating, I think. My father was one, back from the 1960s through the late 1980s. Our family lived in a very small one-story house in a working-class suburb of Cleveland., and his retirement was reasonably secure but very modest. But, starting in the 1980s, compensation for top level executives throughout the private sector increased enormously. Other professionals in occupations in which top executives determined compensation saw their pay skyrocket as well. Remember that orchestras are run by boards, and those boards are composed usually of very wealthy men and women. Of course they pay conductors lavishly, because that’s the world they live in. And, as wages for middle-class professionals have declined, so too we see reductions in the compensation for musicians. The global trend is towards increasing inequality, and music director salaries are merely are reflection of that trend. The same thing happened at universities: consider the salaries of football coaches, or the perks afforded university presidents. I happen to think it is a kind of corruption, but the cancer started in the private sector precisely because neither shareholders (nor regulatory bodies) actually hold CEOs and top executives accountable. Christoph Eschenbach has done me no harm (and I’ve enjoyed the recordings I’ve heard). The bankers who brought us the financial crisis of 2008 have done irreparable harm to millions, world-wide.

  14. Don Ciccio says:

    Sorry bashers, but Eschenbach is not only music director of the NSO, but also of the Kennedy Center. And, contrary to the irresponsible second hand reports that we read in this blog and elsewhere, there are wonderful nights from him. Look for example at this review from Anne Midgette, who had her share of criticism for Eschenbach:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/matthias-goerne-christoph-eschenbach-offer-a-searing-ravishing-schubert-cycle/2014/01/28/73bc9416-885d-11e3-833c-33098f9e5267_story.html.

    As for the NSO not going anywere, this is nonsense. Even Eschenbach’s critics admit that the orchestra is sounding better and better, and the reviews from the first European tour did confirm that. These reviews were incomparably better than what Alan Gilbert gets when he tour with the NY Phil.

    Plus the NSO plays lots of music that is rarely heard; many are the works that the orchestra never played before such as Martinu’s 1st Symphony – what other major orchestra outside the Czech Republic played it recently?

    As for Eschenbach not being loved by the orchestra, I have no information of what goes behind the curtain. What I did however see is that at the last concert – the one in which he conducted the Brahms / Schoenberg quartet (another piece not heard in the NSO concerts since the time Erich Leinsdorf guest conducted in the 1980s!!) the maestro was aplauded by 70% of the musicians. Of course, thos who dislike him have the bigger mouth.

    1. Brian from Washington says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Don. The orchestra’s hearty applause for Eschenbach at the end of that spectacular performance of the Brahms/Schoenberg quartet was well-deserved. And his concerts at the Kennedy Center seem very well attended.

      I wonder how often Mr. Lebrecht and the followers of this blog who get off on bashing CE have heard him conduct recently. Or do they just scour the internet in search of bad reviews?

      Can the nay-sayers explain one thing to me: if Christoph Eschenbach is such a bad conductor and his concerts are so disastrous, why is he repeatedly engaged as a guest by the great orchestras: Vienna, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris, Dresden, Leipzig, Munich, Philadelphia, to name a few on this schedule this year and next.

      That said, whether CE or any other conductor is worth $2 million for the amount of time they spend with their orchestra – that is a worthy issue for debate.

      1. Scandinavian Observer says:

        Any musician, like any person, can have a good day and a bad day. The problem with Eschenbach is that his good days are rare and when they occur, they may be worthy of a decent critic. The issue is that Eschenbach is an inconsistent conductor and more concerts than not are poor and unprepared. Ask any musician about his rehearsal technique and they will tell you that it is beyond bad and uninteresting, with no link between rehearsal and concert. He also has little to no conducting technique and that is immediately apparent to any musician or any person knowledgeable of the most rudimentary basics of conducting. It is, sadly, more often than not, simply nonsense conducting, making little to no sense and leaving the orchestra on their own on far too many occasions. This guy is grossly overpaid, for not being a conducting giant and I hope that some sense will come to the NSO to do something to put an end to this taking the Kennedy Center and it public for a ride.

      2. MWnyc says:

        One interesting bit of gossip I heard was that once Eschenbach’s departure from the PhilOrch was announced, he and the musicians got along much better afterward. I heard that they got along famously on their last European tour together. Also that he got cheers all around in Budapest when he and a few musicians who were already gave an impromptu chamber concert to keep the audience in place while the rest of the orchestra was delayed for a few hours by a snowstorm.

      3. Professor says:

        I would invite any musically literate person to watch this fairly recent video of Christoph Eschenbach conducting the NSO in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony (4th Movement). The only comment and suggestion that I would make is watch and listen, then cut the sound and watch carefully, imagining that you were a player in the orchestra and had to follow this conductor. It will become apparent, relatively quickly, that Eschenbach is not even conducting, he is following the musicians and they are conducting him! It is a travesty of a musical performance and one that should be used in any conducting class, to show what can go wrong when the conductor simply can’t conduct and they orchestra is not following him, but he, the conductor is being lead by the orchestra. This is dilettante conducting at best, but not conducting by a major multi million dollar paid ‘Maestro”. It is simply so bad that it begs to be taken seriously. If this is the result that Eschenbach has achieved with the NSO, then I give up on more than thirty years of musical study and teaching. A charade like this shouldn’t be allowed to go on.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtB4QauPpV8

        1. Margo says:

          This is horrible! Eschenbach has absolutely no sense of rhythm and just trembling hands with no precise beat and the ensemble is all over the place. The orchestra sounds ragged, no wonder. He is, as said above, just “following them” and belatedly reacting to their fortissimos, their diminuendos, their sostenutos, but not initiating them, before they happen. What a mess! If you can get paid 1.93 million per year for conducting like this, then it is the best deal in town! The question is, how has this ever been allowed to happen and how have donors been scammed into throwing their money into this abyss? Thanks for sharing this video, because it speaks a thousand times stronger than any comment could. It tells everything and completely confirms my own suspicions and doubts about this conductor. By the way, I am a retired principal player in a major second tier U.S. orchestra. Over the years we had far better unknown conductors (with real conducting technique) lead us, so I just don’t get how this guy gets away with what he is doing!

          1. Michael Schaffer says:

            Good orchestras don’t need their conductor to beat time with a “precise beat” because once the tempo is set, the orchestra mostly plays by itself. Any good high school music teacher can beat time cleanly, that’s no big deal. A good orchestra plays together not by watching the conductor’s beat but by listening carefully to each other. What the conductor does with his hands and baton in performance is more shaping the outlines of the music than technical necessity. The trembling hands and fluttering baton thing is Eschenbach’s way of trying to add some vibrancy and intensity to the performance, how successful he is with that or not is open to debate, but it’s not a question of him not being able to beat time clearly. I don’t see any significant instances of him following the orchestra (I only watched the first 8 minutes though), most of the time he is a little ahead of them, indicating what comes next. In a few critical places, he subdivides to give the players some extra guidances, that’s pretty solid technique. The above doesn’t strike me as a particulary memorable performance, but it’s not nearly that terrible and all wrong either. I would have no problem following what he does.

            And of course it sounds terrible because it’s a recording very likely made with some kind of webcam with constantly compressed sound. Taking that as a basis for judgment is unfair to conductors and musicians.

        2. Jonathan says:

          Its a common situation and a very unpleasant noise but I do not agree that he is being entirely led by the orchestra. Left to themselves I think they would play it much better, it seems to me that he has a strong enough influence to actively ruin their work…

          1. Barbara Quince says:

            I agree. I am an oboist and regularly sub in two orchestras. This is really bad conducting, and also bad playing from the NSO, who are usually far above this level. I think that Eschenbach has actually made them worse and if I would be in that orchestra and if I had to be subjected to that kind of conducting on a regular basis, I would keep my head in the music and only look up at the beginning and the end, otherwise I would go crazy and panic! Why do they have this man in the first place? Better to get a well trained student who can, at the minimum, at least beat proper time and just hold the orchestra together, unlike this fiasco. No wonder this Eschenbach has so many problems in so many places, yet he keeps reappearing. Either he is paying somebody off, or has received divine intervention, but if judged on a purely musical level he should be sent back to music school and receive a metronome for Christmas.

          2. Oberlin College Observer says:

            Yes, of course a great orchestra doesn’t need their conductor to always have a “precise beat”, but what I see in the video of Eschenbach conducting above is just extremely poor conducting, in every sense! It is chaotic, it lacks rhythmic precision and there is no real conducting technique on display, there is constant and unrelenting “mirror conducting” meaning that his left hand is not totally free and independent of his right hand and it just “mirrors” what his right hand is doing, instead of independently shaping the music and giving precise phrasing cues. Sorry, but this example of conducting is unacceptable and is a total fraud. That the NSO pays him 1.93 million dollars to conduct like this is an embarrassment and a disgrace. If our conducting students at our institute would conduct like this they would fail their exams for sure. How is this tolerated by a major orchestra in the nations capital?

          3. Michael Schaffer says:

            The NSO is not a college orchestra, they don’t need someone standing there and beating time. I agree excessive mirror conducting doesn’t serve any purpose and it may not look that great either, but “independently shaping the music and giving precise phrasing cues” with the left hand doesn’t really work like that either. It’s not like the orchestra musicians sit there and watch the right hand of the conductor for “timing information” and at the same time, observe and analyze every small nuance he is indicating with his left hand, process both “sources of information” and then execute the music exactly according to the information they have been given. That’s just not possible “in the heat of battle” and even if it was, there is too much going on anyway for even the – in that sense – technically best conductor to show. Especially not in the a movement like this where the main section just takes off like a steam train. Where the tempo suddenly changes, as at 11:50, he is reasonably clear enough for the musicians to know what’s going on.

            Eschenbach’s conducting here is not particularly “pretty”, it’s somewhat hectic and exaggerated, and I don’t think it’s the most effective either, but it’s by far not as bad or even a total “fraud” thing as some people here say. I am not an Eschenbach fan myself, but the exaggerated reactions here really puzzle me somewhat.

            The last time I have seen him live was a few weeks ago when he conducted Bruckner 9 in Boston and while I found the interpretation way too dragged out and maybe even somewhat “pseudo-pretentious”, he did show what he wanted very clearly, even to the point of micromanaging detail that I think he should have left for the musicians to fill in, but that is almost the opposite criticism and certainly not a sign of lack of conducting “technique”.

            More important than most of what we see the conductor do in concert is what he does in rehearsal anyway. There have been some very negative comments on this website about his rehearsing, too, but given how over-the-top many of the comments here are about his conducting, those comments do not appear to me to be a reliable and balanced source of information about what he does in rehearsals, and how effective that is.

        3. Rgiarola says:

          I’m not going to defend Eschenbach; however I don’t think we should take this video for granted. Schaeffer is right; it is an amateur recording without any special microphone. Also, It was the first time orchestra and conductor played at this hall (São Paulo Municipal Theater). This place is an old Italian style opera house, that reminds Philadelphia Academy of music in some aspects, including acoustics tricks.

          I can understand criticism concerning gestures, timing, beat, but it is unfair to judge specially the orchestra’ sound through this video.

    2. David Boxwell says:

      Well, I paid my hard-earned $56 to see/hear Goerne and Eschenbach and the pianism that night was, how shall I say, “unclean.”

    3. Anonymous Insider says:

      The concert that you are referring to above had Eschenbach performing as a pianist, NOT as a conductor! I have no qualms about his talent as a pianist and he should have, in my opinion, remained a pianist and never picked up the baton. It’s interesting that you chose to paste a link to a review for him as a pianist, as that is not what is being criticised here. He was and perhaps still is a fine and sensitive piano accompanist, especially for singers, but he is definitely not a fine and top level conductor. I am an orchestra musician and have played under this man several times. Most of us respect that he has a sincere and deep appreciation for the music, but he sadly can not transfer that appreciation into a coherent conducting technique, so he is EXTREMELY difficult, if not sometimes impossible to follow. The result is sadly, all too often, a disaster, with most of us not even looking at what he is doing, but rather just ploughing through, as watching is poor technique and unsteady hand with a totally unclear beat would throw me off and that would have a domino effect on all around me, etc. I am sorry to have to agree that while he is probably a well-meaning musician, he doesn’t have the ability to convey what he wants, on most occasions, so I would have to agree that he is certainly not worth the money that he is being paid. Sorry, but that is my two cents and I am not trying to bash or hurt anybody.

  15. John says:

    Another dew drop for the big mouths: Eschenbach just collected a Grammy for a Hindemith disc with Midori and the NDR Symphony. Ah, the big mouths…nice people doing nice things, as the saying goes.

  16. Stereo says:

    They are all paid far too much. All these fine orchestra could do most concerts without them,in fact I’ve always thought it it would be interesting if one concert day if every orchestra actually followed exactly what conductors did what the result would be. I know we’ve ignored many conductors cock ups.

  17. MusicLover says:

    Its a glorious con, made better for the utter shamelessness of those involved. Unfortunately its also one which is ruining the whole music business from the inside out.

    There are a couple on the list whose work I am unfamiliar with, but so far as I can see the spectrum of talent ranges from “toxic” right along the scale as far as “dull” and I certainly wouldn’t pay for a ticket to hear any of them. Of course nowadays dull seems so refreshingly brilliant that many are fooled but, sadly, anyone with musical understanding wanting to hear real music in our times stays at home with old recordings which, despite the often-compromised sound quality, more often sound like music should than contemporary live concerts. Its very, very sad for anyone who loves music.

    Oh and for those wanting to put the argument that its the shortage of talent that puts the price up – please wise up because this is a completely spurious argument. There are serious conductors out there, but those whose ignorance or avarice have allowed them to become engaged in this con don’t want to know about them and so mostly they swim unseen rather than amongst that which floats upon the top of this profession.

    1. MWnyc says:

      Yes, things were always so much netter in the old days …

      (Whenever they were.)

  18. MIL says:

    Dudamel earning how much?!?!?

    Puppet of a dictatorship, that’s what he is. And let’s call the bluff already: he is not that good.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10658402/El-Sistema-must-make-a-stand-in-Venezuela.html

  19. JK says:

    Still a lot less than top MLB, NBA, NFL players…..

    1. With all due respect, the issue isn’t just what they make, but what the disparity in pay is between them and the players…

  20. Nick says:

    I once heard Ecshenbach conduct the Vienna Symphony in Beethoven’s Fifth. It was the only time I heard the work start pah-pah-pah-pah-PAA! I resolved not to attend another of his concerts!

    1. Michael Schaffer says:

      You judge a conductor by just 3-4 seconds of music?

      1. Erich says:

        Well if that opening was five notes, I could understand the concern. I’m guessing the error lies with Nick though.

      2. Nick says:

        The error was with Eschenbach who could not start an orchestra which must have this music in its blood correctly. Five notes were played, although which ones were out of sync I cannot now recall. And yes I will judge a conductor by this short opening phrase. If he/she cannot get this right on what was an important overseas tour, I have little faith in their conducting abilities.

        1. Michael Schaffer says:

          Overseas tour? When and where was that? How was the rest of the 5th – there is another 1/2 of music after the opening bars – how was the rest of the concert? There must have been maybe 1 1/2 h of music in that program. Was everything out of sync the whole time throughout the entire concert?

          1. Nick says:

            ‘Good orchestras don’t need their conductor to beat time with a “precise beat” because once the tempo is set, the orchestra mostly plays by itself.’

            Your words, Mr. Shaffer! Eschenbach was unable to set the tempo in such a way that the whole orchestra could follow. End of the issue. It does not matter how long is the work or the programme.

    2. Brian from Washington says:

      Seems Eschenbach’s recent appearance conducting in Hamburg a couple of weeks ago was a “Triumph.”

      http://www.abendblatt.de/kultur-live/article125095156/Weltschmerz-in-sinfonischen-Dimensionen.html

  21. Hamburg Music Lover says:

    I have been attending NDR concerts for more than fifteen years. I did not attend the concert mentioned above. Eschenbach was once the music director here in Hamburg and I have heard many of those concerts. Some concerts were good, but unfortunately far too many were really very bad and left the audience irritated and disappointed many times. I know that most bloggers here don’t like Eschenbach at all, as I have read and noticed that and he is a very divisive musician and conductor nearly everywhere that he has gone. Yes, there may be a good concert here or there, but in general, the level is uneven and there are often too many disappointing, sloppy and unprepared concerts. You should ask the musicians of the NDR and I can assure you that the majority can’t stand Eschenbach, as they learned firsthand just how hard and unsatisfying it can be to make music under his leadership on far too many occasions. So, while I’m happy that you found a good review for one concert, you must be aware that this is not an everyday occurrence.


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