Will conductors ever learn?

Will conductors ever learn?


norman lebrecht

October 04, 2011

I had an interesting head-to-head yesterday on WQXR with Anne Midgette of the Washington Post and Jesse Rosen of the Symphony League as to whether maestros can overcome past conduct and evolve into a more user-friendly species.

The conversation arose out of the Roberto Minczuk and Mark Gorenstein issues raised on this site, but it has far wider implications. My own view is that, unlike dinosaurs, conductors can respond to fast-changing circumstances and develop a more contemporary model.

Hear the conversation here.


  • The situation is being forced upon them and conductors such as Daniel Harding, judging from his BBC interview with Tom Service, appear to have seen a glimmer of what needs to change.

    The financial model which is currently squeezing player remuneration will be hard pressed to subsidise the idiosyncratic leadership of occasional, disconnected visitors (‘traveling circuses’ as I believe they have been termed) particularly when orchestras have become increasingly proficient in managing the interface with their audiences. Not that conductors are an irrelevancy, but It is worth keeping at the back of one’s mind Adorno’s proposition that the function of a conductor appears to be more for the sake of the audience than the orchestra.

  • Hello, I would like to say something to this matter….

    First in defense for Toscanini…..in my humble opinion he was a great musician and interpret.
    He was born in his time where autocratism was the time’s education. On top of it he was a deadly choleric, hot-blooded character looking for perfect interpretation of genius’ masterworks (not considering himself a genius). I think this speaks enough for himself, the great respect he had for the great masters and therefore he deserves all the respect. I’m sure he made human mistakes and commited many injustices to some fellow musicians, but overall I think he did a pretty good job. We still speak about his music making, not only his meanness. At least it is not black and white, there are more parameters.

    Nowadays, most of the conductors are very educated people and I speak with my experience of more than 25 years as orchestra musician. Rather sometimes they suffer from not having enough power to lead certain star artists into a coherent musical interpretation (yes I’m talking about some star singers, surely not most of them, some stage directors and even some star orchestras).

    On the other hand, the “nasty” conductors as I experienced them, needed or used nastyness to cover up their deficiant musician- and/or leadership (that’s a problem of conducting careers promoted strongly and by far too fast without the conductor having the necessary experience and background, that’s by some famous, powerful agencies).

    And then there is the problem of musicians not doing their job in their orchestra. Who has to take care of that, calling them to order or more? Orchestra members by nature will seldom do it, mangement only if there is hard evidence…..so the bad paper goes to????

  • This should prove an interesting experiment; the defanging and declawing of music directors. Perhaps executive directors and board will be expected to take on increased responsibilities for the well-being of orchestras. And, this Dale Carnegie-like approach with conductors may signal a cue for musicians themselves to engage in more fund-raising and PR activities. This may, hopefully, result in equalizing salaries all around.

  • Guilherme Fontão says:

    I am somewhat skeptical about the malleability of conductors, contemporarily, toward a less radical behavior especially in face of musicians under their baton. Unfortunately, the conductors (themselves) have created a surreal aura around them that sets them apart from the real world and that supposedly keep them intangible (as gods of Olympus), thus allowing them to bouts of hubris and arrogance.

  • Luciano says:

    Any body who works in the business knows that most of the comments above are BS.

    The reality is that conductors do not have much power any more, certainly not in the west at any rate. There has been a major shift of power over the last 20-30 years. I have heard more than one artistic administrator/director say that things have swung to far, and that it is actually difficult these days to maintain any kind of artistic direction as everything is decided by committees these days.

    Of course there are still a few dinosaurs roaming the planet, but they are basically toothless.