Conductors are just waiters, says Esa-Pekka Salonen

Conductors are just waiters, says Esa-Pekka Salonen


norman lebrecht

November 30, 2013

… and women can do it just as well as men.

Read the Finn’s 10 top tips for being a 21st century maestro. Right here.



  • Refreshingly sane and realistic.

  • Martin says:

    Point 9 is a good one too, actually all of them are.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Thought provoking. I am surprised he doesn’t mention anything like “know your score”.

    • Nandor Szederkenyi says:

      very good point…

    • George C Ramirez says:

      I think ‘knowing the score’ falls under ‘Love the music’.

      • “Knowing the score” is a criterion expressed in professional terms, and is of irrefutable importance. But I don’t think it follows as obviously from “loving the music” as you suggest. Most people who read that list would not guess that knowing the score were really imminent among requirements.

        “Loving the music” is not only not professional, it is of debatable relevance, since there are more reasons to do music than merely loving a particular piece, and in any case all talk about “loving” music feeds into hoary predigested propaganda campaigns and lowbrow commercialism.

        The players and singers have varying degrees of affection for the repertoire they are assigned, yet those assigning it apparently “love” it. That range of motivations can exist for the conductor. There is nothing wrong with doing a piece for reasons of less than fully passionate commitment. There are too many reasons to do music to list them. Some reasons are “interactive,” having to do with helping people understand one style by understanding a related but different style. I think we need to hear more Myslivicek to better know Mozart; hearing Roberto Gerhard would help understand composers as different as Schoenberg and Varese. Instead almost all programming is of the same warhorses we are told the public wants, but just how the public communicates that is still unrevealed. Meaning, decisions are being made for the public.

  • PK Miller says:

    He makes a LOT of sense. Like anything else you have to have a passion for it. I’ve done my share of conducting inc. from the organ console. I don’t really enjoy it. I certainly do NOT enjoy orchestral conducting. And sometimes, even if you enjoy something you just have no aptitude for it a la my 9th grade utter debacle w/the oboe! Then too, Josh Bell, Yo-Yo Ma et al are not singers! Jonas Kaufmann, Debra Voight et al are not conductors!

  • This is of course mostly stupid stuff. Staying in shape makes sense. The rest is underwhelming. The advice to “love the music” is just marketing.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Fine words but the maestro doesn’t always seem to be following his own advice.

    (1) “ really have to love the music.” Fair enough if your speciality is 20th century music, which he does tolerably well, but why does he venture into the 19th century and earlier when he is so much out of sympathy with the Austro-German tradition?”. His Beethoven cycle with the Philharmonia was as big a let-down as Gergiev’s Brahms with the LSO. “Schuster, bleib beim Leisten!”

    (3) “It doesn’t matter so much what you play.” Actually, it does. Most of the great conductors of the past were string players and that is where you have to expend most energy and critical attention as a conductor. Hear the Philharmonia under somebody like Temirkanov and compare that to the anaemic string sound Salonen seems to prefer.

    (5) “…and enable them to achieve the desired artistic result”. I don’t think that addressing the orchestra in a Bartok rehearsal with “That was disgusting. Now start again.” is necessarily the right way to get the best from your players.

    (8) “…little excursions outside your comfort zone” But if you are not made for certain areas of the repertoire you should stay within that zone.

    Incidentally, Salonen once memorably said in an interview shortly before leaving the LAPO that he needed to sit in his car after a concert and listen to Heavy Metal in order to switch off. There is not much to be said for a conductor who conducts a programme of classical music and feels ensuite the need to put the entire experience completely out of his mind.

    • Papageno says:

      Along with having subscribed to the LA Phil, I know some of the musicians (both former and current). They read this recent article from Salonen — and all said that he does not practice what he preaches.

    • Hongkonger says:

      Alexander Hall – you really have grudge against Esa-Pekka don’t you? Give it a break – it’s getting boring.

      • Alexander Hall says:

        And you appear to be one of his self-appointed acolytes. Why don’t you stop your personalised venom and contribute to this discussion with facts.

  • It’s true that many of these points are just normal things that most conductors would/should say, but some things stand out:

    4 & 5: Humility (or at the very least an attempt at it). There may be a reason he’s so often touted as the “anti-maestro”, and comparing yourself to a waiter is not something one with a big ego does. Plus, connecting with people on a personal and emotional level makes sense, especially if you’re trying to get them to do what you want.

    9: He is quite good at being available for more intimate talks/events and being accessible personally through Twitter. The points he makes about this institution seeming out of touch (something written 200 years ago, clothes from the 1880s, man or woman making ritual movements) to outsiders are totally correct. Why should we expect them to come to us? It is, indeed, arrogant and stupid to expect this.

    10: What was most remarkable was that “Be a boy or a girl” is not actually a tip; Salonen clearly goes out of his way to take the opportunity to comment on the gender gap in conducting. Amidst bigoted remarks from Petrenko, Mantovani, et al., it’s quite refreshing to hear a prominent male conductor express the other point of view, and not for any sort of personal gain. Bravo.

  • m2n2k says:

    3. According to Maestro’s own words, he never played his instrument (French Horn) very well, so it is somewhat surprising that he included this one among his ten commandments.

    4. A curious sentiment, considering that EPS believes himself to be a chef first and foremost who does some waitering as a useful hobby – useful because it pays the bills (Does it ever!) and allows him to bring his own dishes to the table quite regularly – while most of the rest of the interested world sees him as a very good waiter who does some not-so-great cooking in his spare time.

    10. He clearly discriminates against hermaphrodites here! That is unfortunate and unacceptable – get w.o. on the case, immediately: we need to see precise percentages of under-representation.

  • Robert Kenchington says:

    What simplistic drivel is this? It make’s Jack and Jill seem like Bernstein’s Harvard Lectures by comparison.

  • Halldor says:

    The lip-curling disdain with which some of the commenters here dismiss the idea of loving the music really does speak volumes. What a strange, desiccated relationship some people seemingly have with music.