Slipped Disc editorial: Have maestros gone … a little … mad?

Five music directors have walked off the job in as many weeks, three of them in Italy*.

Ah, Italy, you say.

True. A special case.

But the cause in four of the five cases is the same: a clash of general director and music director in which there could only be one winner.

What’s unusual is that when human relations become intolerable maestros usually give two or three years notice of resignation. Now, for the first time, if they don’t like the temperature, they walk off the job.

Good for music? Perhaps.

noseda

 

Conductors the world over feel isolated and sometimes besieged within their institutions. Agents, who are supposed to keep them informed and look after their interests, are under pressure to produce new talent and offer insufficient backup to keep their existing maestros purring and well informed. General directors are busy, harassed, under constant threat of cuts. Musicians are fearful for their jobs. The media are indifferent, unaware of the importance of the role.

The title of music director has become thankless and unappreciated. When push comes to shove, the instinct is now to jump.

We are witnessing a redefinition of powers between conductors and the establishments they serve.

Riccardo Chailly will enter La Scala next month conditionally – as principal conductor for a year to see if he can achieve the results he wants before he decides whether to upgrade to music director.

There is no rush to apply for such important vacancies as the Concertgebouw and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Expect two, perhaps three more resignations in Italy over the coming, cutting months.

Some orchestras are settling for workaday and second-best, a reliable conductor who won’t walk out.

The music director’s job has lost its glory. Conductors are going back to the drawing board.

 

 

*Noseda (Turin), Muti (Rome), Luisotti (Naples).

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  • Yes, Norman, “underappreciated”, when they are getting paid 100 x more than the orchestral musicians, how “thankless” it must be…

  • Not sure I wholly agre with this observation, though there is some truth in it –

    “Conductors the world over feel isolated and sometimes besieged within their institutions. Agents, who are supposed to keep them informed and look after their interests, are under pressure to produce new talent and offer insufficient backup to keep their existing maestros purring and well informed. General directors are busy, harassed, under constant threat of cuts. Musicians are fearful for their jobs. The media are indifferent, unaware of the importance of the role. The title of music director has become thankless and unappreciated.”

    I have a feeling that the general trend, mostly for commercial reasons, has been for conductors to increasingly isolate themselves. There has been a not very subtle redefining of their role in the last 30 years, mainly through demand for their services. What exactly IS the role of a music director or GMD nowadays?

    It is now common for a music director to be committed to only a few weeks a year in terms of their actual podium work, mostly through the tolerance of the public/orchestra/opera house having a “name” fronting the organisation. There was a time when the commitment both artistically and administratively of a conductor to one principal post was much greater than seen today, where a music director would play a much greater day to day role in their job.

    It is well known that some conductors nowadays become the titular head of an orchestra and then, because of all the other commitments they accept, spend most of their contract with their company or orchestra (apart from the few weeks they are actually in town) trying to fulfil their duties via telephone or by email when maybe it would be better if they were more present in a personal capacity to the company/orchestra they are supposed to be running. Does a commitment to 15 performances a season, or perhaps 11 weeks of music making a season, really justify the title of GMD or Music Director anymore?

    Is it right that a conductor can take simultaneously three directorships and honestly run three different orchestras/institutions at one time, especially if they commit themselves to a massive amount of free lance engagements at the same time? Is it right that a conductor should not be available for rehearsals of a new production of an opera he is down to conduct in his own house, and that he only appears for the last couple of weeks because he is too busy conducting various programmes/shows elsewhere?

    There was a time when being the Music Director or GMD of an orchestra or opera company demanded a much greater physical commitment, to be much more present both in the eyes of the organisation and the public. There was a time when conductors would spend as much as half their working year actually in the city where their directorship was located. He would ostensibly be resident there while he retained that post, enabling them to help run and mould their company, and giving them the opportunity to establish meaningful working relationships with their orchestra or/and singers, and their management team (especially their Intendant, in the case of an opera house).

    I can sympathise with many conductors who feel that their opinions or wishes for excellence are not valued by their colleagues or (as in an opera house sometimes) their boss. But to be honest, I also think some of them dig their own graves and can be difficult to take seriously when, as is sometimes the case, they follow a road of as many performances as are physically possible with as many different orchestras or institutions as possible, sometimes sacrificing true musical excellence for the greater glory of greater public exposure and musical dominance.

    Just a thought! 🙂

    In the modern world, with the pressures on conductors, and often their own will, to be as peripatetic as possible, the title

    • I meant to say, – In the modern world, with the pressures on conductors, and often their own will, to be as peripatetic as possible, the title has become almost a misnomer.
      My typo errors seem to be getting worse 🙂

      • “But to be honest, I also think some of them dig their own graves and can be difficult to take seriously when, as is sometimes the case, they follow a road of as many performances as are physically possible with as many different orchestras or institutions as possible, sometimes sacrificing true musical excellence for the greater glory of greater public exposure and musical dominance.”

        Isn’t it also the money they earn? When you find that you can earn really big fees per performance (be it well deserved), the temptation is to get more & more. Plus, in these times, the anxiety that in the future there may be less money around, may stimulate greed.

  • A “thankless task” that’s – not atypically – paid 10-20 times more per year than rank and file musicians who don’t have the option of simply upping-sticks and flouncing off to an even better-paid guest position every time their precious ego receives a light bruise.

    One’s heart bleeds for the world’s maestros. Mahlers, Toscaninis and Furtwanglers were made of sterner stuff (and cost a great deal less to maintain).

  • Agents are the curse of the modern arts world. Soloist and conductor fees have been driven so high that it’s increasingly impossible to afford, it’s no wonder that orchestras are looking for newer, cheaper models.
    Player wages and positions are being frozen in order to pay the fees quoted by agencies.
    I think there’s a lot of mileage in setting a ratio of tutti player to conductor and soloist fees that shouldn’t be breached. Joint action of this kind may be old fashioned, but it would help draw attention to this huge problem.

  • Whatever you think about fees, the fact remains that without orchestra members, conductors and soloists, music would not be made. At least not in the prevailing and accepted current way. The people ‘in the wrong’ here are administrators, who get too big for their boots.
    In my opinion, if a CEO or equivalent loses their music director, or causes their orchestra to strike, be locked out etc. they should be contractually obliged to tender their resignation, which their board can then decide whether or not to accept. Because what matters, especially in these financially straightened times, is to make music. And it seems to me that some administrators are forgetting that.
    On a different tack, concerning this website’s perceived lack of ‘rush’ to ‘apply’ for the Concertgebouw and Berlin PO vacancies. You don’t apply, you don’t rush. It’s all rather more subtle than that.

  • What has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, I suggest, is largely the ease of air travel – and to a lesser extent the break up of the old mega artists agencies. Few conductors before then could be as peripatetic as today’s orchestral leaders, even if that is what they might have desired. Flitting between one orchestra in North America and one in Europe hardly made much financial sense when 10 or more days were required for two-way travel that now takes less than one. A Jaap Van Zweden with orchestras in Dallas, Hong Kong and a couple of Emeritus positions in the Netherlands would have been impossible.

    But back then the financial aspect of conducting was also less of an issue. Not that it was never important in the days of Sol Hurok or Ibbs & Tillett, but the rise of smaller boutique agencies in the 1970s with fewer clients on their lists brought with it greater emphasis and time spent by agents on developing individual careers. Higher commissions (hence higher fees) were clearly sought to offset those costs.

    If there is a redefinition of roles now underway as NL suggests, could it not be more than just conflicts between all those involved in the business of running orchestra? Is it not equally the times we live in? Everything now moves faster. Greater emphasis is put on novelty. Finances are less secure. Priorities are changing. Are not conductors and orchestras merely a reflection of these changing times?

    • This seems to be a really valuable contribution to the subject. Indeed the musical world cannot but reflect changes going-on outside it. As against advantages (faster traveling & communication etc., information surplus) there are also disadvantages: less local character of orchestras (beginning to sound more and more like each other), more superficial and streamlined programming (easy and cheap), more attention to the package than to the content (Rang Rang & co), less time for deeper exploration of music, be it old or new repertoire. Nowadays much more flexibility is asked from performers and agents, which is maybe not a bad thing.

      One hopes that there will remain time and energy and especially, attention, for the core business: great performance of great music. Given the talent around, that seems more or less assured… against the odds of an increasingly superficial and decadent Western culture where classical music as a genre is increasingly being seen as ‘no longer compatible with the modern world’, which is total XXXCENSOREDXXX.

      It also seems that conductors have to work much more closely with their agents and, in orchestras, with their team members to ‘shape’ their careers, while in the past conductors could calmly stay at their home orchestra for decades and work and build on and from that basis. This means that nowadays, from agents, and orchestral programmers and team members, much more understanding and insight in the art form is required, to be able to relate to a conductor’s artistic functioning on a comparable level. The stakes get much higher for everybody concerned. In my experience, there still is quite much to be wished for at orchestras – in Europe, at least: often staff is so busy with running the place in practical terms that there simply is no time to sit down and THINK about their core business. If there were more money for orchestras, enough to create time and more professionalism on this deeper level, conductors would also feel better treated and better understood. Classical music is not an art form that lends itself easily to the superficial and cheap character of ‘the modern world’. This world has to adapt to the art form, not the other way around, if it still wants to have classical music at all.

  • In article on the upcoming 25th season of Carl St.Clair’s music director job with the Pacific Symphony, Timothy Mangan in the Orange County (CA) Register writes: “He [St.Clair] feels his living here has made a difference, for him and the orchestra. “This is one thing that the board mandated early on – that I be resident here – and I think in hindsight that was really important. And it was important for me, because I met my wife here. I love living here; my children were born here, my children go to school here, I’m going to be buried here. This is my home now. So that just gives a whole different kind of gravitas to everything that I do for the community. I think that might be one bit of advice that I would give to a young conductor.”

    Amen to that!

  • Some conductors are like gods: omnipresent. This ruins everything. Because they are human. If a conductor accepts a music director position, he or she must be required to be in town for a minimum of 6 months per year. If a conductor wants to eat off twobplates at the same time, flying around and occasionally flying in, then the Flying Dutchman needs to be quoted: die First ist um!

    • Edgar, it’s not going to happen more regularly (the 6 months stay). Who is to blame? Probably everyone in the business a bit, including the superficial name-demanding audiences. But the biggest problem are the artist’s agents. They profit “per sale”. So any musician who is contracted for long, gains a smaller percentage of his cake for them. The result is the current jet set business, where everybody flies around making mediocre music in short term commitments. Exceptions apply.
      It’s a bit like in professional sports with all their frequent (and often unnecessary) transfers of players between different teams. There are agents, who drive this, because they profit by each transfer.

    • An indirect jab at van Zweden perhaps??

      I once managed an orchestra which occasionally had guest conductors who had flown more than 12 hours prior to arriving for rehearsals. On two separate occasions (some years apart) the conductor was not in the concert hall 15 minutes prior to the concerts. When contacted at the adjacent hotel, both had overslept – a direct result of jet-lag. One is now one of the world’s major conductors sometimes mentioned in this blog. Today how many step up to the podium not fully adjusted to major time zone changes?

  • Conductors may not be adjusted to time zones but given the lowest C they are
    adjusted quite well to $$$$$ they get.
    They have at last realized the audience
    is so dumbed down that they can get away with just making an appearance
    and beat time so that at least the orchestra finishes together ,forget any
    musical insights ,and if the dumbing
    down is doubted wasn’t it a little while back a so called conductor
    of a so called major orchestra presented his dumbed down audience
    with the Beethoven 9th .(what else !)
    accompanied by “fireworks”- I believe
    it was in California,which I suppose explains a lot .Oh! for the honesty of
    a Lang Lang who doesn’t give a rats
    behind about the field and is having a great time compared to the high priest conductors feigning devotion to the art
    while figuring how to get yet another orchestra under their belt for that
    extra $. It is said the classical music field is
    slowly dying , perhaps for the best.

    • That is a bit of an uncalled-for rant. Without conductors, orchestras simply cannot exist (and the other way around). And without orchestras, quite much great music won’t be played any longer.

      “They have at last realized the audience is so dumbed down that they can get away with just making an appearance and beat time so that at least the orchestra finishes together”

      Sometimes it happens that the winds & conductor have already finished but the strings are still playing, as happened one time in Malmö and two times in Valencia, when the conductor had left the paltform and the violas were finishing their last pages in haste. This was sharply criticized in the local review, but later inspection revealed the piece in question was written that way, being a new work. Various instances of this type of incidents have led to the tradition of the OOMP (Obligatory Opening Modern Piece) so that audiences know it’s not the conductor messing-up.

  • Sorry, I am still laughing at the notion that “The title of music director has become thankless and unappreciated.” I’m sorry that many of them are no longer able to decree by fiat what their organizations’ priorities should be, regardless of financial or other considerations. Nonetheless, they still get heaps of press coverage, adoring fans, salaries that are almost invariably at the very top of the scale, and pretty much 100% of the audience’s attention. My heart just aches for them.

    • …. Any time a conductor – be it a top, famous one or less know one – climbs the rostrum, he may mess-up the piece he’s going to conduct, every time again and again and again. He has to conquer reality all the time and there is no certainty that next time will be good, or better, or as good as this one. His career can be over at any moment. He can provoke a Hetze (as recently with Eschenbach) or humiliate himself publicly. And all this just apart from the work on scores and the development of a musically brilliant craft and personality. His salaries are therefore symbolical.

        • The French call this: ‘Esprit d’escalier’. It relates to the earlier comment in the sense that it says: the salaries + attention / fame + postconcert flowers + 5*hotel + occasional limo is well-deserved and shows that our Western civilization still has respect for its cultural top achievements.

      • And in which way, aside from the payscale, is this different from the work of a musician, be it a soloist or an orchestra player?

        • Both the conductor and the soloist are fully responsible for the end result. The orchestral player is part of the means by which that result is to be achieved – of course a very essential element, but he/she is not fully responsible for the end result.

          If a conductor is messing-up a concert just one time, he won’t be invited back, but the players go unscathed. If an orchestral player is messing-up his part, not once in a time but regularly, I don’t think he will be fired, and if the management wants him to leave that will be quite an effort and a lot of unpleasant trouble.

          In other words: conductors and soloists are not ‘protected’ in their functioning. They are even less protected than composers, who can sit still at their desk and infinitely reflect upon a note.

          • Well, in my experience a good performance will be most likely attributed to the conductor’s brilliance, while a poor one is the orchestra’s fault as a matter of course.

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