Lorin Maazel: ‘There are quite a few charlatans in conducting’

A BBC film about conductors, made in the immediate aftermath of The Maestro Myth, has shown up on Youtube. It’s rather better than I remembered it on first screening – and the best of it is watching so many people I have known (self included) as we were in 1992.

Interviewees include Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Georg Solti, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Franz Welser-Most, Mariss Jansons, Klaus Tennstedt, Christoph von Dohnanyi and Leonard Slatkin. Other contributors include Norman Lebrecht, Rodney Friend, Hugh Canning, John Wallace, Gilbert Kaplan and Humphrey Burton.

Lorin, as always, took no prisoners.

The conductor from hell? Players describe a few of them.

The producer was Kriss Rusmanis.

No way would the BBC make such a programme today.

maestr myth russian

share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • 34:20 good point about how the business changed to the worse when the jet set encouraged the agent model, where conductors would not be contractually bound to one orchestra or opera house and only do few things on the side, but instead hop around the world and fill the agent’s coffers with percentages. No quality can develop in this jet set hype the agents want.
    Only where conductors work hard and long with the same musicians, can great results be achieved. Exceptions apply, but those are exceptions only.

    • I’m sorry but that is a ridiculous comment. The majority of agents would prefer their conductors to have their own orchestra with whom they can achieve great things and spend the majority of their time. But of course that is not a realistic situation for many conductors who need to spend time working with many orchestras to develop their craft and raising their profile, which will possible make them more attractive when certain positions become vacant. Think about it.

      • I’m afraid that is not true. Agents make more money by singular guest engagements since they can justify higher overhead costs, than from regular longterm contracts. In an extreme case, a conductor only working with “his” orchestra”, the agent would not even be needed at all.
        It’s an agent’s business and we suffer from it.

        • Actually I’m pretty confident I do know what I’m talking about. But I also know that agents and administrators are sensitive and touchy in this subject.

        • Not true. Most conductors earn higher concert fees with the orchestras where they hold titles than they do guesting with orchestras, and they receive salaries from their titledpositions in addition, so in fact agents earn more from ‘non-guest’ work, and thus are fully supportive of the model which finds conductors ‘restricted’ to spending large amounts of time with one orchestra. And besides, have you ever asked a conductor why he or she has an agent and whether he or she feels they might actually provide a useful service and be justifiable remunerated for doing so?

          • I know for fact different numbers from a multitude of orchestras and agencies. We might both be right, it might depend. I have no problem with accepting the agent’s core role. They are an essential player in the business. I have only a problem, if the agents together with the administrations have too much power over music and artistic considerations. It’s a sensitive balance and music and art always must be the master plan. Naturally if agents have too much influence, they will change the business according to their primary objectives. Not their fault but a systemic failure.

    • The agents have any easy time manipulating the administrators of orchestras and opera houses since more and more of these administrators are people who like music but never made it on a high level. As a rule they pursued other career options and at some point took a music mangagement course and then went on to network with those hiring administrators. Ultimately most are underqualified for the responsibilities they wield. Thank God though for the exceptions to the rule.

      If experienced and insightful musicians were recruited actively to take on such administrative positions the quality of the decision making process would increase dramatically. The other option is for these administrators to listen carefully to the assessments of the insightfully factual 5% of the orchestra. How do you identify the insightfully factual 5% of an orchestra? This is relatively easy as they consistantly display 3 characteristics. 1.) They are the ones who are neither categorical nor disrespectful; 2.) they illustrate their insights with specific examples as well as elaborate in detail on the criterion they use and 3.) they are capable of sincerely “giving the devil his due” by honestly praising some aspects of the conductors they dislike or will not recommend. It is rare to find more than 6 or 7 of these in any orchestra. Due to the sorry state of conductors today the temptation to deliver an entertaining yet unobjective rant at the bar is very high.

      • Playing in an orchestra and managing one are very different activities, requiring considerably different skills, and while there are musicians who have become excellent administrators, one does not necessarily need to have the musical skill to win an audition for a major orchestra in order to run one, or to punch in an agent’s weight class.

        As for the “sorry state of conductors” today, I suspect this is a bit of nostalgia that would not stand up to scrutiny if there were any kind of objective way of measuring such things. It’s very clear the skill of instrumentalists is vastly higher than it was a generation or two ago – as one example 50 years ago the Nielsen Clarinet Concerto was something even top professionals were hard-pressed to play; today a good high-schooler can do it. Runners and swimmers are much faster than 50 years ago. I would have to think that conductors are similarly much more technically skilled than years ago – whether more have a straight connection to God and the insights of composers may be a different matter. Though I suspect that the main fault of a lot of today’s conductors is that they’re not yet 75 years old – or dead.

        • I think your evaluation concerning the quality of orchestra musicians is correct. But it doesn’t stop at the instrumental skills. The general musical competence among orchestra musicians has developped equally. So the average gap in general musical knowledge between conductors and orchestra players has shrunk considerably, sometimes to non-existance or even to a reversed gap. Yet the business is probably more than ever fixed on big names or at least on would-be big names for marketing purposes. This leads to a perpetuation of the 19th century model of the all knowing orchestra educator on the one side and an eternally infantile bunch of players on the other, who wouldn’t have any clue about the music if it were not for the maestro’s guidance. In reality the conductor’s role is primarily to ensure economy of rehearsal time by providing a quick way to a unified rendition, and secundarily (or maybe even vice versa) acting as a figure head for the marketing of the whole operation. Of course it gets more difficult all the time to bridge the widening gap between the unrealistic public image and the professional reality. I find it quite interesting, how differently some conductors deal with this problem.

  • Uncomfortable viewing, but most of what is presented in this documentary is the simple truth. However, I’d challenge anyone to listen to Sinopoli’s recording of Mahler 7 with the Philharmonia and maintain afterwards that he deserves the derogatory comments he received in that film.

    Giulini was never mentioned and I didn’t even see a photo of him (did I miss one?) yet in every parameter, musical and non-musical, he represents the type of conductor whom we need today.

    • I have been big fan of Sinopoli, ever since I heard him conduct Attila at the Vienna State Opera in 1981. I believe he was at his best in the pit; in symphonic music I found his performances uneven.
      While I cannot at all relate to the bashing he got in the UK, a case could be made that his fast track rise to stardom didn’t benefit him artistically. Had he honed his craft out of the limelight for a longer time, the good old German way, he might have risen to even greater musical heights even within his short life.

    • You are quite right to draw attention to the disgraceful way in which nearly all the London critics took against Sinopoli. He was wrong whatever he did, whatever he conducted. One critic argued that because his left hand occasionally mirrored his right hand, he couldn’t possibly conduct. A similar campaign was mounted against “Frankly Worse than Most”. Strange that after he left the LPO, Zurich Opera, the Cleveland Orchestra and later the Vienna Opera thought he was “Frankly Much Better than Some”. I am reminded of Brendan Behan’s comment about critics watching a performance in the theatre whom he likened to eunuchs: they sit there night after night, they know how it’s done but they can’t do it themselves.

  • An amazing film and there is much truth in it. I found it fascinating how much has come true – especially the bust in the CD market.

  • Thank you for posting this link, Norman. I remember watching the programme all those (22) years ago and was riveted by it then, and have been again. I ain’t gonna talk about the issues, plenty of others able to do that fine (judging by the comments above). Nice to be reminded of you in your pre-Goatee days 🙂

  • Many thanks for the link to this enjoyable programme. But I think you are a little ungenerous to the BBC… I thought the 90 minute documentary “Karajan’s Magic & Myth” made by BBC Television and broadcast in December 2014 was as good: same attention to detail and astute use of interviews and clips.

      • Thank you very much for mentioning this documentary. I started watching it and can’t stop. It is immensely entertaining, informative and balanced. Plenty of informed criticism, without any knee jerk Karajan bashing.

  • Well Norman, what about this: create part 2, conductors A.D. 2015.
    Or has the BBC drifted away from any seriousness in culture ?

  • The sequence where Karajan is overlaid against marching nazi thugs looks right out of a Norman Lebrecht script. Dirty work.

    • Does it really? I had nothing to do with scripting or producing the film. The idea must be more prevalent than you imagine.

    • The demonisation of HvK in some quarters – whether justified or not- hasn’t exactly dented his profile much.

  • Another point that was not really made in the film is the fact that so many opera conductors have no idea whatsoever about vocal technique and the needs of singers in performance. They treat the singer as just another instrument in the orchestra, often with no respect whatsoever – in fact with less respect than for the members of the orchestra. Many young, not famous, singers are bullied by conductors who have a need to excise their own insecurities in front of the orchestra and chorus – an easy thing to do to a young, unknown soloist who is totally vulnerable on the stage who dares not answer back, naked as it were before the whole world. Shame on such conductors!
    Peter Sellars’ comment at the end of the film is, for me, perfectly encapsulated in the figure of Barenboim (with his East Western Divan Orchestra)!

  • Sellars says that for Toscanini the “Eroica” was about the fight against tyranny. According to what Toscanini said, it wasn’t about anything: the first movement was just ‘allegro con brio’.

    • I reckon Toscanini was the very embodiment of tyranny for some of the players who worked under him so all the moral highground stuff from Sellars is a bit misplaced.
      One of my favourite quotes in the film though..”it was worth being born to play under Toscanini”

      • It’s rather with conductors as with school teachers: they are hated if they are strict but efficient but despised if they are weak and inefficient.

  • Peter unless you have worked for a variety of artist management companies I can’t see that you do know what you are talking about.

    Fascinating film – I only wish the BBC had the guts to make a follow up.

  • I totally agree, Simon. Title fees have the potential to earn agents a huge amount of commission. It always surprises me how ignorant people are and have no idea what the full role of a manager is. And even more surprising that they obviously think the artists have no minds of their own and are forced to have agents. It’s laughable, it really is!

    • Actually artists ARE forced to have agents. Unless for a very few on the very top who need no promotion whatsoever.

      • Artists are forced to have agents?! What?! You seem to think that it’s all to do with promotion. There is so much more to the role of an agent. You really have no idea. By the way, the likes of Haitink, Gardner, Dohnanyi, Jarvi and Rattle have agents. Enough said on the subject. Let’s agree to disagree.

        • Cill, nobody said promotion is the agent’s only job. But there are top artists who only have assistants and consult lawyers for the occasional contractual issues. But the vast majority has agents. Agents do a lot of things. That’s not the point. The point is who has and who should have the most power.

  • Thanks indeed, Norman, for a timely reminder not only of the grave issues behind this sadly prescient documentary, but also of the quality of the BBC’s arts coverage ‘back in the day’, now so miserably lacking. Highly recommended May Bank Holiday viewing.

  • Thanks for supporting Sinopoli folks! Cos if HE was a “fake” and a “charlatan”, then, surely this fascinating film should have an updated sequel!

  • A conductor and his agent have a working relationship in which both parties are dependent upon each other. If it is a good relationship, they work both for the same goals. Agents may be as dependent upon the artist as the other way around, for the artist may suddenly desert him for someone else.

  • Sinopoli – I played twice with him: a concert version of Das Rheingold, and as concertmaster, the original instrumentation of Siegfried Idyll. Based on those two experiences, the question came to mind: how did this conductor become well-known?

    BTW – this video is very old.

    And I was hoping to hear from more orchestral musicians. Having played in orchestras for more than 50 years, I can say that most good orchestras do most of the work for the conductor. And 95% of conductors’ ‘interpretations’ are run of the mill.

    Unfortunately, this video did not address the various schools of conducting, i.e., interpretive vs representative. Today, the latter holds sway. That’s why audiences are getting basically the same performances over and over again. Cloned performances. And it doesn’t take much for a competent conductor to represent the score as it appears on paper. But I think someone (Mahler) once said that music only begins with the notes – Mahler, one of the great interpretive conductors. And frankly, the only kind that interest me personally. And how often does that happen? Maybe 5% of the time. At least 5% of the time I’m hearing orchestral repertoire that sounds new and fresh.

    I have a friend in the San Francisco Symphony. He once told me that it was his impression that the orchestra preferred a conductor who doesn’t ‘rock the boat’, but one who let’s the orchestra basically do the job for him or her. Well, not to worry. There aren’t many conductors around who ‘rock the boat’ these days.

    Occasionally, it’s nice to play under a conductor who understands the basic mechanics of the orchestra (how an orchestra responds acoustically), who possesses an excellent stick technique, and doesn’t interfere with the orchestra’s job. But boring after 2 minutes. And worse, someone like the former who can’t communicate what the music means on a personal level, but must interpolate ‘effectos especiales’ to make up for it. You guessed it: Maazel. I did a Mahler 2nd with him. Ho-hum for the rehearsals, boring as hell, totally uninspired, and then a hyped-up, super-show performance for the public. A charlatan if there ever was one.

    The video doesn’t also doesn’t mention what happens behind closed doors – who sleeps with whom, etc.

    • The view of Maazel is a very personal and biased one. There is no doubt that he was brilliantly gifted and many of his recordings show this. To call him a charlatan calls into doubt the rest of your posting.

  • To the bitter bugger who dares to call Lorin Maazel a “charlatan”: I have personally witnessed Maazel rehearse the entire Sacre de Printemps on a Monday morning from memory without missing a single bar number or detecting the slightest wrong note in a cluster, an achievement I only had earlier witnessed with FrĂĽhbeck de Burgos (who, on the other hand was a much nicer fellow!) – I have also witnessed Maazel performing similar bravados with Messiaen”s Les Offrandes Oublièe and Penderecki’s 4th, directed from memory from the first day without missing the slightest detail!
    Now: Speaking about who sleeps with who in this market and who fools the music lovers with tons of outrageous mediatically supported bullshit, I demand to see the same standards from today’s mediatic podium-toyboys!!…

    • Possession of a good memory does not necessarily yield insightful musical results. I would count many of the performances by Maazel and Mehta as among the most boring that I have heard, even though they often conducted much of their repertory from memory. Incidentally, I also saw Maazel give obvious miscues a number of times, and in one of those instances, it sent the orchestra in two different directions for a number of bars.

  • I was told by one conductor that “being asked to conduct in Japan is the equivalent of robbing a bank, so who am I to say no?”

  • Quite Alexander. Sinopoli’s vilification in the British Press was completely unwarranted. Probably fueled by a few peeved off, cynical players in The Philharmonia. Yes- some of his interpretations- could be alarmingly weird- but he was a brilliant man. A true Italian Renaissance man in the best sense of the word. He was a psychiatrist, archaeologist and fine composer. His opera, Lou Salome, is an exquisite, post expressionistic masterpiece- which deserves more of an airing. He should be remembered with greater affection.

  • As a personal friend of the producer/director of this documentary, of many years ago, (we lost touch sadly-too often an occurrence), but I tried to follow Kriss’s music career from afar, when I realised he had quit his classical music career, I was (and remain shocked) and puzzled as to what could possibly have prompted such a dramatic re-direction of his flowering career in music. I believe, having been introduced to this excellent work of his, with the older BBC, I have perhaps got closer to the truth of the cause, than any other reasons I had imagined over the last 30 or so years. I find I am no less shocked by this programmes revelations, than I was so long ago, when Kriss quit his (excellent) conducting career – POLITICS!!
    Although our chosen fields of career were different, sadly I recognise too readily, that basic manipulation (engendering disillusion) of a “sector” clearly knows no bounds!
    Having recently retired myself, I am seeking to make direct contact with Kriss once more, I am in even more in earnest now, than I had been, for I am now (at last) quite sure we have a great deal to discuss, and surprisingly similar experiences in spite of our very different journeys so far.
    From my own medical experience and the legal fraternity, then latterly the Third Sector, I can say with conviction that we clearly have both, separately encountered similar, serious causes, explaining (at least in part) why certain ‘true’ professionals “give up”. I fully appreciate that Kriss has forged a successful career within the media, and I suspect now, that it may well be the case, that he resorted to the only ‘tool’ available to him, in perhaps, an attempt to describe and thereby reveal the shocking truths, which I firmly believe, when we catch up again, we will discover persist across probably all subjects and sectors. Were it to prove I am right, it simply leaves me excruciatingly sad, that his, like so many other sincere, valiant and accomplished (often) individual professionals find themselves with no other recourse for sanities sake, than to leave their first love, and opt for redress (maybe) via their second, I am so sorry Kriss, that I did not maintain contact with you, but thank you for ‘fighting on’, till we meet again.
    Dr J M Andrews, Psych. LLB, MBA, BA, Dip AD (retired).

  • >