Gidon Kremer: ‘Some conductors, even truly gifted ones, turn up shamelessly underprepared’

Gidon Kremer: ‘Some conductors, even truly gifted ones, turn up shamelessly underprepared’


norman lebrecht

November 27, 2015

Gidon Kremer:

Nowadays (although I wonder if it really was different in the past), some conductors – even some truly gifted ones – have no compunction about turning up at the first rehearsal shamelessly underprepared. It is as if the ability to “manage” rehearsals efficiently and quickly, not to mention the following concerts, takes precedence over matters of artistry.

I recently witnessed an artist (who is best left unnamed) literally sight-reading Alban Berg’s mysterious violin concerto – with absolute ease … but zero meaning. Cases like that reinforce the necessity of establishing a “pact” for a harmonious reading of any great score.

Read the great violinist’s thoughts on the soloist-conductor relationship here.


Ôîòî Íèêîëàÿ Òèì÷åíêî 18.11.14 Ôèëàðìîíèÿ. Ãèäîí Êðåìåð. Êèåâñêèé êàìåðíûé îðêåñòð. Äèðèæåð Ðîìàí Êîôìàí


  • Halldor says:

    He’s telling it like it is. Can think of more than one maestro of sky-high reputation (and 5-figure fee) who’s shambled embarrassedly into the orchestra library 30 minutes before the first rehearsal to ask if we have a score. Or in one (pre-Spotify) case, asked us to obtain a recording of the work he’s about to conduct, a couple of days in advance.

    • ruben greenberg says:

      Does this also have something to do with the fact that some conductors don’t like accompanying soloists and thus do a “half-assed” job of it? I can think of some top conductors who aren’t particularly good accompanists.

  • Holger H. says:

    I my experience the trend is due to the business becoming more and more “customer oriented” rather than about music. “Those” conductor-enactors (some quite gifted) usually prepare rigorously for “their” catwalk after the intermission, and do not invest much effort in the soloist’s catwalk before the intermission.

  • John Borstlap says:

    It’s a result from the ‘over cooked’ preformance world: scramble-in as many as possible concerts in the orchestra’s diary, and thus also in conductors’ diaries, not wanting to loose to the competition, plus tours which are extremely complex to organize and to fund… etc. etc. In an ideal world. orchestras remain put in their city, with their own chef, both parties having ample time to prepare the music and to reflect upon forthcoming performances, in short: a very calm and balanced way of life, as has become almost impossible to achieve for anybody nowadays. (I wanted to say a bit more bit the phone is ringing & there are 13 messages again.)

    • Holger H. says:

      One key word is missing: agencies…
      They profit from the jet set circus the most.
      Several different contracts for each concert. Each of them with a percentage for the agent.
      Much better profit for them, than conductors making life time contracts with orchestras, agents getting much less…

      • John Borstlap says:

        This is nonsense. Music agencies have to invest lots of time and work to get any contract off the ground, and receive their commissions at least a year after the efforts. Usually a commisson for an agency is not more than 15%. So, agencies are under a lot of pressure to make ends meet and are not money machines. They are just part of the culture, nothing more, nothing less. Big agencies often run into financial trouble because of overheads, and small agencies get better results because of being low-cost and small-scale, but in the end agencies who understand something of music, the music world, and how musicians have to function, have an important role. Think of the complexities of the tax side of conductors’ engagements, the negotiations, the paper work, etc. etc. all things musicians do not want to be burdened with and rightly so. It is very easy to blame agencies for all kinds of problems in the central performance culture, but given the bureaucratic complexities of the modern world, they are necessary. In short: don’t generalize.

        • Holger H. says:

          Keep cool. Nothing of what you say negates what I said. Agencies must place their clients with as many different “gigs” as often as possible, to maximize revenue. It’s music business for dummies, lesson one.

          Where it gets interesting is, when agencies have a choice to place e.g. a conductor with a ten year contract with many weeks committed to “his” orchestra, or keep him in the “jet set”.
          Their commission shrinks or even disappears.

          We have today so called “chief conductor” contracts, negotiated by agents, that mean a commitment of 8 or even as low as 6 weeks with one orchestra per season. It’s a travesty.

          • John Borstlap says:

            That’s an exaggeration. There are many counter examples.

            And then: “Agencies must place their clients with as many different “gigs” as often as possible, to maximize revenue.” That is not how it is done. All engagements are discussed with the musician, be it a conductor, soloist or ensemble. Good agencies know very well the dangers of overstretching, and if not they, the artists know. A music agency’s work is working together with the artist, and the ‘client’ is at the other side.

            Years ago, I worked myself in music management and so I know something of the trade. It is, generally, quite different from what people outside the business think.

          • Holger H. says:

            I don’t think we are very far apart actually, yet we must recognize IMO that the business sets the wrong incentives for the agents and by the agents. They are of course not the only culprit to the problem, and they come in many shades. But they do support the superficial jet set model more than any other force in the biz.

  • John Edward Niles says:

    I find Kremer’s comments very accurate and alas all too common. I, too, remember being an assistant to a very well known conductor (Major Symphony Orchestra) who was hired to conduct a GERMAN opera–in the GERMAN (!!) language, with SPOKEN DIALOGUE–and he did NOT speak one word of German. I did, as well as the tenor–an American who lived and worked in Germany–so we had to sort of “guide” the Maestro through the ” mysteries” of the Heilige Deutsch Sprache. Or a STAGE DIRECTOR who did not speak or have a working knowledge of the foreign language of the Opera he was directing. AAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!!!!

    • Miles Clery-Fox says:

      If we opened a thread encouraging contributions from everyone who has experienced what you describe here, it would soon be the longest in the history of SD.

  • Gianmaria says:

    It’s a disease! When I was studying at Bard with Harold Farberman, nobody would dare get unprepared on the podium. That was more than 10 years ago. I went back a few times during the years as a guest teacher for his summer program: the situation has not changed. Some students will try and get creamed. The only problem is that “professionals” do not get creamed by orchestras, who constantly save the performance by making up with their own expertise the dullness and unprofessionalism of certain conductors.

    • Daniel F. says:

      Interesting to hear. This is “off-topic” but 55 years ago I was Harold’s only percussion student, and the standard he set and expected was similarly very high, and he could make me feel very, very small when it was not met.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Makes me think of the joke told about the VPO: on entering the first rehearsel of a guest conductor one string player asks his collegue: ‘What is he going to do today?’ upon which the answer: ‘I don’t know, but WE are going to do Brahms Two’.

    • Lisa Bressler says:

      Amen Gianmaria!

  • Alla Aranovskaya says:

    Let me guess who is this conductor? Mr. G?

  • ilio says:

    Last minute prep for conductors is not a new thing. There were reports that Kertesz would learn the early Dvorak Symphonies on a plane to London just before recording them.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Somewhere in the eighties a young french conductor (Jean Paul Penin) was flown into Amsterdam to take over a hughe programme with unknown modern music (including a chorus) the day before the concert in the Concertgebouw. He stayed up all night and learned the scores overnight at a little upright piano in the hotel. He did a marvellous job…. So, some conductors can be extremely quick to understand and reproduce orchestral scores.

      Thinking of the very many people running music life without any understanding of music whatsoever, such capacities should at least be respected.

  • James of Thames says:

    This is not news to any orchestral musician. The majority of conductors can wave their way through most music, offering no real insights into it. Few (and I mean less than the number of fingers on one hand) know how to solve basic problems of tuning, balance, and ensemble. The musicians invariably rescue the performance through their experience and teamwork.

  • Manu says:

    Oh, yeah Kremer is always himself so well prepared…

  • Holger H. says:

    Contributing to the problem is the availability of recordings. Not many conductors still can internalize a score merely by reading, internally hearing, singing and playing it.

    Today’s generation of conductor-enactors can listen to a recording and come up with a “quick start choreography” that will enable them to fake it in the first rehearsal, and develop it from there.

    There are ways to separate the chaff from the wheat, but when the baton waver is standing in front of the orchestra it is already too late and the system has already failed, from there it is all about saving face (somebody is responsible for hiring that guy) and preventing public embarrassment.