Do conductors come in batches?

Do conductors come in batches?


norman lebrecht

April 11, 2017

The question is raised by two new studies of the nebulous profession, both in German.

Finlands Dirigenten, by the Helsinki critic Vesa Siren, is a compendious attempt to explain why so many recent baton stars come from a country of five million people who speak a language related to no other.

Siren suggests some of it is to do with the Sibelius heritage and some with quirky teaching at the Sibelius Academy, which Jorma Panula turned into a production line for fresh batons.

These considerations aside, Siren comprehensively dismisses the idea that all Finns come in on size, underlining the temperamental ocean that divides the extravagant Leif Segertam (pictured) from the exceedingly self-contained Paavo Berglund. Finns are nothing if not individualists. Siren’s book is an essential bedside dipper for the limitless eccentricities of Suomi men with sticks.

Dirigenten by Peter Gülke is a different kettle of egos. A former music director in Wuppertal, Gülke delivers potted profiles of conductors whom he considers important, from Hans von Bülow to Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Even more notable are his omissions – which is any conductor (except Toscanini and Markevitch) who is not German.

So: no Nikisch, Mengelberg, Monteux, Mravinsky, Koussevitsky, Kubelik, Abbado, Muti, Mitropoulos, Talich, Solti, Haitink…. it is staggering to imagine that so myopic and insular a history could be published today in Germany.




  • Petros Linardos says:

    Maybe Gülke’s book is simply mistitled. What if it were called Deutsche und Österreichische Dirigenten?

  • Mercurius Londiniensis says:

    “A language related to no other”. Really? The traditional classification of the Finno Ugric family has come under pressure, but Finnish is a close relative of Estonian and Karelian.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I thought that Finish was directly related to Hungarian, both people stemming from the same Ur-tribe. But the relationship may be not more that that between English and German.

      • MWnyc says:

        As I understand it, the relationship between Finnish and Hungarian is more analogous to the one between English and, say, Persian than to the one between English and German.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Estonian, I grant you.

  • Anders Lindgren says:

    One important factor contributing to the success of Finnish conductors is that in Finland you are not supposed to talk unless you really have something important to say. Orchestra musicians hate being lectured so a conductor of few words is always appreciated.

  • John Borstlap says:

    My suspicion about the generous nr of Finnish conductors is the local geography. Because of the many lakes, there is a true plague of musquitos in the country, which forces Finns to chase them away with wide arm gestures. So, Finnish conductors have an evolutionary advantage over non-Finnish conductors.

  • Alex Prior says:

    Finnish is related to no other language? Finnish is related to Karelian, Vepsian, Izhor, various varieties of Sami, Komi, Estonian, Udmurtian, Võro, Hungarian, Mari, Khanty, Mansi and probably some others that I’ve forgotten. Language isolates do seem to exist but Finnish is by no means one of them.

  • Anders Lindgren says:

    OK. Two old jokes, the first one (again) from EP: what’s the difference between an introvert Finn and an extrovert ? The extrovert Finn looks at YOUR shoes !
    Then, my old Hungarian friend says: Yes, when the Finno-Hungarian tribe advanced northwards, they came upon these roadsigns; Finland north, Hungary east. The ones who could read went east. 😉

    • George King says:

      Haha! Yes, I’ve heard that first joke too — in Finland. Many Finns have a wonderfully self-deprecatory sense of humour.

  • Alexander Platt says:

    This is ridiculous. The answer is quite simple: a great music-education system for such a small country. Finnish conductors, without naming names, are great, good, bad and indifferent. As Cyril Cusack’s character said in Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451”: “Short skirts one year, long skirts the next”.

  • Sue says:

    I thought it was “Leif Segerstam”.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    I realise this post is to be taken with a touch of humour. But the point is that there’s no reason why Finland should have so many successful conductors for such a small population. Other than that the Helsinki conservatoire has had an outstanding pedagogue in Panula the last 40 years, prepared to nuture young talent.

    There are good conductors in every country but little opportunities for them to get podium experience. This is particularly true in the UK where the situation is pathetic.

  • Peter says:

    The most obvious reason was left out.
    A very complex language, learning of which in early childhood trains the brain for most nuanced listening as a requirement for phonic imitation.
    There are similar relations between the language and the brain when it comes to Asian, e.g. Chinese, languages and alphabet, and mathematical skills that seem to correlate with it.

    • Juha I says:

      That is a good theory, and as a Finnish speaker I would very much hope that it would be true. Unfortunately it’s not: Finnish pronunciation is practically phonetic, and grammar is quite straightforward without things like genders, articles, prepositions, irregular verbs, exceptions and other oddities, that Indo-European languages have. Very easy to learn as first language, but hard if you have to unlearn what you have learned before: Finnish is based on different way of thinking.

  • Mark Motycka says:

    Do conductors come in batches?
    Not if spaced properly and buried deep enough.