How music directors lost their powers

How music directors lost their powers


norman lebrecht

September 24, 2017

In this week’s Spectator, I write about the progressive emasculation of the music director.


‘I would never let a music director tell me which soloists to hire,’ a US orchestra president assures me. ‘Nor would I accept his preferred guest conductors.’ Patronage used to be a maestro’s perk, giving old codgers access to young talent that some would shamefully abuse. Loss of patronage has all but disabled the role. Except for Muti in Chicago and Barenboim at the Berlin State Opera it is hard to name a musical institution today where the dominant voice belongs to the music director…

So what, exactly, can Rattle hope to achieve at the LSO? He has told friends he would like to see some changes in personnel, but hiring and firing are entirely in the players’ hands. All the music director can do is nudge and wink to his supporters and hope for a desired outcome. Rattle opened the season with a programme of all English composers, most of them living, but he won’t be allowed to push programming any further than the box office will bear — and it won’t bear more than one such eye-catcher per season….

Read on here.




  • herrera says:

    “progressive ’emasculation’ of the music director”

    That’s a very unfortunate phrase to use:

    1) mainly because it could have sexist connotations today with the rise of women conductors,
    2) but also because it implies that, somehow, the old “patronage” system where “young talent that some would shamefully abuse” was more “manly” than today’s non-abusive relationships.

    (Finally, I don’t even dare ask what “shamefully abuse” means: who exactly were the “old codgers” doing the shameful abuse, and the “young talents” thus shamefully abused, and the shameful nature of such abuse?)

    • AS says:

      To answer those questions you should be reading Mr. Lebrechts books. For example the “Maestro Myth”. Plenty of detailed answers given to your innocent and unaware self in his literature.

  • NYMike says:

    I disagree with your statement re Levine/MET. Orchestra and chorus became second to none during his tenure.

  • Bruce says:

    “Over 45 years at the Met, James Levine has left no lasting imprint.”

    Aaaaaaand we’re done.

    • Olassus says:

      I think Norman is referring to legacy, not a lack of achievement.

      What continues? Well, the orchestra’s sound. But for how long? Already it is not what it was ten years ago, so one could say Jimmy (has) presided over a decline as well as a great build — the consequence of having stayed too long.

    • Robert Levine says:

      What “more lasting impact” could a music director make than to raise the level of the house ensembles to the extent that Levine has done? I’m not a big fan of his, but his impact on how good that company sounds is beyond dispute.

  • David Osborne says:

    Very good article Norman. Of course, Rattle’s ability to dictate terms will very much depend on whether he can sustain his audience drawing power. That kind of makes the programming choices for his first concert even more bewildering.

    What is guaranteed though is that his tenure will see no possibility of change in the choice of new music being programmed, so look forward to just more of the same old same old.

    Favourites of the past mixed with a smattering of mercifully short works from the approved modernist canon. The voices of anyone hoping to try something different will be silenced as they always are, because the power that the musical director will never relinquish is the one that is easiest to keep, namely the power to say ‘no’.

    • Halldor says:

      That first concert was sold out months in advance. “Mercifully short works from the modernist canon”? Rattle conducted a full-length Ligeti opera not long ago.

      As for not trying anything different: over the years Rattle has championed the music of Minna Keal, Nicholas Maw, Berthold Goldschmidt, Helen Grime, Judith Weir, John Adams, Stockhausen, Sofia Gubaudulina, Helen Grime, Patrick Doyle, Boulez, Oliver Knussen, Leonard Bernstein, Lutoslawski, Robin Holloway, Dutilleux, Takemitsu, Malcolm Arnold, Ligeti, Kurtag, Turnage…so if you’re implying that he’s adhering to some sort of rigid modernist stylistic dogma, you’ll need to argue a bit harder. As for not trying anything new: when was the last time Nat Shilkret’s Genesis Suite was performed in the UK?

      Have you even looked at Rattle’s programmes, or his plans?

      • David Osborne says:

        Great list Halldor! You think that is different? (Let’s leave Berstein out of this). Seriously how many of the works from that list, have captured the imagination of a broader audience, the general public in any meaningful way? Which of those is universally loved the way the Elgar Cello concerto is, or the Vier Letzte Lieder, or the Rite of Spring to name some of the 20th Century works that can legitimately make that claim?

        And as for the current century, name me one. Like I say, same old same old. Approved by the Masters, at best tolerated by the people.

        “Dem Volke wollt ihr behagen; nun dächt’ ich, läg’ es nah: ihr liesst es selbst euch auch sagen, ob das ihm zur Lust geschah”.

        • David Osborne says:

          Bernstein, sorry Lenny!

        • Halldor says:

          And Rattle conducts those pieces superbly too (though you miss the point that both the Elgar and the Stravinsky were anything but “universally loved” for decades after being written). But this is irrelevant. How is Rattle responsible for what composers write? The only point that matters us that he champions it superbly, without dogma or prejudice. Which is why (sorry) you can’t leave Bernstein out of it. You say “same old, same old”. In what universe is Gubaidulina remotely the same as Stockhausen or Dutilleux or either of them the same as Malcolm Arnold (who I think you’ll find more than passes the “universally loved” test)?

          I’m struggling a bit to work out what your argument is, if you have one (as opposed to a generalised resentment against a woolly notion of “modern music” and a superb and justifiably-acclaimed musician). I suspect you’re a bit confused. My advice? Why not go to one of Rattle’s concerts with an open mind, and try actually listening?

          • David Osborne says:

            “How is Rattle responsible for what composers write? ”

            Are you serious, you don’t know how this works, do you? They (the conductors, the establishment, whatever you want to call them) decide what gets played when it comes to new work, and audiences (both established and potential new) have absolutely no say in the matter.

            Surely that is obvious, and that is at the heart of the problem, and if you don’t think that there is a problem, we’re wasting our time here. That’s what that quote above from Die Meistersinger is all about. It’s a problem as old as music, but it’s never been as bad as it is now.

            Btw- Rite of Spring, instant hit. Has always pulled a crowd. Elgar Cello Concerto, exceptional circumstances due to lack of rehearsal for the first performance- blame Albert Coates.

          • Craig says:

            Not sure there’s anything wrong with people in prominent positions being excited about and programming new music they think people will enjoy. Letting audiences pick programs would be disastrous. Have you ‘had enough of experts’ by any chance?

          • David Osborne says:

            Reply to ‘Craig’. I know what you are getting at there, but this is not science, it’s art. Here’s what I think would make them experts: Getting it right. In any other field of human endeavour that is how it works. Choosing new music that thrills and indeed grows audiences. On that count alone, the leadership in music over the last 50 years has spectacularly failed.

            And do you think that someone like Rattle doesn’t know that audiences don’t like for example, Boulez? So don’t tell me it’s about them choosing what they think audiences will like.

            Letting audiences choose would be a disaster? Gee, what do you call the current situation? I will, I guess just have to provide a translation for that quote from Die Meistersinger:

            “You want to please the people; well, I should have thought it in your interest to let them tell you themselves whether they took delight in it.”

            Letting the people choose (although that’s not exactly what I am advocating) would be an improvement on the current situation. And respecting, not insulting audiences would be a damn good start.

            In 2011 the Australian radio station ABC Classic FM asked their listeners to choose a top 100 musical works of the 20th century. And who is to say that for the most part they didn’t get it exactly right? The top 12 especially (and of course it’s not exactly what I would have chosen) is right on the money, and spectacularly demonstrates the massive disconnect between the views of the masters, and those of the people.

        • Ruben Greenberg says:

          David: While I can only agree with you, when I look at old programmes of the Pasdeloup, Lamoureux and Colonne Orchestras of the early part of the 20th century, one could make the same argument. How many of these long-forgotten composers meet the standards of Debussy and Ravel? Yet the Roussels, Magnards, Reyers, etc. are not so bad! If you want to stand a chance of winning the national lottery, you have to buy a lot of tickets.

          • David Osborne says:

            That is true, Ruben. I found it really interesting reading Mahler’s programs from his New York days, Lot’s of obscure stuff. I just don’t think it’s ever been this bad though.

            I mean take Germany for example. Nothing, not one single work since the 4 last songs nearly 70 years ago has captured the imagination of a wider audience in any meaningful way. And that by a composer with at least one foot in the 19th century. How can anyone think we don’t have a problem, and that that problem is a failure of leadership?

    • Robert Levine says:

      “Favourites of the past mixed with a smattering of mercifully short works from the approved modernist canon.”

      That’s the marketing department at work, not the artistic side.

  • MacroV says:

    Emasculated or not, you would think there are enough orchestras around the world keen to engage Sir Simon that he will have “walk away” leverage at the LSO.

    As for wanting to make some personnel changes, every time I see the LSO on tv, I barely recognize any faces, so regular seems to be their turnover (or so high their substitution rate). So I wonder if that has any practical meaning.

    I wouldn’t say Levine’s powerlessness to help Kathleen Battle was a bad thing; Joe Volpe had responsibility for the entire MET, and if her behavior was costing them money, he had the right to make the call (and note no other opera house booked Battle after Volpe dismissed her, either).

    And all in all, why should be assume that a conductor is the best musical manager, curator, or HR person? Conductors come and go, musicians tend to stay; they have a much greater interest in maintaining the greatness and viability of the institution. And I’m all for giving players more power over programming – I’m more likely to trust the creativity of 100 well-trained musicians than of one music director.

  • Robert Levine says:

    The idea that music directors “have no power” any more is not borne out by the facts on the American side of the pond. Most retain considerable (though not total) authority over hiring and firing of musicians, and most managements will work hard to keep the MD at least reasonably content with repertoire and guest artists.

    • Halldor says:

      Quite: the point being that there are many different ways of doing things. Orchestral management cultures differ widely around the world, and even within the UK there is a significant difference even between player-run freelance ensembles (like the LSO) and contract orchestras (eg BBC Symphony). To say nothing of opera companies.

      Each has its own needs, its own customs and its own way of deciding artistic policy within the organisation (which may or may not be top-down). There is no one universal definition of the term “music director”, and in 2017 there’s something faintly absurd about holding up the obsolete Reiner / Karajan / Toscanini model of the maestro as charismatic autocrat, hiring and firing at will, as some sort of international norm (even before WW2, that style of leadership was never universal). If people are surprised that Rattle doesn’t have the powers of a despot over his colleagues, that merely reflects their lack of understanding of what the role of Music Director of a UK orchestra has been for much of the last half-century.

      • MWnyc says:

        Indeed. What’s more, just because a US orchestra president tells a journalist off the record that “I would never let a music director tell me which soloists to hire. Nor would I accept his preferred guest conductors” doesn’t mean that orchestra president is telling the truth (whether he/she realizes it consciously or not).

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    Rattle is the kind of conductor responsible for this situation. When conductors are in residence in one place and spend the bulk of their time there, they have such power, and should have. Jet-setters do not and should not. And Rattle has no clear artistic mission, just pleasant management of playing, which is not conducting. His career is far out of proportion to his artistry and lack thereof. It’s the hair. He’s a hairdo conductor.