Watch: What great pianists can teach great conductors

Watch: What great pianists can teach great conductors


norman lebrecht

January 05, 2018

The ultimate guide.

Can you name them all?

Give up?

Andrei Gavrilov, Friedrich Gulda, Van Cliburn, Mitsuko Uchida, András Schiff, Daniel Barenboim, Emile Naoumoff, and Chad Heltzel


  • La Verita says:

    They should all keep their day-jobs.

    • Algot says:

      Indeed they should. Funny to look at, less so for the musicians in the orchestras. The current trend of famous soloists branching out and cashing in on “conducting” is worrying.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    I’m so glad I wasn’t in the audience for any of the male concerts as I probably would have been laughing hysterically.

  • Just wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Toddler’s tantrum: Naoumov ?

    Gulda, Schiff, Uchida, Cliburn…

    The Rachmaninov is probably the worst, though Gulda is not

    Why don’t people stick to what they can do best?

    Barenboim doesn’t belong in this ridiculous list: he concurrently plays and conducts marvelously, probably better than anybody else.

    Real conductors also have their funny sides. I am particularly amused by Nelsons’ ice cream scoop.

    • Adam Stern says:

      Harold C. Schoenberg on Leonard Bernstein (from “The Great Conductors”):

      >> He is a specialist in the clenched fist, the hip swivel, the pelvic thrust, the levitation effect that makes him hover in the air in defiance of the laws of gravity, the uppercut, the haymaker.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Oh yes, I remember Bernstein could be ridiculous on the podium. But at his best he was sublime. His Brahms 1st with the VPO, which was also recorded for DG, was one of my best live experiences ever.

  • Allan Green says:

    Hilarious! I could identify some of the conductors but by no means all. It would be delightful to have the names onscreen….please…

  • Sue says:

    I just cannot look at Mitsuko performing at the piano! It’s painful to look at the hideous gyrations and facial contortions. No conductor has ever looked that bad!!! She has a good face for radio.

    • forensicpsychologist says:

      WHen she has conducted Mozart concertos from the keyboard in Cleveland, her back is to the audience, so the music-making and not her expressions is the center of attention.

    • Will says:

      OK OK we know very well that Mozart’s Piano Concerto #20 in D minor is ‘tragic’ and ‘demonic’ but Mitsuko’s faces are so ridiculous that they are almost comical!

  • Maxim says:

    Surprisingly nobody recognized Andrei Gavrilov. It is him, right at the beginning, in an appalling attempt to conduct Rachmaninoff’s concerto from the piano.

  • M2N2K says:

    The briefest cameo appearance – Andras Schiff for six seconds starting at 3:55.

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    I just think it’s frightening to see how much Barenboim aged in one single minute.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    Aren’t most conductors washed up pianists anyway?

    • Sue says:

      You mean like Beethoven?

    • steven holloway says:

      Ridiculous. There’s a very good reason so many, though not all, conductors chose the piano as their instrument. If you want to be a conductor, it’s a very useful tool for analysis and rehearsal, though not necessary. Toscanini and Barbirolli were cellists, e.g., and there were/are plenty who chose the violin.You do have to play at least one instrument if you train in a conservatoire. Solti and Mitropoulos were and remained first-class pianists who intended to become conductors from the start. Ashkenazy is a pianist who now conducts, but remains a great pianist, as does Barenboim. I could go on in this vein, but the comment you post is not worth the candle.

  • Will says:

    There is a famous George Szell story ( maybe ‘apocryphal’) in which a young ‘wannabe conductor’ is interviewed by the Maestro, who snorts at him ” I guess you’re another virtuoso pianist who wants to be a conductor”…?
    His answer: ” no, Dr Szell, actually I don’t play the piano at all”…
    Szell’s reply: ” Then you will NEVER be a conductor!”.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      There plenty of exceptions. Here are some:

      Toscanini: cello
      Kussevitzky: double-bass
      Stokowski: organ (ok, still keyboard)
      Ormandy: violin
      Giulini: viola
      Marriner: violin
      Mackerras: oboe
      Osmo Vanska: clarinett

      • Gaffney Feskoe says:

        Charles Munch was the concert master of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

        Also the late Joseph Silverstein, concert master of the Boston Symphony was for several years conductor of the Utah Symphony.

        And Richard Burgin, along with being the concert master of the Boston Symphony was also the Associate Conductor during Charles Munch’s directorship.

        Pierre Monteux: violin and viola.

        I am sure other examples will come to mind.

      • Leonard J. Lehrman says:

        My piano teacher Olga Heifetz, who knew Ormandy practiced his motions while playing Stokowski recordings told him once (and repeated it many times, for others’ amusement):
        “You are very lucky that nobody HEARS your conducting!”

  • Bruce says:

    I only recognized Barenboim, Uchida, Gulda, and Cliburn. (Interesting that in the clips shown, Barenboim was really not conducting.)

  • Minacciosa says:

    That video is truly one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

  • Minacciosa says:

    Gulda looks like he could be a stand-in for a Steven Seagal film.

  • Critic says:

    Neville Marriner said, when he began conducting the LA Chamber Orchestra: “Every violinist has a baton in his back pocket.” It took a few seasons to work out what to do with his left hand.

  • Arturo says:

    So this is exactly why every penny orch. managements save by hiring a soloist/conductor instead of 2 different artists should be paid right back to the orch. as a pay increase for having to play with no conductor.

    It’s a LOT more work. It may be fun for the soloist, and thrifty for management, but it’s a pain in the ass for the orchestra. And we are never compensated for it. Soloist gets paid, management saves money but the orch. players have to work twice as hard with no credit or additional compensation.

    Seriously, there should be a clause in the master contract of every symphony orchestra that when they play with no conductor or a “soloist/conductor” that the orch. gets paid more. Like doubling.

    Orchestra committees everywhere should stand up against this kind of crap. You save money for not hiring a conductor? Great, pay it back to the orchestra as a pay increase for working twice as hard.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Maybe it is the first violinist who shoud get the conductor fee.

      • Arturo says:

        Yes, in theory.

        But that’s assuming you have a very proactive concertmaster. Many are not, and the responsibility of “holding the orch. together” often falls on the Principal Winds who have the solos, the entrances after cadenzas and who do the bulk of the exposed ensemble playing with the solists.

        As you can see I have done this a lot. Not just with piano soloists but with violin soloists which is even worse. A concertmaster is particularly not going to “take charge” in a situation when there’s already a violin soloist trying to be in charge.

        Just imagine what it must be like for solo wind players when a soloist tries to conduct and play the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto at the same time. I can tell you it’s a frigging nightmare for the winds.

        Or think about the delicate wind entrances in for, example, in the famous Tchaik piano concerto, when the soloist has both hands full. Well, actually, maybe that one I’ve never done without conductor. Usually it seems to be Beethoven Concerti. But in the video, there is some idiot trying to do a Rach PC with no conductor, which is similar to Tchaik in orchestration. It’s absurd!

        A concertmaster is not going to jump in and give you a cue when he/she is not playing. You have to go blind and try to enter as you would in chamber music, except it’s not chamber music. You’re playing across a full symphony orchestra and hoping the ensemble with the soloist will be ok at that distance.

        Artistically, some soloists and mgts. and even section string players will try to justify not hiring a conductor by saying “oh, it’s like chamber music. we just have to listen and watch and listen more carefully.” But it’s NOT chamber music. It’s a a 50-80 person symphony orchestra. Distances are greater. Visually, sound-wise, physically, it’s not the same at all as chamber music. There is often no physical proximity to the soloist by the members of the orchestra who interact the most with him/her. As principals we are usually good and experienced and can do it. But it’s a royal pain. We should be paid more to do it.

        As the old adage goes: “Playing without a conductor is like having sex without a condom. It may be fun, but it’s risky.”.

        • Pianofortissimo says:

          I see. I was thinking in a Mozart orchestra… Thank you.

          • Arturo says:

            Yes, you’re right! For Mozart, a concertmaster could lead effectively. I always like your comments, by the way, PianoFortissimo! 🙂

  • Nick Smith says:

    …And a special thank you to all the concert masters who held those orchestras together.

  • Elvira says:

    Is legit to conduct without qualifications or training?

  • John Humphreys says:

    Got as far as Uchida, Schiff, Barenboim, Gulda, Cliburn (?), Gavrilov (?). Couldn;’t see the rest for laughing…

  • John Humphreys says:

    Got as far as Uchida, Schiff, Barenboim, Gulda, Cliburn (?), Gavrilov (?). Couldn’t see the rest for laughing…

  • Conrad van Alphen says:

    Highly entertaining!!

  • Sharon says:

    When Rudolf Nureyev could not longer dance for about a year he did some orchestra conducting. People probably came for the novelty of it

  • Novagerio says:

    Why is Barenboim on a list of wackos?….

  • Bruce says:

    Someone who does it right:

    (granted, there’s more than one way to do it right; his is one)

    • Bruce says:

      Another one who doesn’t do anything hilarious enough to make this list:

      • Arturo says:

        Yes, but these are both Mozart piano concertos which have small enough orchestras to be able to work with no conductor. Kudos to both artists for choosing concerti which would work well in this situation.

        Have no idea what would possess a pianist to think he/she could conduct and play a Rach piano concerto simultaneously. Brass balls and no brains.

        • Bruce says:

          I think when people achieve a certain degree of success/ fame, they tend to lose their capacity for self-assessment and fall into the “if I thought of it, it must be a good idea” trap. Not everyone falls into it, but many do.

  • Ben says:

    Made me admire the musicians from top orchestras even more. Imagine one has to deal with that kind of music making face-to-face, several hours a day, several days a week. And don’t forget those “expressive” conductors are typically among the most talkative during rehearsals too.

    • Bruce says:

      LOL. I wish we had a “shooting self in head” emoji for that kind of rehearsal.

      On the plus side, these… these… people (I just this morning learned the term “maestro-bator,” which might be applicable here) would only have been guest artists, so there wouldn’t be weeks and weeks of this kind of thing. Hopefully.

  • DAVID says:

    Isn’t the criterion what the orchestra sounds like, not what kind of motions or faces the conductor makes?

    Of course the amateurish movements look silly, but if you would close your eyes and just listen, would you know that the conductor is an amateur or incompetent?

    (I’m just asking, as I am not qualified to judge.)

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      Sadly, many ‘maestri’ have built exceptional careers based on this criterion, without, moreover, a fig leaf piano in sight.

      • DAVID says:

        I don’t understand.
        The Uchiha performance, for example, is available in its entirety on YouTube. If the interpretation and performance are worthy, then in what way has Uchiha not been successful?

        • M2N2K says:

          Who says she hasn’t been? Mitsuko Uchida looks somewhat funny and awkward when trying to conduct, but she is a very fine pianist in the repertoire that is truly hers. When the soloist plays well, a good orchestra will play well too no matter who is conducting, unless the “maestro” is really incompetent.

        • Bruce says:

          As an orchestral musician, I think the reaction to these video clips is based on whether the movements of the conductor actually seem to be helpful (or even relevant) to the performance of the music. Many/ most of these clips show conducting that you’d have to look away from in order to play your part without getting thrown off. If the orchestra playing for Uchida sounds good, it’s because they’re a good orchestra, not because her “Philly cream cheese nom nom nom” conducting is helping them play better.

          • will says:

            “Philly cream cheese nom nom nom”..?
            Please elucidate.

          • Bruce says:

            It’s the caption that appears on the screen during one of her moments in the video (4:35). Not sure what it means, but for me it’s a definite “what on earth is she doing” moment.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    I read recently of a story concerning Artur Rubenstein’s desire to try his hand at conducting. He persuaded a guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic (can’t remember who) to allow Rubenstein to try his hand with the Brahms Third symphony.

    Story goes that he got up from his piano bench during a rehearsal and gave it a go.

    While the orchestra was charmed by this and tried really hard, Rubenstein made a complete mess of it, unable to keep the orchestra in any way together.

    He graciously gave up thanking the members and said “well at least I got that out of my system” and never attempted it again.

    • Will says:

      What a shame that there are no clips of that narcissistic know-all American musicologist and fortepiano player, what’s his name? When he ‘conducted’ the O.A.E. in London, one reviewer described his ‘technique’ as being ‘the desperate movements of a drowning man’!

  • doremi says:

    I never really understood why being a pianist is not enough for some…or may be conducting is easier when inspiration fails when playing piano.

  • Tausendsassa says:

    With the exception of Barenboim, all of these pianists are incompetent conductors. The Rachmaninov pianists in particular are embarrassingly awful. As for Gulda, his gestures are meaningless and wholly gratuitous—they contribute nothing to the shaping of phrase or overall definition of sound, in fact they contradict what is coming from the orchestra. Similarly, Andras Schiff’s gestures are meaningless and without direct relationship to the sound. Interestingly, Schiff now fancies himself a conductor and has been making the rounds of various orchestras, even going so far as to conduct the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, which, unfortunately, he simply hasn’t got the chops for.