Why we love/hate young conductors

Why we love/hate young conductors


norman lebrecht

January 25, 2018

Nathan Cole, first associate concertmaster for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is not a man to suppress an opinion. Nor is his wife, Akiko Tarumoto, the assistant concertmaster.

In his latest podcast they crack on about working with the inexperienced Gustavo Dudamel, Daniel Harding and others younger still. What happens when things go wrong?

When a conductor arrives with a laundry list, only addresses the front of the string sections, rehearses without a score….

Or right? ‘Charles Dutoit spoke with a familiarity with the score that we’re not used to hearing.’

And who’s the young one with a phoney European accent?

Listen here.



  • FS60103 says:

    “Others even younger?!” Harding is 42, Dudamel is 36, and you’ve illustrated the article with a picture of a conductor who’s 31.

    Flattering to those of is the wrong side of 40, but come on! Mahler had his first conducting post at 20. Toscanini was conducting Verdi professionally at 19. Mozart was dead at 35. Where did the myth emerge that you have to be geriatric to have anything to say on the podium? There are overrated young conductors, for sure – but rather more overrated senior ones, I’d venture to suggest. And they charge more, too.

    • David says:

      But surely these players are mostly talking about what it *was* like to play for those conductors who were at the very start of their career and at that time pretty young. The podcast speaks for itself but I didn’t get the sense that they were saying (and nor was Norman) that only older conductors have any authority. They were talking about different ways of dealing with the weird relationship that necessarily arises when a really young person is put in charge of directing a band of highly experienced professionals. And the traps that such conductors can fall into (and how impressive it can be when they work out how to avoid said traps.) All of which I thought was pretty interesting!

    • Bruce says:

      Read the article. You don’t have to listen to the 46+ minute podcast. He’s talking about when Dudamel and Harding made their Chicago debuts years & years ago. Be sure to read the (so far only) comment, from “Max,” and compare to their reminiscence of Dudamel in about the 6th paragraph.

      Age and maturity are not the same thing.

  • Colin Schachat says:

    Successor to Zubin Mehta in Israel is 29 !

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Thank you for posting this. Very fascinating overall.

    Why yet another picture of Mirga? Her name doesn’t come up in the podcast.

  • Michael Turner says:

    Musicians in British orchestras are, in my experience, very fair to young conducting talent. I well remember the young and hugely talented Gustavo Dudamel, then in his early 20s, rehearsing the Philharmonia in Strauss’ “Don Juan”. It was clear from the first few minutes of the rehearsal that this was an extraordinary talent, and it has been truly exciting for me and my colleagues to see the trajectory of his career since then.
    I am old enough to remember (Sir) Simon Rattle at around the same age from my days in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. I was similarly impressed then, though I have to admit that some of my colleagues did try to wind him up.
    The CSO tales of Daniel Harding do sound similar to other reports I have heard, though apparently he has mellowed with age. Noone likes a smart-alec. But any conductor who respects the musicians will receive respect in return. In the case of the Philharmonia we have a 32 year old Principal Guest in Santtu-Matias Rouvali who we all absolutely adore and admire. And I look forward hopefully to playing for Mirga at some point and discovering what all the fuss is about.

  • Bruce says:

    My complaints about young conductors are mostly about the way the orchestra behaves to them (my orchestra anyway): playing wrong notes on purpose, or not correcting obvious misprints (someone who can play a jazz chart from a sheet of chord changes continuing to play the leading tone a half-step flat because the note doesn’t have a # in front of it), playing in a different tempo and accusing the conductor of being unclear or unsteady (when everyone else in the orchestra seems to be able to stay together without a problem), insisting that they can’t play a piece in 5/8 if the beat pattern doesn’t match the textbook ideal (even though the music director conducts only in circles and they have no problem following him)… and on and on. Because these conductors are either guests or assistants, they don’t have any authority on which to base their musical requests; and because they’re young, they don’t have the experience to know how to deal with this kind of petulant behavior. It’s too bad.

    A couple of times we’ve had young conductors who were actually bad; but they were bad because they were bad, not because they were young. (One of them turned out to have some kind of mental illness, and was later escorted out of a concert — different orchestra, and as an audience member, not conducting — for yelling things like “boring!” and “too slow!” during the performance.) But mostly it’s just us. I don’t quite understand it.

    • Bruce says:

      All that aside, though, the remarks about conductors who, when “we’ve completed all our meaningful work” for that rehearsal, looks at the clock and sees there is still time left, so they either start inventing things to work on or just keep waving their arms until the clock runs out. There is a natural progression & rhythm to rehearsals, and if you come to a good stopping place with 5 minutes left, it can be more productive to stop there rather than to keep sawing away for the sake of using up every last available minute.

    • Sharon says:

      You don’t understand it? Maybe it’s just jealousy or resentment or a feeling of inadequacy that someone younger made it to a higher position while the “petulant” or resentful orchestra musician did not. It is no accident that “Do not envy” is one of the 10 commandments. Envy is an emotion that causes a lot of problems. Unfortunately, it is the unwitting audience that needlessly suffers.

    • anon says:

      Good lord, what kind of orchestra do you play in?

      • Bruce says:

        Haha, I ask myself the same question now and then.

        Most of the orchestra is not like this — only a few malcontents (who, nevertheless, succeed in making things unpleasant for everybody when they start acting this way).

      • Arturo says:

        I second that. Bruce, I’m thinking this is not a full time professional orchestra, right? Or at least not one of the top 10.

        • Arturo says:

          Just to clarify my assumption – the behavior you’re describing sounds amateurish and petty. It just wouldn’t happen in a major orchestra. It’s disruptive to the other players, and if management didn’t step in, surely another player would report it via the union.

          And frankly, young conductors or not, there are too many unemployed orch. players out there to be pulling that kind of crap. Deliberately playing wrong notes? Come on, that wastes EVERYONE’s rehearsal time.

          In my orch. we also give certain conductors a hard time, but not necessarily because they’re young. And you do it with some discretion so as not to disturb your colleagues.

        • Bruce says:

          LOL Arturo – yes, WELL outside the top 10. A decent regional orchestra, professional but not (quite) full-time. And I agree with your assessment 🙂

          • Posaune says:

            I was a conducting student at a major conservatory. We had a “practice” orchestra compirised ofngrad students who played as part os their TA duties. A surliesr bunch of string players has never been seen. Deliberate errors and all.

    • Derek says:


      Your account is both interesting and disheartening. I don’t understand the kind of behaviour that you describe either. However, your observations are well made and sympathetic.

      I am pleased but not surprised that you are one of the good guys!

  • Cyril Blair says:

    One phony European accent was Leopold Stokowski.

    • Bruce says:

      I have a friend in an unnamed orchestra, whose American conductor (also unnamed) had lived and conducted for several years in Germany. When he came back he was full of “It needs more… ah, how you say in English…?” and similar twaddle. It was like excuse me, you’re from Ohio. O-HI-O. Not sure who he thought he was fooling.

      • Carmen says:

        There is a high profile conductor from Spain, with a relatively big job in the UK and starting to make his name in the US, who, when he returns to conduct in Spain does the same thing. And then he speaks Spanish with an English accent. It’s truly baffling. . .

  • Alexander Platt says:

    This is all entertaining, I guess, but so childish. There are great young conductors, there are lousy old conductors, and vice versa; and then, in the middle, there are great mass of the rest of us, just trying trying to make a difference and make a living.