Are conductors going soft?

Last week, Jaap Van Zweden cried off at the New York Philharmonic with self-inflicted burns to his shoulder and Gustavo Dudamel cancelled Boston with a hand injury.

This week, Juanjo Mena was too unwell to conduct Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in Toronto and Yan-Pascal Tortelier was taken to hospital in Washington, prompting the cancellation of his first concert and jeopardising the second.

Others have cancelled recently with wrist injuries, a bacterial hand infection, repetitive strain and a wounded knee.

These are all distressing afflictions, but you have to ask whether conductors of the past would not simply have blazed ahead with one arm in a sling. After all, hands are only part of the conductor’s toolkit. Most of the work is done with eyes, lips and general bodily expression.

Nikisch and Bernstein had a party trick of conducting the orchestra, arms at their side, with eyebrow movements alone.

Mahler gave the premiere of the Resurrection with a migraine so severe it left him sobbing between movements.

Are today’s conductors made of less tough stuff?


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    • We know of [redacted] who could conduct while not even being there. Something which only comes after long practice.

        • That was only a certain time in his long career, at the beginning and at the end, whe he leaved Berlin, he conducted with eyes wide open, as well in the ópera orchestral pit.

      • “You are playing for Claudio” said Simon Rattle to the Berlin Philharmonic once, during rehearsal. I read this in an interview with Rattle.

  • Good question. And the answer, in my opinion, is yes.

    Too often, these “illnesses” and maladies are just passing, psychological, or due to pressure/stress. Or they are excuses.

    Remember Claudio Abbado, the conductor who was far more famous than any mentioned in the story? He had stomach cancer going back to 2000. He told Sir Simon Rattle:

    “Simon, my illness was terrible, but the results have not been all bad: I feel that somehow I hear from the inside of my body, as if the loss of my stomach gave me internal ears. I cannot express how wonderful that feels. And I still feel that music saved my life in that time!'”

    That’s why he was called the Bishop and was a great one.

    • Thank you for this. I’m not one to criticize the ailments of conductors, but any mention of the beloved Abbado’s struggle makes me weep. I still miss him terribly, and I love your appreciation.

    • (a) I would guess Abbado had to cancel a few appearances here and there due to surgery, complications, or just being too weak to do the job. But there was no Slipped Disc back then to publicize his cancellations and imply that he was being a giant baby.

      (b) I can play concerts with cancer all season long and do a good job. But I would have to cancel if I had a cut on my right pinky finger.

      • Actually there were some concerts that even the hall was expecting Abbado to turn down due to his health conditions, but he did not. One of it was at Carnegie Hall. He just changed a Mahler Symphony that would keep him longer in the podium, for a shorter Beethoven one. This specific concert was one of the most memorable of Berlin Ph. in NY, since the 90’s.

  • I hardly think it right to stand in judgment on other people. Let’s face it, Carlos Kleiber cancelled when he wasn’t;t in the right mood.

  • Don’t be exaggerated, Norman. Juanjo Mena has canceled once in his life. A few days ago in Toronto.

  • In the past, no conductor ever took time off for pregnancy, indeed, they worked while birthing!

    (That was a joke! All men should take paternity leave to share in the child rearing responsibilities of parenthood.)

    No, conductors are not weaker, our labor and health codes are stronger.

  • Well, in the old days musicians did soldier on, but in today’s world it’s not worth anyone’s while to get up with an injury, or sing with a cold as all you get are the ‘armchair experts’ on places like this and elsewhere, pulling them apart but can’t do it themselves! Ha, ha! Try doing anything if you have a bad shoulder of any kind, let alone burns! Having bit of basic anatomy on muscle structure will show why! There are enough conductors in the world to take over as no one is indispensable in life.

  • “Hector seized and carried a stone that lay in front of the gates, thick in the hinder part, but sharp at point: a stone that not the two best
    men of the people, such as mortals now are, could lightly lift from the ground on to a wain, but easily he wielded it alone.”

    With each generation becoming weaker, less heroic, it’s a miracle the human race has survived!

  • Yes, they are not holding up. Many conductors of the past would conduct, in spite of having serious medical ailments! Maestro Abbado, Maestro Maazel, Maestro Levine, Maestro Von Karajan, Maestro Muti, Maestro Schippers, come to mind, as conductors who persevered, in spite of either being ill, or having movement problems, because of injuries, or illnesses. Some of these I have performed with, in performance, and I’ve seen how they just persevere, and get the job done!

  • I’m a 50 y.o. cellist who’s played through arthritis, two rotator cuff repairs, bilateral CTR, two spinal fusions (cervical and lumbar) and most recently, a broken ankle. I currently play 3-4 hours daily with a torn labrum and one torn bicep head.

    I missed one performance and a handful of rehearsals.

    I am female.

    These men are soft.

  • I remember that Karajan had stated that he was going to have to be reincarnated to get through everything he wanted to achieve. So not letting a mere death get in the way seems pretty unbeatable.

  • This is a difficult one.They may be wary of exacerbating an injury or illness which might have long term consequences for their careers.They may also feel that when they are under the weather they will not give their best performances.However it is true to say that since the days of the conducting legends there has been a sea-change in the culture of Western society towards the therapeutic agenda wherein a premium rightly or wrongly is placed upon optimising or maintaining self- esteem and well- being.Such an attitude is now prevalent in society including the public services such that emergency personnel are now offered counselling etc to mitigate the perceived deleterious effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
    To that extent some of today’s conductors may just be children of our time.

    • Good points, up until the word “however.”

      Also good points after the word “however,” but on a different topic.

  • – Could jet travel be a significant contributing factor for cancellations? Sickness or injury are far easier to manage with local commutes. Cancellation than happen only at the last minute if needed. By contrast, long distance travel carries greater risks, requires being in better shape and requires more planning ahead.

    – Even if cancellations have increased recently, they are nothing new. Let’s not idealize the past. I remember that for the VPO opening concert of the 1982 Wiener Festwochen, with Haydn’s Creation, two famous conductors cancelled before a third one came to the rescue. Beyond conductors, let’s not get started about Svjatoslav Richter or Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Amazingly, both piano managed to perform or record with Carlos Kleiber, sometimes without even cancelling. That’s powerful evidence that miracles occasionally happen.

    • Petros…if you see (and foremostly hear!) anything comparable to Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Sviatoslav Richter and Carlos Kleiber among today’s “over-hyped mediatic products”, then please, let me/us know immediately (!!)…

    • Are you thinking about the Mahler 6 that was Abbado/Maazel/Levine? Early june, don’t remember if it was the first concert. First VPO one maybe….

      • I am thinking of the Creation. Positive. Two of the conductors involved were Leinsdorf and Dorati.

        Mahler 6th must be another story, one that escaped my attention.

        Karl Böhm cancelled quite a bit in his last years too. But he was in his mid-80s and frail. He was greeted with ovations before the music started. Everybody was seemed grateful when he showed up.

  • Or, you know, mental and physical health are actually seen as important, now, and literally dying on the job is no longer seen as a virtue. And taking care of one’s health is no longer seen as an expression of ‘weakness’ – except, apparently, in the article above.

    (Also, schedules have become insane, which contributes to more common injuries).

  • It’s nothing new. Bernstein got to make his coruscating NY Phil debut because Bruno Walter was ill with the flu.

    • Yes, but darling James, Walter and Lennie are solar systems away from what’s left today on the world’s podiums!….

      • The piece was about their physical robustness as opposed to the quality of their artistry, though, and in that respect plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  • I don’t know NL… Have you ever tried to conduct Mahler 2nd only with your eyes and eyebrows? That Bernstein video is of Haydn 88, barely a piece that needs a conductor anyway.

    • John: Especially with THAT orchestra (!!)
      – Now, young multi-lobbyied boys and girls, try to make a difference in the darkest province in Finland!! – I guarantee multiple heart attacks, if it wasn’t cos your “cunning” agents will safe you from a nightmare and total embarrassment!…(pardon my cynism)

  • Maybe today’s conductors try too much to be at as many places as possible at one and the same time….?

  • Before his last 1970 tour of Asia with the CO George Szell was in poor health but went on because he knew the tour would have been canceled had he done so. In the middle of the tour, during a performance of the Sibelius 2nd, he apparently suffered a heart attack but managed to finish the performance and the tour. The concert in Tokyo documented in the CO release occurred after the incident mentioned above.

  • I have suffered from a knee injury for nearly 40 years. I may have a left shoulder tear. A fall this winter resulting in a severe strain in my hamstring. BUT, the show must go on, and it always has.

  • Conductors can’t be tough on musicians anymore without being accused of harassment. So why should they tough it out when they have a boo boo?

  • On a positive side of this, I got the conducting bug when I had to fill in for the conductor of an orchestra I manage. He had a very legitimate health reason for cancelling the day before the concert. However it was too late to get a replacement so I had no choice but to conduct it. I’ve never had conducting lessons but had conducted some rehearsals, yet when I took the stage with the orchestra something magical happened. It was a beautiful experience that made me want to become a conductor. So, last-minute conductor cancellations can be a good thing sometimes! p.s. I’m a composer and musician who usually plays in the orchestra, so it wasn’t a case of a manager suddenly moving from office to orchestra!

    • If I were a composer I would want to conduct. It would be awful to listen to some hack ruin one of my works. I always think of the story where Glazunov conducted Rachmainioff’s 1st Symphony while supposedly drunk. Even a major bender didn’t stop conductors in the good old days!

  • Humphrey Burton’s graphic account of Leonard Bernstein’s final concert, which was at Tanglewood, is painful to read. But also inspirational, as it shows how strong the life force can be in a genius like Lennie. By the way, what, as a conductor, did Bernstein have in common with Sir Henry Wood?

  • Too much punching, physical finger pointing, hopping, stumping, fist fighting, punching, sudden neck/head jolting, sudden back bending, exaggerated shoulder shrugging, big flag waving with both hands …

    When the audience cannot hear music, make sure they could see it. Remember the blue meters on the classic McIntosh? Yea, like that.

    Modern conductors. Ha!

    • I agree. Way too much conducting from the shoulder(s). We need to get back to the R.Strauss school – from the wrist, ladies and gentlemen!

      • ==Böhm cancelled quite a bit in his last years too. But he was in his mid-80s and frail. He was greeted with ovations before the music started. ”

        Towards the end though his performance were deathly. In the great book “Conversations with Carols”, Kleiber told a great story about management announcing before a Cosi fT performance, that Dr Bohm had died, but in order to not dissapoint the public he would go through with the performance.

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