Harnoncourt: You realise how few conductors are interested in the music

Harnoncourt: You realise how few conductors are interested in the music


norman lebrecht

April 12, 2019

Alice Harnoncourt has published a family history left by her husband for their children, replete with many reflections on his 17 years as a front-desk cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

His coment above continues: ‘For most conductors, the concert hall is just an arena where they perform masterly dressage as tamers.’

Plus ca change?

Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Meine Familie. Herausgegeben von Alice Harnoncourt. Residenz-Verlag, Salzburg 2018. 



  • John Borstlap says:

    Debussy already compared the famous conductors of his time with lion tamers.

    Also today there are many conductors – be them famous or less so – who consider the music they perform not as works of art to be served, to be woken to life, but as vehicles for their career: a means to an end instead of an end in themselves.

    • Steven van Staden says:

      Think of so many soloists too. Lang Lang for example. It would be easier to name the few conductors and soloists who are there to give to the music rather than to their gigantic egos.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Fortunately there are long lists of entirely genuine performers, on which the preservation and continuation of music relies.

  • fflambeau says:

    I’ve always wondered if the Maestros are really worth it.

    The conductorless Orpheus Chamber orchestra seems to prove otherwise. I’d be interested in what professional musicians have to say. The astronomical salaries and benefits and contracts without termination dates that many conductors have are horrid and huge financial drains.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There is, in principle, nothing wrong with generous payments to conductors, because they, and they alone, are responsible for the artistic result of a performance. If you think what is necessary to bring a score to life, combining 90 or more individual musicians into a natural-sounding unity, then it will appear to be a well-deserved accolade. And if Beethoven would still be alive, he should be eligible to receive a comparable amount for every performance, for the reason of having created that score. People don’t complain about the immense fortunes wasted on sport stadiums, or office sky scrapers which deform city landscapes like a visual cancer, but as soon as classical music comes within sight, protests are heard about the funding, as if it werre a leisure business for the happy few.

      • Gaffney Feskoe says:

        Next time you are in New York, be sure to visit Hudson Yards to prove your point about office skyscrapers. It is Xanadu in New York Siberia.

      • Bruce says:

        “…because they, and they alone, are responsible for the artistic result of a performance.”

        I would say that the musicians often have something to do with the artistic result.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Of course but their individual capacities have to be organized to make a score performable at all. With a good orchestra, all those individual ‘voices’ fall into place as organized by the conductor, who makes use of their expressive qualities.

      • bratsche-scratcher says:

        “They , and they alone, are responsible for the artistic result of the performance”…..? I think there are a few orchestral musicians who would take issue with you with that point. A conductor on their own produces very little in the way of music!

    • Sixtus says:

      I have yet to hear a recording or performance from Orpheus that has consistently finely nuanced dynamics and tempi, the two main things that a conductor makes possible. Most conductorless ensembles of any size have this problem in music from the early 19th century onwards.

      In earlier music the opposite problem is occurring. Over-influenced by the music-as-rhetoric school of historically informed performance practice, Mengelberg-like tempo inflections to “phrase” the music are being introduced in Classical and Baroque music by performers that should know better. They sound just as mannered in this music. Harnoncourt is partially to blame for this, with his uncalled-for tempo deflections in Mozart operas being taken up by the likes of Rene Jacobs.

      • Caravaggio says:

        I have heard wonderful performances and recordings from the Orpheus. In fact, their new Mendelssohn disc with pianist Jan Lisiecki is extraordinarily great, in my opinion.

    • Spenser says:

      The Orpheus Cyborg Orchestra gives tidy, in-tune, scrupulously played, completely colorless performances.
      Compare their version of any work with one given by an orchestra with a conductor and you will immediately hear the difference. You may not care for the interpretation, but there will be a viewpoint, some musical gestures, some nuances, some life.
      On thinking about it, the OCO is the perfect Philip Glass ensemble….

    • Bill says:

      Many conductors have contracts without termination dates? Care to name a few?

    • Saxon Broken says:

      fflambeau writes: “I’ve always wondered if the Maestros are really worth it.”

      Essentially, most Baroque and some classical era music can be performed reasonably easily without a conductor. Mainly because there are fewer (and less dramatic) changes in rhythm, tempi, and volume. But it becomes progressively more difficult to play the music of later eras if there is no conductor.

      The conductor’s main job is to set the tempo, keep the orchestra together, and to balance (and blend) the sound of the different sections of the orchestra. “Interpretation” is secondary to these three things, but these three things are integral to the interpretation.

      Exactly how the orchestra will sound depends a great deal on the actual musicians playing their instruments (perhaps more than the input from the conductor – although the choice of who to hire will be important to the sound of the orchestra). Nevertheless, the musical choices made by the conductor (even basic things, like whether to double the brass section) will have a big effect on the sound. Really good conductors have a sense of what the instrumentalists in front of them can do, and how to get a certain sound from them. But a great deal will depend on the chemistry between the conductor and the players.

  • Views vary. Hans von Bülow described the conductor-orchestra relationship with the term “orchestral coitus.”

  • Trent says:

    There are conductors that add to the orchestra and there are those who do barely anything.

    These old tired phrasings about ‘conductors are just stick waivers’, or ‘egotists’ or are ‘unnecessary’ is such a oversimplification that it hurts.

    While there is no field in music with as many “Fakers” in it rising all the way to the top as conducting, lets not be simple minded about this. I feel like many people are not good judges of quality in classical music, even many musicians. Oh but it’s so “subjective” apparently, so I’m gonna get someone yelling through a comment at me over my list (below) but oh well! Here it goes!

    Great conductors:
    -Carlos Kleiber
    -Simmon Rattle

    Bad Conductors:
    -Kurt Masur

    • Cubs Fan says:

      How do you determine who’s good or bad? Your bad list is ridiculous. Maazel made some superb recordings: Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet. The Tchaikovsky and Sibelius in Vienna. Many more. He may not have been a favorite of players, but there’s no denying a fabulous technique or ear. Alan Gilbert? Check out the Mahler 9th on Bis. Superb. He just isn’t a showboater. Mazur was a fine musician. Excellent conductor. Bad? Not in the least. There are overrated conductors, but on the world stages no truly bad ones. They are confined to the lower quality and community orchestras. And university groups, church choirs and such.

    • tristan says:

      Maazel was a great one, Rattle overrated and bad with Opera – you missed many great ones

    • Spenser says:

      Trent – you’re putting Rattle on the same level as Kleiber and Haitink?
      My, my….

    • Jasper says:

      Masur was a wonderful Bach conductor, particularly of the choral works. One of the most memorable performances I ever attended was of the St. Matthew Passion, conducted by Masur on Holy Saturday, 2008. The NY Phil never sounded better. The audience gave Masur, the orchestra, and the singers a sustained, rousing, standing ovation, with numerous curtain calls.


    • Saxon Broken says:

      Do you mean bad in the sense “I don’t like the interpretation” or bad in the sense “he can not get the orchestra to play in tune, in ensemble and together”.

      There are many very competent conductors whose interpretations I might not like. But I would not describe them as incompetent if they know how to get the orchestra to execute the music in the way they want the piece to be played.

      In your list, Maazel and Masur had good reputations as orchestra builders. Rattle often seems to be overly fussy in his interpretations. Many accuse Maazel of being bland and uninteresting, but most people also agree he has superb technique (e.g. in getting the orchestra to play the way he wanted).

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Any chance an English translation will be produced? In regards to the headline, I’ve found that most CD collectors know more about the music than practically every conductor.

  • Doug says:

    Q: What’s the difference between a bull and an orchestra?

    A: with the bull, the horns are in the front and the a**hole is in the back…

  • Steve says:

    I guess most conductors actually prefer the recording studio where they can get on with their art without the hindrance of coughing, talking, clapping between movements, other unforeseen disturbances and, of late, telephones going off. It’s understandable that they just want to get the job over and done with, especially in these times of diminished audience civility.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Very few conductors past or present (especially the latter) worthy of the name.

  • Ben says:

    IMHO, the one person in an orchestra who is the most qualified to judge is the principal librarian.