A defence of conductors with balls arouses hysterical backlash

A defence of conductors with balls arouses hysterical backlash


norman lebrecht

November 12, 2020

In this week’s Spectator, Telegraph critic Ivan Hewitt speaks up for big male beasts, ‘In defence of the tyrannical male maestro’. Sample quote:


One must salute the talent, energy and determination of these women, who’ve succeeded in what is still a male-dominated world. But I’m sceptical of the idea that the arrival of women will lead to a total transformation of the orchestra-conductor relationship. Audience expectations haven’t changed; they still want conductors to put their personal stamp on performances, and that can’t happen entirely through negotiation. Elias Canetti’s observations about the absolute power of a conductor in the moment of performance still hold true, even if it’s a woman on the podium. Because of that, the job will attract women who enjoy the exercise of that power, just as it attracts men who enjoy it. So sparks are bound to fly in rehearsal, as they always have done. To pretend that the banishing of the male maestro will turn orchestral rehearsals into bowers of sweetness and light, presided over by women conductors who are never competitive or domineering and are always models of quiet-voiced tactfulness, is just naive.

The article swiftly provoked a hysterical backlash on torpid ClassicFM, under the headline ‘A prominent critic has stood up for the fragile ‘tyrannical male maestro’. Here’s why he’s missing the point’.

Read it here.

Oh, dear.


  • yujafan says:

    well, he had balls writing the article in the current #metoo climate, it has to be said

  • Firing Back says:

    Ivan’s attitude proves, again, just how out of touch he (and that ill-informed gaggle that purport to be journalists these days) is.

    It’s not about the “the orchestra-conductor relationship” as he stupidly writes – it’s about equality, fairness, diversity, moving with the times, removing glass ceilings etc etc.

    Ivan knows all about equality and diversity – but, at this point, when his journalistic career is unlikely to survive, he’ll clearly say and write anything to try and keep himself relevant.

    A sad demise of a once-mediocre music journalist.

    • Squagmogleur says:

      It’s perfectly fine to disagree with someone’s point of view but why do you feel the need to be rude and offensive about it? If your rejoinder to Ivan’s comments has any merit then readers will recognise it, but this reader will immediately discount your opinion because your principle motive in commenting is clearly to make offensive remarks about Ivan.

    • IP says:

      I just hope that the music made under equality, fairness, diversity, moving with the times, etc. will not be obligatory listening, and those who do not comply will not be sent to concentration camps.

    • Middle-Easterner says:

      ‘It’s not about the “the orchestra-conductor relationship” as he stupidly writes’…OF COURSE IT IS YOU MORON!

      We’re talking about music not menstruation.

      What’s next? Women’s and race-based groups will be legally required to accept white men??? Perhaps that type of “equality and diversity” needs to be pushed next, eh?

  • AngloGerman says:

    Surprisingly good article when read in context.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I read the article which I thought was poor and ill-conceived but not for the reasons stated. But I defend the right to state an opinion. People want to get a life if they start objecting to a man giving his opinion. It’s called ‘freedom of speech’ and I seem to remember this week we had a ceremony to remember those who gave their lives so we could have it. But there is the twitter-mob who want to deprive us of that right so dearly fought for.

    • Paul says:

      Is anyone saying he’s not allowed to say this? He got published in a pretty prominent paper, and he’s getting criticized in some quarters for it. Seems like free speech is working just fine.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    If anyone’s missing the point, it’s Classic FM. There’s no one ideal formula for unleashing a memorable performance and sometimes the individual needs to be sacrificed in the interest of the greater good. If that’s a male conductor acting in a manner which provokes a certain reaction, then so be it.

    Very recently there was an opera production in a noted French city, conducted by a woman. Whatever love-fest the rehearsals threw up (they didn’t) the result spoke for itself: she can’t conduct. But at least boxes were ticked and, as we know, that’s the most important thing.

  • sam says:

    Hewitt sets up a very odd, non-existant strawman (those who supposedly want woman conductors because of their “sweetness and light and noncompetitiveness”) in order to knock his own bogeyman down.

    But who thinks like his strawman? No one. He certainly does not identify a single person who purportedly thinks this way.

    A silly, light as fluff, self-indulgent piece.

    • MWnyc says:

      I have, in fact, read the suggestion that female conductors might bring a less authoritarian, more egalitarian and gentler approach to music-making. But I’ve only seen it once or twice, and not from anyone particularly prominent or influential. It was basically idle speculation.

      Yes, no one with any influence thinks that way.

      Hewitt’s attack on the idea reminds me of what Charles Rosen wrote about Richard Taruskin’s attack on the period-instrument movement: “He reserves his greatest scorn for opinions no one really holds.”

  • Norbert says:

    Ivan Hewitt is an excellent, and sincere author on these matters who I’ve read for years. I don’t agree with everything he says, but then why must I?

    On this, he merely annunciates what many have known for years.

    Unlike many on this blog, I’ve actually conducted a (student) orchestra (many decades ago!) and anyone with a grain of intelligence realises within ten seconds of beginning that if you have no opinion, and nothing to say, you’re sunk.

    What are you going to say to the an orchestra that has played under “The Greats”, some of whom have been playing longer than young conductors have been alive?

    Conducting is not-just pure musicianship – it must per-force, be an exercise in personality and character. One cannot conduct by committee. The ‘buck’ has to stop….

    That is no-excuse for sexual abuse, or a profoundly rotten nature (J.E.Gardiner etc…) but musically speaking, there can only be one leader in the service of the composer.

    As Muti says – if you want to sing it with trills and thrills, sing it under another conductor!

    • Mathias Broucek says:

      “Unlike many on this blog, I’ve actually conducted a (student) orchestra (many decades ago!) and anyone with a grain of intelligence realises within ten seconds of beginning that if you have no opinion, and nothing to say, you’re sunk.”

      Yes, me too.

      I remember Solti saying that as a younger conductor it’s much harder to display any uncertainty or potential weakness than for an elder states(wo)man

  • BruceB says:

    Silly article, based on a willful misunderstanding.

  • Musician says:

    Strawman argument after strawman argument after strawman argument, all amounting to an absurd shriek of “HEY YOU KIDS! GET OFF MY LAWN!” Pathetic.

  • MezzoLover says:

    Simone Young, who in 1993 became the first female conductor at the Vienna State Opera (before female musicians were admitted into the Vienna State Opera orchestra), shared her wisdom about conducting during a 2019 interview:

    ‘In rehearsals, Young juggles three tracks in her head. The ideal version runs alongside the played reality and a checklist of tweaks and enhancements. There is no room for anger in a rehearsal room, she says.

    That mental discipline to think ahead was “something I wasn’t very good at when I was younger, even 20 years ago”. “I would often react impulsively, negatively when something went slightly awry, and that actually does nothing but communicate more nervousness to everybody.”

    In performance, it’s a different story. “Having the emotional courage to be open and honest with the group of people you barely know − that’s probably the hardest emotional thing about being a conductor.”‘


    Gender is never part of the equation for her success, and IMHO should have no place in any meaningful conversation about conductors and conducting.

    By the way, I had the good fortune to attend an exceptional Macbeth performance conducted by Young at the Vienna State Opera in June 2016. At the curtain call she earned the audience’s highest accolade – which included the trampling of feet.

    Who cares about the “tyrannical male maestro” when you have female conductors like Simone Young?

  • Brettermeier says:

    “bowers of sweetness and light” / “models of quiet-voiced tactfulness”?

    Boy, that’s bad. 😀

  • Gustavo says:

    Let’s face it.

    The core repertoire still is, and probably will be for a long time, male dominated (from Mozart balls over Scriabin’s scrotal extasy to the testicular Tintinabuli style).

    Can female conductors change this?

    Maybe. But how? There’s not much female music worth conducting except for Lilli Boulanger.

  • A person says:

    Women and minorities are being hired for show, not ability in most cases in this day and age. Instead of reading critic’s articles about their prowess on the podium, sound quality and most importantly musical lines and phrasing, all we get is “___, a woman or person of color” was hired or is leaving”…

    It’s all too obvious these people want to be used for their sex, sexual preference and race. They use it as a marketing vehicle in most cases. Then nothing more is heard about them until some problem arises as opposed to great performances expected from men.

    The gender and color are the sole justifications for writing about most of these people as opposed to superior quality. One must hunt around to find truly well written articles about these people which are not fluff pieces pushing the same type of schools they normally come out of (who pay writers for their positive pieces) or whine about how much discrimination they allegedly faced which fills 80% of the column space. That’s why these articles are skipped over now that we’ve seen the same drivel enough times.

    Men have always endured plenty of hurdles and forged their own paths using high standards alone. They were expected to work not whine and were summarily discharged for such behavior just like anybody else.

    Using gender and color degrades gender neutral and color neutral titles like conductor. One is either good or not by virtue of ability without using a fashionable crutch.

    • Bruce says:

      I’ve noticed how often it happens that, when someone who says hiring or promotion should be based on merit alone is presented with the fact or idea of anyone non-male or non-white (and possibly non-other things*) being hired or promoted, immediately insists that the person must have been hired for reasons other than merit.

      • Rick Pennington says:

        Because that’s what happens today Bruce.

        Look at the Metropolitan Opera. Everyone knew Levine was gay and endlessly covered up for him over the years for the sake of prestige. Levine was gay and walked away from the house with a big, fat settlement and NO CONSEQUENCES.

        To “make things fit the liberal narrative” they hired a cute gay guy that critics (particularly on this blog) demean with terms like hotdog. The met worked with the NYT to publish an article about his struggles mostly and his gay partner along with their cushy lifestyle.

        Nobody’s heard a thing from Yannick regarding his plans and directives for the met as they remain closed and they cut everybody off financially. Apparently he is the Mets liberal “gay adornment” but ONLY as needed…

        Meanwhile nobody’s talking about or cares of the opera singers fates, only the orchestra In Norman’s blog pieces. We’re watching them fall into poverty, depression, flea the city and worse.

        THAT’S what is important in both good and hard times; one’s character and constitution, nothing more.

  • Bloom says:

    Ivan Hewitt is right. The delirium of power can affect both male and female conductors. Women can be as belligerant when they occupy such an empowering position.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    No more up and downticks? Are we now forced to wear a mask, even on Slipped Disc?

    • Bruce says:

      It’s not exactly an infringement of our civil rights…

      The ups and downs had become a joke anyway, ever since people learned how to game the system (vote –> refresh –> vote again –> repeat until you have given yourself 50 upvotes).

      At least this way, if someone wants to express approval or disapproval, they have to say it with words – even if the word is simply “upvote” or “downvote.”

    • Marfisa says:

      Perhaps it is just taking some time to complete the redesign of the website? Whether or not comments are shown, or invited, seems to be a matter of chance at the moment. I too hope that up and down ticks can be restored, with a way of preventing people gaming the system, if indeed they could/did. (But I don’t see where masks come into it.)

    • Bill says:

      Someone probably got tired of getting downvotes on his more ridiculous posts.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      I think they have been restored. Can you confirm?

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    The masks are for muzzling individual points of view, as we can see only too clearly in some countries where people are required to wear them on the street, even if there’s no-one else around.

    Instead of the bidirectional ticks, I’d be more in favour of the antediluvian system we had which showed, in a column on the right of the page, the last ten or so comments left plus a link to that thread. It certainly kept hot topics alive and debate flowing.

  • Eric Weber says:

    The sex or ethnic background is no more important than any other job, it’s about skill and respect. Them musicians need to respect the conductors vision for the composition and the musicians need to respect the conductor. Yes occasionally employees need to be reminded when they do not meet the expectations… but it can be done with respect.