Lebrecht essay: Some conductors have too much time on their hands

Lebrecht essay: Some conductors have too much time on their hands


norman lebrecht

October 02, 2022

From my monthly contribution to The Critic magazine:

If ever you wonder if conducting is a proper job, ask yourself why so many maestros do other things on the side.

Playing the piano, for instance.

Simon Rattle has been popping up here and there, accompanying his wife Magdalena Kožená in song recitals. Lahav Shani, young baton of the Israel Philharmonic and Rotterdam Phil, plays four-hand concerts with Martha Argerich, who is old enough to be his grandma (but doesn’t look it). Antonio Pappano, the Covent Garden chief, regularly plays lieder at the piano for the tenor, Ian Bostridge.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra, has recorded a solo piano album for Deutsche Grammophon. Myung-whun Chung, ex-head of the Opéra Bastille and the Seoul Philharmonic, has released two solo piano albums on DG.

Why do they do it? Must be too much time on their hands….

Read on here.


  • M says:

    This made me wonder, like the chess computer they developed, is there a robot conductor being developed that can conduct the music of any composer at an equivalent level given how the finest chess computer can beat any grandmaster apparently? And, if so, how will it treat rehearsals when someone plays a wrong note, or out of tune? Will it transmit a small electrical admonition, without any pain, of course, but instantly noticeable? Would this produce better results than verbal criticism? And how would such a technological conductor look, will physical traits be programmable, too, including gender, hair color and style, etc? One imagines the highest priced models would have additional capabilities such as handling unruly audience members.

    Real conductors would likely be preferable, and if there were robot conductors only to fill in when the scheduled conductor is indisposed, well then, to use an example from the past, Leonard Bernstein might never had had his famous substitution opportunity.

    I once lent a favorite cassette tape of Christa Ludwig and Leonard Bernstein at piano rendering Brahms Lieder to a famous singer I knew. She also loved the recording…and never returned it.

    • Novagerio says:

      M: You realize that music making is a human thing, right? Based on human rapport, imagination, culture, psychology, emotion, respect and a lot of other things besides technique, right?

      • M says:

        The idea I wondered about, adding some jocularity, of course, not knowing if anything like this is in development anywhere, would have a range of possible outcomes. The worst result would be merely mechanical as you suggest, while the best achievement might potentially be godlike, going beyond human capabilities, leading musicians of the orchestra towards previously unexplored expressive realms. At least one composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, similar to Haridas, said his music was composed for God, with Haridas only singing ragas for God, living alone in the forest. And the human element would be paramount given how the design and realization of the design would all be human. Remember, the first instruments were considered a sacrilege, not human, because they were not the human voice directly singing, being technological inventions. Even today, there are musicians at the level of grandmaster who have not accepted the santoor as a legitimate instrument for ragas because it is a struck sound that is produced, something they feel is antithetical to human music.

        I had not realized the Brahms Lieder recorded by Christa Ludwig and Leonard Bernstein is also available in video form, being a live concert, a wonderful discovery, the gravitas of Bernstein’s presence adding resonance to his superb playing.

  • Gerry McDonald says:

    Just a couple of points: Barenboim was balancing pianism and conducting from a very young age, and Gerald Moore was the go to “collaborative pianist” for many great artists, not just DFD!

  • trumpetherald says:

    Every conductor should play at least one instrument(preferably an orchestra instrument) on a professional level.Playing chamber music is also highly recommendable(orchestral playing should be chamber music on an extended scale….).If you don´t produce sound on an excellent level,you can´t elicit it from an orchestra.

    • Dave says:

      I’d add that as well as a pro-level standard on an orchestral instrument, they should have piano at a high level of competence too.

      • Gerry McDonald says:

        Preferably so. There are notable exceptions. Colin Davis was a fine clarinettist, but was unable to take conducting lessons at RCM as he didn’t play the piano

  • Novagerio says:

    You forgot to mention James Levine, who on any given occasion also played chamber music, and accompanied (greatly, in fact) Lieder with Norman, Battle and Christa Ludwig.
    I don’t see it as ego, I just think conductors who are trained pianists, need to cultivate the “intimate” in music, when there’s time for it.

    • Fsm says:

      I think I might not be alone in wishing that his name wasn’t mentioned as he kind of destroyed any legacy he might have had. But , just saying..if you overlook his serious transgressions, so be it.

      • Anthony Sayer says:

        Levine was not, sadly, the only protected perv on the circuit.

      • soavemusica says:

        If James Levine`s sexual degeneracy destroyed his art, surely Kathleen Battle`s bad behaviour would do the same to their Salzburg Recital (which, by the way, may apparently exist in two great versions, live and on record.).

        Most composers, I assume, should be cancelled for a wide variety of reasons. Bach was a confessional Christian, therefore, a homophobe.

        Never fear, social justice does triumph in the end, which is our time: a drag queen promoting consensual sexual relationships, a family-friendly show. They say.

      • Nelson says:

        Yes, you are alone. I suppose you are better than a lot of people who “transgress”. Please fill us in on others we need to erase from musical history. I’m sorry but it happened….you can’t even discuss the past 50 years of musical history without coming to terms with Levine. Sorry, that’s the way it is….unless you must kid yourself and believe it never happened. Please do not ever write a history of the Metropolitan Opera.

    • soavemusica says:

      And I fear some grandiose singers might not be able to take advice from a humble accompanist, especially, if it is a good one.

      Still, it is lamentable that conductors routinely take the job of an accomplished pianist, who would do better.

  • Achim Mentzel says:

    It’s all still better than playing airplane pilot.

  • Amos says:

    So was George Szell merely engaging in ego gratification when he recorded Mozart sonatas with Rafael Druian or do you think he both greatly admired the pieces and wanted to preserve his take on them? Likewise, was the late Lars Vogt mistaken to take up the baton including leading from the keyboard? At the risk of stating the obvious, each case should be judged individually based on the quality of the results.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      It seems odd to complain that a conductor who is also an able instrumentalist would want to play music as well as conduct music. Indeed, go back far enough to the origin of true conducting on forward and nearly every conductor of note was also a performer on an instrument, and did not abandon the instrument to conduct. Spohr, Mendelssohn, von Bülow, Joachim and the list goes on. These were not mere dabblers either. In that sense Bernstein’s rather substantial piano discography was a throwback to an earlier time, although it struck most contemporary critics as a novelty.

      Amos mentions George Szell, who also recorded, as pianist, Mozart sonatas with Szigeti and piano quartets with members of the Budapest String Quartet. Bruno Walter recorded Schumann song cycles with Lotte Lehmann. More recently Leonard Slatkin as pianist recorded Dvorák’s Romantic Pieces with violinist Uto Ughi, filling out their CD of the concerto. Slatkin also recorded, as pianist, Barber’s Souvenirs with John Browning, filling out their CD of the piano concerto and Symphony No 1. Yeah, perhaps André Previn should not have ventured into concertos but his CD of the Ravel and Debussy piano trios is a fine one.

      Maybe Lorin Maazel is not the best name to bring up to prove my point. I would freely concede that his playing of the Thaïs Méditation in his recording of the complete opera was pure ego trip, and it is good that the microphones did not pick up the sound of the New Philharmonia’s concertmaster grinding his teeth. But having said that Maazel’s recording of the Mozart Concerto No 3 is by no means a bad one. Not the best, and hardly essential, but not shameful in any way.

  • Kman says:

    If conductors take up multiple gigs, they’re “doing too much” and “too busy to do any one job well.”

    If they play an instrument, then they have “too much time on their hands.”

    Seems contradictory.

  • Old guy says:

    I would say as a long time orchestra grunt that many conductors have no “time” “in” their hands. 🙂

  • Barry says:

    Sawallisch was a highly regarded accompanist who worked with the best singers of his era from both the podium and piano.

    • Amos says:

      Although Schubert’s Trout is not in the chamber music hall of fame nonetheless I attended a performance with WS playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra DePasquale Quartet and he was quite good.

      • Novagerio says:

        “Schubert’s Trout is not in the chamber music hall of fame”, oh, that was a new one! And what country are you from?

      • KANANPOIKA says:

        WS playing with MEMBERS of the DePasquale
        Quartet….(plus bass)….check your instrumentation….

  • Alank says:

    Not all conductors are driven by ego. Think of Wolfgang Swallisch the late great conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra who made wonderful recordings of Schubert songs with Fischer-Dieskau. Going back in time many conductors started their careers as repetiteurs in opera companies. So performing chamber music later in their life as major conductors was a natural extension of their artistry

  • Lothario Hunter says:

    Oh yes, yes!! They have too much time on their hands! However, they are not all equally judicious in using their time!

    The pinnacle of wisdom for a conductor is to renounce ephemeral demonstrations of instrumental skills and use every hour of blessed free time for deep excursions into seasoned North American tropical forests, which do grow in the Midwest, or pleasurable sashays in and around younger Mediterranean bushes in the mother country, especially in Bari and Rome!

    In Chicago, we know!

  • MacroV says:

    Interesting point, but I don’t agree. You seem to think of these folks as conductors rather than musicians who conduct primarily but have other abilities. Barenboim and Ashkenazy may be in a category from others because they were top-class pianists who then took up conducting (Barenboim much earlier). But they’d made their reputations first as pianists (Eschenbach, too, among others). Karajan, Abbado, and the others you mention were never known first as pianists.

    I think it’s kind of cool if, for instance, a conductor plays chamber music with members of his/her orchestra. Sir Simon playing with his wife also makes some amount of sense – though IIRC he was a percussionist, so I’m not clear when he became a competent pianist.

  • Guest says:

    Interesting that ‘collaborative pianists’ are said to ‘accompany’ soloists. Is there something unsettling about the phrase ‘collaborate with’ and the noun ‘collaborator’?

  • Rob Keeley says:

    I’d be more interested in hearing Simon Rattle accompany his wife than hear him conduct. Just. Certainly a vast improvement on hearing him talk.

  • msc says:

    Schonberg was a snob. Previn was a much better pianist than he suggested and his forays into playing and conducting were usually pretty successful.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    Knowing Vladimir Ashkenazy, I could never imagine his revisiting the piano after taking up the baton resembling anything akin to an ego trip. Listening to Plëtnev’s piano rendition of Pictures at an Exhibition makes you wonder how much conducting informed that sensational depth of colour. Barenboim is a case apart. He is outrageously gifted and musically incontinent, even though his talent has recently outweighed his delivery.

    Having listened to recording of Fritz Reiner and George Szell this morning, I’d be generally more concerned about conductors debasing the profession of conductor.

  • MacroV says:

    I will concede that Lorin Maazel should probably have left his violin at home rather than venture out in public or on record (will we one day have a GOOD violinist record his – IIRC – quite good Music for Violin and Orchestra)?

    When he was still a Montreal phenomenon about 20 years ago, I saw YNS lead from the harpsichord Bach’s St. John Passion. He seemed quite competent at that and it was part of his leadership of the entire enterprise, so it made a good bit of sense.

    And while Jonas Kaufman insists on equal billing for Helmut Deutsche, is the money split 50/50, too? Otherwise, just words.

    • Guest says:

      It is Kaufmann and Deutsch. I guess you don’t listen much to lieder, or you would know that singer and pianist are equal partners (though sometimes the pianist is more equal, in Schumann’s Dichterliebe for instance), and that singers would cut off their right arm to be allowed to perform with Helmut Deutsch. As for the fees, that will no doubt be arranged by their respective agencies.

      • MacroV says:

        You’re really going to niggle about spelling? Get a life, for heaven’s sake!

        I know lieder well enough to know the piano has a major role, but also enough about reality to know that most people go to hear the singer. So can you answer my question?

  • MacroV says:

    Also, if Lahav Shani is playing 4-hands with Martha Argerich, he must be a pretty darn good pianist. I can’t imagine she plays with just anyone.

    And Bernstein was always plagued, it seemed, with “Imagine how great he could be if he would just focus on one thing.” But what’s it worth to have someone who could do peerless Mahler, AND write one of the greatest musicals of all time. And play some pretty competent piano.

    As the saying went: Thank God there’s a Leonard Bernstein…and thank God there’s only one.

  • Fiddleman says:

    I think conductors making music instrumentally on the side is probably a very enriching experience for them and makes them better musicians. Each case has to be judged indidually, based on the merits of the music making. Barenboim pursued both careers at a young age and kept up with both of them atr a very high level. For some it is surely an ego trip, a waste of recording time and an easy sell for concert managers. How about talking about the waste of time (and energy resources)of jet setting conductors, conducting various ensembles around the world rather than concentrating on one orchestra where they can develop a distinctive sound and style.

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    Concert artists start waving their arms in front of orchestras because they are afraid that their careers are waning as younger stars are rising, and it is easier and more lucrative to tell others what to do than to do it oneself. I respect them if they go back to playing their instruments in public because therein lies danger.

  • Pastore says:

    Some folks just like to make music. And why do you assume conductors cannot or are not willing to be equal partners when playing chamber music? Or that their collaborators would consciously or subconsciously let them take over the proceedings?

  • Luca says:

    “.Bernstein, by playing both roles of pianist and conductor, indulged a vanity that verged on omnipotence, and he did so at the expense of the music he played.”
    Can anyone back this up?

  • Mr Marlow says:

    Appears that Mr Lebrecht is criticising talent? Previn and Bernstein were both pretty wonderful all-round musicians who could play in numbers of different fields. Actually Mozart was pretty good at a number of different things – piano, viola, conducting, composing – too. Maybe he ought to have reigned his ego in a bit, eh?

  • Ethan Schmeisser says:

    I totally object to the thesis of this post. Just to summarize some of the names here in comments who show this tradition from the past: Sawallisch, Levine, Szell, Barenboim, Bruno Walter, not to mention Benjamin Britten’s recordings as a pianist which I think are the most sublime of their kind from the piano side. I don’t feel any imposing in any of those. As a conductor who started as an accompanist and still does a big share of piano work as suct, it is actually a privilege and a desire of a conductor to be on an equal partnership platform, as only playing chamber music can be, whether in a lied form, a classic – romantic Ensemble or baroque continuo. If the player is in good technical level, everyone will get rewarded from her/his musicality and experience.