Conductors: artists or time beaters?

The love/hate relationship between orchestra players and their podium leaders

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The love/hate relationship between orchestra players and their podium leaders There were two violists — good friends — who sat beside each other in the symphony orchestra. One of them also had recognized ability as a conductor. It seems that one day the orchestra’s music director/principal conductor turned sick. He would take a month to recuperate. To save the orchestra money, the violist/conductor was engaged to replace him, and he assumed podium duties for the next four concerts. When the music director finally returned and the violist/conductor took his accustomed seat, his friend, looking startled, exclaimed, “I’ve missed you. Where in the hell have you been?” ISO conductor Mario Venzago The above tale resides among a countless number of satiric jokes liberally shared among performing musicians. This one is two-tiered: It parodies violists as a class of ignoramuses (viola jokes are shared as much among violists as among the other instrumentalists), and it reflects players’ attitudes — either subliminal or conscious, depending on those involved — regarding conductors. These “Dictators of the Baton” (a book title) have endured a love/hate relationship with players under their charge since the ascendancy of the symphony orchestra in the early 19th century. The term “under” is sensitive. I once asked the principal cellist of a major orchestra which conductor he “preferred playing under.” He quickly responded, “I don’t play under anyone. I play with him. But that’s also wrong because he doesn’t play at all.” In another instance I asked a player what percentage of those on the podium conduct without a score in front of them. The response was, “It makes no difference. We all have scores in front of us.” Conductors get in their licks as well. The esteemed Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) reportedly once said to a lady cellist, “Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands and all you can do is scratch it.” On another occasion, Beecham, rehearsing an opera, remarked about a soprano, “Her singing reminds me of a cart coming downhill with the brake on.” Eugene Ormandy (born Jenö Blau) came to the U.S. from his native Hungary at age 22. For an astonishing 42 years he was music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra (1938 to 1980). A quiet, self-effacing man of barely 5-foot stature, Ormandy’s command of English remained tentative. This led to a series of humorous rehearsal statements he made through the years, which his Philadelphia players have annotated, and now widely circulate among musicians everywhere. Among them: “I’m conducting slowly because I don’t know the tempo.” “I was trying to help you, so I was beating wrong.” “I can conduct better than I can count.” “Watch me closely. Only one can spoil it.” “Someone came in too sooner.” “Did you play? It sounded very good.” “It’s difficult to remember when you haven’t played it before.” Considering the conductor’s role as the focus of any music ensemble, the accolades thrown his way by his orchestra’s management and the general privilege accorded him often enable a celebrity-level ego to emerge. (When Raymond Leppard arrived here in 1987 to begin his 14-year tenure as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s music director, he was startled to note that a number of Metro buses carried his very large portrait on their sides.) In general, the more famous they become the greater their every wish is catered to; like any celebrity, they develop market value. This can lead to overbearing podium artists — those mainly responsible for the “hate” part of their relationship with players. Nowadays, all symphonic organizations refer to their leader as “maestro,” an abused title that likely began with the reign of the Italian, Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), regarded by most as the Maestro and the greatest conductor who ever lived. He was also perhaps the most overbearing conductor ever to throw legendary tantrums and get by with it through his pervasive charisma (and less ironclad union requirements). If anyone had star status and an ego to match (including being a notorious philanderer), he did. Furthermore, if anyone could coalesce any ensemble into a living, breathing entity, he could. Toscanini’s early ’40s Philadelphia Orchestra recordings of Debussy’s La Mer and Iberia, for example, have not been approached — let alone equaled — by any other conductor with any orchestra I’ve ever heard. To dramatize the span of his stellar career, Toscanini conducted the world premiere of Puccini’s La Bohème (recently presented here by Indianapolis Opera) in 1896 at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy. In 1952, at age 85, he recorded in Carnegie Hall with the NBC Symphony Orchestra (an ensemble NBC board chairman David Sarnoff created for him in 1937) a definitive Beethoven Ninth Symphony. The brisk tempos he took anticipate, decades ahead of their time, the recently heralded revisionist approach to conducting Beethoven. What has been discovered of late by thorough scholarship the Maestro seems to have known intuitively. All of which demonstrates that, despite players’ satire to the contrary, the conductor — who makes no sound himself, who waves his arms with or without a score (and with or without a baton), who directs his players under him, with him, in front of him, for him … take your pick — ideally creates an alchemy all his own with an orchestra. And, after sitting through another ISO season filled with guest conductors, I’m struck with the notion that their greatest effect on playing style and caliber is immediate. It doesn’t take three or four years of “building” and “coalescing” a body of instrumentalists, as a resident music director typically states is necessary to achieve his sound (or her sound: A small minority of women conductors are making impressive inroads into what had been an exclusively male profession. Marin Alsop has been the best one appearing locally.). What does happen after that period is that the protagonists become adjusted to one another. Rehearsals get easier. A certain comfort level is manifest. This is the “honeymoon” period, which at its best enables the conductor and his players to make beautiful music together, metaphorically as well as literally. After a longer interval, dissonance creeps slowly into this pervasive harmony. The conductor gets increasingly annoyed with a small cadre of players for failing to follow his interpretive lead, for disagreeing with him either verbally or for striking out on their own when feeling they can get by with it. On the other hand, each of those players feels the conductor is singling him out for censure, ridiculing him in front of his colleagues. This leads to back-biting, gossip, sarcasm, discord. Both sides develop an “attitude.” Meanwhile, conductor and orchestra appear all smiles before their audiences on concert day, and may even continue to deliver exceptional performances — for a while. Raymond Leppard reportedly had an unusually extended honeymoon with the ISO over his 14 years. His predecessor John Nelson had, by all accounts, no honeymoon at all. By the mid-1980s, key players had threatened to quit if Nelson remained. Wisely, he decided to resign. As for Mario Venzago, the ISO’s brand new music director, the players love him. They even state that he hears everything, and makes them play together without exhibiting any ego whatever. Too good to be true? Time will tell.

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