The power of a conductor

A recent article posed a fascinating question: Is it possible for someone to be a genuinely nice person and also be a great artist? The argument against the possibility was a strong one, at least as far as historical and empirical evidence was concerned. Throughout the ages there have been many examples of artists whose bodies of work were virtually celestial, yet their sense of humanity, at least in terms of day to day life and relationships, was closer to hellish. The obvious example is Wagner: a womanizer who stole his friends wife, a man who supported a violent revolution in the hopes of wiping out debt and a rabid bigot, he also wrote some of the most sublimely beautiful and profound works in western civilization.

An entire article could be devoted to creators whose work and personal lives were a paradox, but the article to which I refer focused more on the recreators–specifically orchestral musicians and conductors.

Conductors make easy targets for many reasons. It is no secret that the baton seems to come with a license for conspicuous displays of ego, a subjective set of criteria when it comes to evaluation and a long leash in terms of tolerating bad bad behavior.

Conductors make the big bucks, get to stand in the spotlight and take credit for the work of others and often get away with certain types of behavior–such as sexism and verbal abuse–that is generally frowned upon in society. It has long been so, of course; the difference is that in our increasingly tolerant (or at the very least politically correct) world, this behavior is now named and, usually, not tolerated quite so much. There are notable exceptions, of course, but that also is not the subject of this particular essay.

The question is this: why is there a need for a conductor to behave in an abusive manner towards his (or her) musicians? Our mothers always taught us that it is easier to catch flies with honey rather than vinegar; at what point is this lesson lost?

The complexity of the conductors craft is quite interesting to examine. The public, after all, merely sees the end result: the elegantly dressed, perfectly coiffed maestro standing on the podium, furiously and passionately waving his arms and leading his frenzied players into the musical abyss, always emerging triumphant by the finale. Magic, they cry, genius! How is it possible?

True, there are elements of magic involved; that is, if getting 100 egos to form one voice constitutes magic. And genius–as Issac Stern called it, ‘that most overused term’–is bound to be encountered. There are few conductors who possess it, but every good conductor is familiar with it and, by virtue of leading performances of such composers as Mozart and Beethoven, will often have a brush with it, of only by proxy. How does this translate into actual performance?

As I mentioned earlier, the concert itself is only the final step in a long and complex process. Ignoring the first part of that process–the training of a conductor as a musician and then as a leader on the podium–the rest falls into three parts: score study, rehearsal and performance.

Score study is the way a conductor practices. I would like to say that it is an exciting (or at least entertaining) activity, but that would be an outrageous lie. Most of score study is quite routine and would hardly suggest to the observer any sort of special quality on the part of the subject. The conductor sits at a desk or table, score spread out in front of him; close at hand are a metronome, array of pencils, staff paper, dictionary (usually Italian, French and/or German) and ruler. The latter is especially useful for doubling as a tool for self-flagellation, a necessary part of the process. It is easy to imagine a chorus of angels and Heavenly sunbeam always at the ready for those frequent moments of epiphany (“A-HA! That’s what Beethoven meant!”), but most Angels these days are unionized; and the fact of the matter is that those moments are much rarer than most conductors care to admit. So it is usually a process carried out in complete isolation.

The second is rehearsal, and that is where this excellent question comes into play. It is worth noting that a generation (or two) ago, the idea of conductor as God was rarely, if ever, questioned. The conductor was a dictator; what he said (and it was always a he) went. The conductor could hire and fire at will; he could berate, cajole, threaten, insult and injure. Orchestras played in terror–and this was in addition to being, most of the time, overworked and underpaid (to the point that even members of major orchestras sometimes had to take second jobs outside of music.) Modern conductors (present company excluded, naturally!) refer to this era in this history of conducting as ‘the good old days.’

But were they? By modern sensibilities, certainly not! What good is a threat when trying to coax a musician into creating a thing of beauty?

The true power of a conductor is, when one considers its depth, a truly awesome thing. Conducting is unique in the world of leadership–even today. Think about this: the President of a country–say, for example, the United States of America–does not have absolute power. In military matters, he consults his joint Chiefs of Staff; in matters of legislation, he is limited by checks and balances and battled by Congress; when it comes to justice, the Supreme Court limits his power. Even day to day he is advised by his senior staff and his cabinet–and, of course, the threat of being tried by the court of public opinion. In baseball, a manager has to report to his general manager (and team of statisticians), not to mention the owners and, these days, take into account the reports from his training staff and bench coach. In the corporate world there is the CEO–responsible to his shareholders and the market itself.

It is not so for the conductor! Can one imagine a board member approaching him during a break in rehearsal and suggesting a different type of legato in the slow movement of a Brahms symphony? Would an assistant, mid-rehearsal, suggest a change in tempo? How about a concertmaster standing up before a concert and announcing to the audience that tonight the orchestra has decided to go in a different direction, but that they might reconsider the conductors interpretation on another occasion?

No, those scenarios are unthinkable! And those are just the bureaucratic powers a conductor holds. What about the artistic?

The dirty little secret about conducting is that the baton makes no sound. No conductor, no matter how brilliant and accomplished a musician, can make music alone. Yet the power of that baton can be overwhelming. The collective wisdom of an orchestra is always greater than the individual knowledge of the conductor; yet it is the conductor who holds the virtuosity of his musicians in his hands. A conductor can coax different sounds from his musicians; he can make them play faster or slower, louder and softer. When he inspires, he can make talent sound like genius and genius into transcendence; when he cajoles, he is more likely to get (in the best case) an excellent, note perfect performance; but in doing so the orchestra may sound like him rather than like the composer.

The struggle for freedom and identity by orchestral players is a daily grind, an exercise in humility as the virtuoso subjugates individual talent for the good of the whole and in service of a master. Again, when a conductor inspires, the whole becomes a family and the master is rightly acknowledged as the composer and his ideals; but when the conductor is abusive, the orchestra becomes a band of survivors and the master is only the conductor himself. It is an old story and a fascinating drama to see being played out in concert halls and opera houses around the world. But only the conductor may decide whether the drama serves a purpose or merely his own ego.