On Conducting 4

Iván Fischer: Will the Symphony Orchestra Survive?

I thoroughly recommend this video discussion between Iván Fischer in a new talk for the Hanns Eisler Institute moderated by the articulate Kirill Gerstein. Fischer’s remarks need to be taken seriously as the future of orchestral music as a viable artform in an increasingly trivialized music industry intent on short-form experience is only going to become increasingly pervasive.

As conductors, we have a responsibility to collaborate in finding solutions to protect the human experience of performing, and being receptive to, Classical Music across all generations – and especially for the young – to whom it will be synonomous with the behaviours of “old people” (if it is not already so) and alarmingly irrelevant in, and to, their lives.

And that means change at the top of the orchestral management industry and the cartel of agent managers controlling the roster of a very limited number of reputable conductors (and also a number of charletans) associated with major orchestra managements and artistic administrators.

And yet, even more importantly, is the realization that conductors must drive the search, and championship of, contemporary composers so as to inject some lifeblood into a moribund repertoire consisting of an overly concentrated diet of Mahler and Strauss. Listen to maestro Fischer’s thoughts especially about this.

On Conducting 3

Pertinent Criticisms of Today’s Classical Music and Opera

Three recent articles have caught my attention for being lucid and openly critical of the Classical Music Recording industry and the Opera production world respectively. All three are perspicacious in their own right, but the one on Opera today by noted American Opera critic and vocal coach, Conrad L. Osborne, is fascinating for its implication in respect to the long-term health of the Opera industry – which, frankly, at present has the countenance of a recently deceased corpse.

The first two articles are from the WQXR blog by James Bennett, II. In the first, The Classical Crossing, Part One: CDs and Happy Accidents, the rise of classical cross-over music is discussed against the advent of the CD format and the means by which the latter was used to attempt to reach broader audiences at a premium price-point. It is a tale of record executive greed, stupidity and musical naivety. And, lamentably it is all true.

The follow-up article, The Classical Crossing, Part Two: Hot n’ Corny, focuses on the absurd concept of classical music’s “accessibility” and the consequent reliance on using sex to drive this agenda. This quote from the article pretty much says it all.

“In a 1995 speech Sony Classical U.S. President (and future Met Opera General Manager) Peter Gelb delivered to the Classical Radio Programmers Association, a single word was his refrain: “accessibility.” He warned against “exclusively programming dead composers,” cautioning that if radio couldn’t find new musical life it could never grow its audience. “Nobody wants to buy another recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” he surmised. The old-guard needed to take a rest. In Gelb’s opinion, programmers needed to prioritize what music listeners were listening to.”

Of course Gelb, now with The Metropolitan Opera in New York, is the subject of much iconoclastic invective by opera lovers, especially in the USA for his exceedingly poor financial management of the MET over many years. My personal opinion is that he is merely a perfect example of a professional administrator – one who would never obtain a job in any important cultural organization whose mission was actually focused on the promotion and preservation of its artform.

Clearly, my view of the MET is that it is well past its used-by-date with its current management and Board. Too many of the numerous productions I have seen exuded such a level of incompetence ranging from absurdist, uninformed directorial vision through matching scengraphic design, to the engagement of long-suffering singers cast in wrong roles that MET productions (with rare exceptions) have become somewhat an insider industry joke.

The last article on Opera makes scintillating reading. Conrad Osborne is a highly informed and thoughtful writer. Along with Joseph Horowitz, these two men are starting to look like the last bastions of musical intelligencia in the USA. In this, Osborne’s most recent blog before a self-imposed Summer sabbatical, he takes his pen to what he believes is wrong with Opera today. It is worth quoting from:


The dearth of genuine vocal teachers with a depth of understanding of both repertoire and technique.

Almost all currently working stage directors of opera, who imagine that we care about their “ideas.”

Company managers who don’t really understand the history of operas and what makes them “work” in performance.

The fans, who mostly have failed in discriminating between the very good and the wholly inadequate.

The designers who take poor stage directors at their word and deliver what they want (though I acknowledge that they know they really have no choice).

Most of our universities, who imagine that singing can be taught by a music department in a program within a liberal arts curriculum. One credit per semester in voice will not produce a real singer.

Wealthy board members who can only imagine an opera company built on a business model.

The critics who imagine that they can help the cause by being understanding of its current limitations.

The ubiquity of amplified music in our culture, and the use of microphones to project singing, rather than its projection being the job of the singer.

Digital recording engineers.

The record companies.

The New York Times. I can’t explain this but I’m sure I’m right about it. Perhaps by invariably supporting the trendy, the arty, the au courant, and by thinking they are the “king makers.”

With the exception of his critique of ‘fans’, I couldn’t agree more.

On Conducting 2

Interview with Herbert Blomstedt by Alan Gilbert

This is a remarkable interview by both maestri, on one hand because Alan Gilbert knows how to listen and, secondly, because Herbert Blomstedt provides highly informative answers. The interview gets better as it goes on. Alan Gilbert has been doing a series of these chats on his Facebook page. I highly recommend them.

On Conducting

As a conductor and musical director, I have never written extensively on the Art of Conducting.  There are several reasons for this primarily concerned with the fact that conductors are more effectively indulged in their musical opinions by ‘doing’ rather than ‘saying’.  In the theatre world we would refer to this as “Show me, don’t tell me” a silent proposition that most orchestral players implore conductors to follow. There are several conductors who do write effectively and with clarity. This is far from an exhaustive list, but some of these include:

  • Leonard Slatkin – who currently has two books in print, Leading Tones: Reflections On Music, Musicians And The Music Industry (2017) and Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro (2012).
  • Kenneth Woods – Extremely erudite American conductor who has written a number of perspicacious blogs on the Mahler symphonies https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/
  • On Mahler again – anything written by Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson such as The Mahler Companionor the hefty tomes by Henry-Louis de La Grange – Gustav Mahler (Vols. 1 – 3).
  • If there is a book on conducting I admire for its analytical reasoning it is the Musin/Proskurnya The Techniques of Orchestral Conducting by Ilia Musin.  It is, admittedly, very expensive to buy and quite hard to find.
  • Most books on conducting are, by and large, turgid affairs. Even recent efforts by (mostly) American college/university conducting professors fair little better espousing content about both music and conducting technique that is highly dubious if applied to professional orchestral music-making. A rare exception to this is the latest book by the Baltimore-based Markand Thakar, whose On the Principles and Practice of Conducting is a very considered study.
  • The one conductor who I wish would write more often is the American Jeffrey Schindler.  His musical insights, if you take the time to read his thoughts on music and how to approach it as a conductor are lucid and thought provoking. http://www.jeffreyschindler.com/blog/

Nonetheless, over time there are some topics I will address in this forum if only to offer counterpoint to some long-held beliefs and practices of orchestral conducting that are outdated, outmoded but still perpetuated. I hope you’ll find them interesting.

Let’s begin with a list of useful starting-out references for the conductor.  Besides obtaining good editions of study (or full) scores to work on, these reference materials are usually found in most serious conductors’ libraries. In alphabetical order:

Aronowsky, S. Performing Times of Orchestral Works. Ernest Benn Ltd: London, 1959. Use in conjunction with David Daniels Orchestral Music Onlinehttps://daniels-orchestral.com/

Del Mar, Norman. Anatomy of the Orchestra. Faber & Faber: London, 1981.

Del Mar, Norman. A Companion to the Orchestra. Faber & Faber: London, 1987.  

Del Mar, Norman. Orchestral Variations. Eulenburg Books: London, 1981.

Fogel, Henry. Timings of Orchestral Literature. From the recording library of Henry Fogel. www.henrysrecords.org   

Korn, Richard. Orchestral Accents. Farrar, Straus & Co:  New York, 1956.

Saltonstall, Cecilia D. and Henry Saltonstall. A New Catalog of Music for Small Orchestra. European American Music: Clifton, NJ, 1978.