On Conducting 13

I was rather amused by this article in the San Diego Tribune from 13 August 2023 entitled, “Projections, props, dance and spoken word poetry are expanding the boundaries of classical concerts.”

I knew this wasn’t going to go down well when I read, “I truly feel like we’re seeing an artistic renaissance,” said La Jolla Music Society Artistic Director Leah Rosenthal. During the pandemic, many artists were sad, scared and frozen. But people are feeling inspired again, happy again, and free.”

So this statement is erroneous on a number of levels. Certainly, there were many orchestral musicians in the USA who suffered horrendously through the COVID lockdowns – not least the orchestra members of the Metropolitan Opera, or Opera Australia for that matter, and numerous other orchestras and chamber orchestras throughout the USA and the world – but that is another story for another time. Orchestra musicians, contrary to Ms. Rosenthal’s expressed view are a pretty inventive and disiciplined lot, so, to suggest that many of these artists were sad, scared and frozen is both hyperbole and sophistry in respect to her idea of cause and effect. They coped – we all coped – and we all helped each other during COVID and carried on the best we could, beause that is what we do thank you very much.

However, the underlying assertion behind this exaggeration is that COVID is responsible for the declining interest in, and attendance at, orchestral music concerts. Moreover, the fix according to this article is to play Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals reimagined as Carnival of the Animals – A Political. Jungle.

At which point, I ask you does re-inventing a work; a composition Saint-Saëns personally detested, reconfigured as social commentary on the deplorable events of 6 January 2021 at the Capitol, re-inivgorate audiences to Classical Music? Yes, it might invigorate or inspire the curators of such an idea – and cross-collaboration in music is nothing new – but, surely, the critical aspect of undertaking any concert experience in the orchestral music genre is to FOCUS ON THE MUSIC!

If you stop doing that then orchestral musicians, as an ensemble, become nothing more than conduits to satisfy one or two people’s personal response to, in this case, an abhorrent event further dividing the people of the United States.

IT’S MEANT TO BE ABOUT THE MUSIC. Carnival of the Animals is just froth and bubble, so how does performing this whimsical light-hearteded fare of Saint-Saëns’ (however clever) correlate to a disgusting protest by an aggressive crowd of individuals?

What about designing an experience that allows an audience to get deeply inside – well, what the heck – let’s say Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 or the marvellous Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 by M. Saint-Saëns?

As I said in my previous post, come on folks, we’re (meant to be) smarter than this.

Kevin is now represented in North America by:

On Conducting 12

I have decided that it is a good idea not to have headings for these excursions of mine since I have been reading the formidable articles by Ted Gioia on his excellent Substack site entitled, The Honest Broker. The breadth and expertise of his writings, let alone his encycopedic knowledge of the Jazz repertoire is simple astounding. What may you ask is the relevance of this to Conducting?

The answer is embedded within the range and scope of the topics and musical idioms that come under Mr. Gioia’s gaze – if not microscope. As a musician, Ted is not delimited by his core Jazz expertise but by the intricate synaptic connections he makes across the entire gamut of the music industry. He is also not, as the Australian expression goes, “afraid to call a shovel a spade” when his ire is raised.

This leads to consider why the ‘Classical Music Industry’ – a term Richard Tognetti from the marvellous Australian Chamber Orchestra would argue now means nothing at all – seems unable to make similar neuronal associations toward solving the malaise of disinterest in falling audiences for orchestral concerts?

But is this true? The current season of the BBC Proms currently in full-swing is selling tickets in proverbial bucket loads – and audience reaction is, overall, ecstatic.

So we have a conundrum. It’s an age-old tension; a battle for supremacy between playing blockbuster warhorses and popular party-pleasers, as opposed to – and here is the elephant in the room to serve as the example – no-one wanting to go and see Simon Rattle conduct the first-ever complete concert performance of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri on August 22 in Prom No. 49.

Cue great gnashing of teeth and projections of doom and gloom!

So here is a bit of news that might stagger some of my conducting colleagues – I don’t know anything about this work by Robert Schumann. Now, whereas if I was in London on that date, I would go simply out of curiosity, why would any person from the general public make any effort to go and see a part-oratorio – part-opera (even that terminology is problematic) that’s never been previously put together for a public airing?

No reason at all. And, by the way, Crystal Palace plays Arsenal on the same day in the new English Premiere League season, so this concert is going to interfere with Pub drinking time after the game – and we can’t have that!

In short, until we give audiences a reason to do anything, their discretionary leisure time will be appropriated by ANY other event that has a higher promotional profile – and let’s face it almost any other event has a higher profile than a classical music concert – except The Proms!

Come on folks, we’re smarter than this.

Kevin is now represented in North America by:

On Conducting 11

I have been in New York City for the last five months working on forthcoming musical theatre projects for Broadway and on-demand online digital musical theatre initiatives. This always pulls at priorities of planning concert seasons and keeping up with my discourse on the state and art of orchestral and Opera conducting around the world. The upside of being in New York is the opportunity to hear and see the pantheon of great orchestras from around the world – and of recent interest and much conjecture – the revolving door of conductors trying out for the music directorship of the wonderful New York Philharmonic. [Updated: Gustavo Dudamel appointment confirmed]

Nevertheless, I have been keeping tabs on some fascinating articles from a variety of contributors on the matter of pertinence to this blog. Let’s firstly take an article written by Simon Woods, President and CEO, League of American Orchestras (13 December, 2022) from their Symphony Magazine.

Whereas, one can only concur with Mr. Woods expectations as to the attributes of what a fine conductor should be; although I am in disagreement as to the role-models he cites who have recently “…made such deep impressions” in concerts here in NYC (if you really want to make such unattributed statements, you should firstly ask the players who played in these concerts!) I have much deeper concerns as to his analysis of the skillset that should be the arsenal of music directors of American symphony orchestras.

Mr. Woods asserts that the problem with the systemized training of assistant conductors relies too heavily on an emphasis on “…efficiency, clarity, and professionalism” but it is these very attributes that allow orchestras to prepare programs (often on two – or less – rehearsals). It is somewhat disingenuous to blame emerging conductors in the acquisition of these hard-to-acquire skills as an argument for “development of distinctiveness. At this time in particular we need many reasons for audiences to make the trip to concert halls, and one of those is music-making that’s individual enough to stick in your mind.”

From my perspective, lauding this unabashed distinctiveness and individualism is often at the expense of actually performing what the composer has written – and, when wilfully ignored or not understood, is always unacceptable. Given that I was in attendance at all of the concerts to which Mr. Woods refers, he seems to be unaware that orchestral balances were quite poor, the orchestras were not together in many places and dynamic control was all but absent for much of the time. So, if this as an experience for audiences wherein such musical matters of artistry don’t matter, then orchestral music-making is in trouble. Of course, the ridiculous propensity for New Yortk audiences to give standing ovations at every concert, everywhere, gives easy rise to perceptions that every concert is one-off, lifetime event. This is obviously false. Notwithstanding, one recent concert where this was the case was the Rachmaninov ‘blockbuster’ concerti program with superstars Yuja Wang and Yannick Nézet-Séguin with his Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Wow!

As Mr. Woods cites, “I don’t know of an executive director or board chair of an American orchestra who is not deeply anxious about the future of their audiences.” In this I have no doubt he is correct. However, the panacea for this abiding concern is far too neatly resolved in his belief “…music directors can be vital agents of change, with a commitment to diverse stages and repertoire, authentic engagement with young people, and the building of an artistic profile that reflects the orchestra’s particular community and people.” I have always found such pronouncements to utterly misrepresent the underlying problem of why orchestras find it so difficult to authentically engage with their local community. And this is why:

You cannot build it and hope the audience will come. Orchestras must find their audience and treat them honestly and with humility. To do this, you have to understand their fears and anxieties around a musical artform from which they are ever increasingly disenfranchised, don’t at all understand (but, mistakenly perceived as ‘not liking’) is wholly inconsistent with the means through which they engage with the real (or for that matter, the ‘virtual’) world, i.e. smartphones and other XR devices; a complete absence of contextual relationship to other artforms they do understand and, more commonly than is realised, giving the impression they are missing out on something that the ‘privileged’ few are offering them for which they should be grateful.

Conversely, in an excellent article by Alex Ross in the New Yorker (16 December, 2022) Mr. Ross ascribes to almost the opposite view as espoused by Mr. Woods. The premise of this article is that pretentiousness in music-making and not trusting the music leads to impotent interpretations separate necessarily to the quality of execution. Ross cites the examples of concerts given by conductors Klaus Mäkelä and Xian Zhang in New York in recent months and then, astutely, makes a comparable observation in respect to Mäkelä’s release of the Sibelius symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic.

Unquestionably Mäkelä’s performance of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”) with the New York Philharmonic was hopelessly superficial compared to performances I have seen over the years given by Rozdhestvensky, Svetlanov or the impecable intepretation on recordings by the legendary Yevgeny Mravinsky, but this young man is unquestionably the real-deal as a musician. As per Mr. Ross’s insight, it really isn’t possible for a young conductor to live the ineffable tragicness of this sublime symphony – it comes only with maturity and evolving musical insight. And therefore, we deny audiences the opportunity first coming to this, and other comparable masterworks, in attempts to engage them in the pillars that make up the orchestral canon if such first-time experiences of such music is inert. Should young conductors then not conduct these works? Of course not, but we shouldn’t laud them for their over-exuberant flashiness at the expense of the greater awareness needed to convey meaning as articulated by the composer.

In contrast Ms. Zhang is described by Ross as an “…immaculate podium technician” and, generally, I am in agreement. What makes this young Chinese-American conductor so interesting is that her technique is not at all detrimental to the excitement of the peformances she is able to elicit from her players. Moreover, her repertoire choices do “reach” out to an audience excited to come and explore her programming ideas.

Neither technique nor practised individualism (think Mirga Gražinyt?-Tyla?) is sufficient. It is the honesty and depth of music-making that draws people (think Daniele Gatti, Fabio Luisi or Kirill Petrenko?) Perhaps the Executive directors or Board chairs might cogitate on this more than they seem to do right now.

On Conducting 10

I have not had the opportunity to write a new post on conducting for over a year now, partly to do with the continuing impact of COVID on my schedule and, partly, because I have not felt the need to comment on anything to do with the profession of orchestral and opera conducting. But, yesterday, that changed.

I came across a public domain article (i.e., not one behind a pay-wall) from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette journalist, Jeremy Reynolds. This is a very good article, informative to the general reader and also part expose on the declining opportunities to study the Art of Conducting in the USA, as opposed to the greater opportunities in Europe.

The issue I have with this article is the individual responses from one of the conductors interviewed. Yes, he is a novice but his thinking is so common-place with the current generation of aspirational conductors; so I have discovered much to my chagrin, I believe it warrants direct critique. I have copied a slightly précis version of the original article below for follow-up reading or you can read the original article here.

The ‘job’ as stated by one interviewee is neither 98% about motivating people nor managing orchestral musicians’ egos. The conductor’s first job – and frankly only job – is to serve the music. If you believe otherwise, you’re not ready to be on the podium in my opinion. Even more egregious is the idea that conductors can practice “by waving your arms along with a recording.” Perhaps the interviewee I am lambasting here could practice by working out what gestures with the use his arms (at the very least) might impart the intention of the music whilst silently studying the score and learning to sight-sing every part in his head? Just a thought. Point: if you’re ‘waving’ your arms to someone else’s recording, you’re doing their performance, not your interpretation of the music. No orchestra hires a conductor with the specific intent to do another conductor’s idea of a piece of music.

Notwithstanding the problems I have with these specific views in Mr. Reynold’s piece, the article does an excellent job of capturing the reality for many young, and not so young, conductors in a profession losing the battle (and in my view, the War) against the rising tide of disinterest in Classical Music. Nevertheless, if these ideas of what the primary role of the conductor is do not change, the decline in audiences attending classical music concerts; exhibiting the pervasive ennui of those who no longer have any trust in what is being offered warranting the price of admission, will continue because it is about the MUSIC – not any single individual conductor’s ego, career-climbing ambitions or longer-term job-hopping strategies to ever greater personal recognition.

Behind the baton: There’s no easy path to becoming an orchestra conductor

Plenty of parents who’ve encountered celebrated abstract art have made famous the phrase “My kid could paint that!”

The sentiment arises from a lack of understanding about the techniques involved in modern art as well as some real and well-documented charlatans in the art world.

There’s a similar lack of understanding about the role of the orchestra conductor, who waves his or her arms in front of groups of musicians to keep them in time, unified in interpretation.

Conductor’s positions are some of the highest paying jobs in the classical music world, with top orchestral appointments earning millions of dollars a year and additional compensation through guest appearances with other orchestras.

Of course, there’s more to the job than meets the eye. Or the ear.

“I didn’t know this when I started down this path, but leadership, charisma, group psychology and the ability to motivate people and manage egos are really about 98% of the job,” said Jacob Joyce, 29, a new assistant conductor at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Put another way, in addition to musical ability, people skills and leadership skills are perhaps the most essential qualifiers for a conductor.

To further illuminate the career of the conductor, the Post-Gazette spoke with the Pittsburgh Symphony’s current and former staff conductors to get a snapshot of what this niche path entails.

In America, there aren’t conducting programs at the undergraduate level typically. Conducting is a vocation discovered during or after college.

There’s no standard path to success.

Take Andres Franco, former assistant PSO conductor and executive director of the North Side nonprofit City of Asylum. He trained as a concert in pianist in Colombia before moving to Texas to earn a master’s degree. His adviser suggested he take a conducting elective for the credits.

“At one of my lessons, my professor asked me to run through a piece with the youth orchestra he conducted,” Franco said. “I remember starting and finishing and nothing that happened in between. It was terrifying, exhilarating.”

Franco’s teacher, the sneaky fellow, was hiding in the orchestra to observe and then advised him to consider a career in conducting.

Another former PSO conductor, Earl Lee, 38, launched his career as a professional cellist before sustaining an injury to his hand. After a few years of teaching and trying to recover, he decided to pursue conducting as a performance outlet.

“I started to read books and study,” he said. “Sometimes you have to learn the basics on your own, but once I was in the education world, the ship started sailing and I could just steer.”

Baton basics

During school, aspiring conductors study scores of famous pieces of music and instrumental techniques and spend time on the podium in front of orchestras to gain experience, though this is rare early on. More commonly, they observe hundreds of hours of professional rehearsals and discuss ways to rehearse efficiently.

“One of the ways you think you can practice is kind of by waving your arms along with a recording,” said Joyce. “But the sensation is completely different from conducting an actual orchestra.

“The reason is that if you’re effectively conducting an orchestra you’re leading and impelling the action.”

This means that, though limited, time in front of actual musicians is the most important part of the training. It’s a terribly high-pressure environment with very limited opportunities in the beginning.

Later, toward the end of these programs, students begin applying to dozens or even hundreds of professional conducting positions.

“You just get so, so many rejections…” Lee said.

Like most jobs in the classical music industry, there are vastly more qualified applicants than positions available.

Wheat and chaff

Orchestras typically invite only a few candidates to audition. Typically, an in-person conducting audition involves an interview and rehearsing with the orchestra to demonstrate efficiency and personality.

It takes far more than musical ability to win a job.

“Chemistry is a great factor,” said Lawrence (“Larry”) Loh, a former resident conductor with the orchestra who is now music director of an orchestra in Syracuse, N.Y.

“When you’re in school, you’re not studying how to be good with people or marketing and development. There’s not a curriculum for that,” he added. “You find out about that part later.”

Of course, not everyone will win a job. Some conductors divert to conducting youth orchestras or teaching. Many leave the field altogether.

First beats

Often, a conductor’s first job is as a staff conductor (assistant, associate, resident — the title varies) at a small to medium-sized orchestra. These are contract positions that last typically from one to four years.

The salaries are livable and dependent on the size of the orchestra and the specific duties, but nowhere near the music director salary. For a rough example, at an orchestra with a $12 million budget, an assistant conductor might make $40,0000-$45,000 a year.

The job usually allows time for other projects and guest engagements and competitions.

“A lot of young conductors have to put things together piecemeal,” Joyce said. “It’s not comfortable. These aren’t jobs you’d want to find yourself in for 20 years.”

Every day is different. Staff conductors “cover” rehearsals, listening in in case the orchestra’s music director gets sick at the last minute. They conduct community and education concerts and some live-with-film orchestra concerts. They might give pre-concert lectures and interact with board members and donors. They weigh in on recording sessions and travel with the orchestra when it goes on tour.

At the end of a contract, an assistant generally tries to win an audition to be an assistant at a larger orchestra or as a full-fledged music director at a smaller orchestra.

To illustrate: Lee moved from assistant at the Pittsburgh Symphony (budget around $30 million) to assistant at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (budget around $107 million) and this year became the music director of the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra in Michigan (budget of about $1.3 million).

Major leagues

At some point during the assistantship ladder, many young conductors take on an agent to help secure guest conducting spots and advance their careers.

Loh said he balances his conducting plate with a mix of classical and pops conducting. That’s become a lucrative sideline as he balances his position in Syracuse with regular guest appearances with more than a dozen orchestras.

It’s worth noting that guest conducting can actually pay more than a full-time music directorship, though these positions are more sporadic.

From this point, the hope is it’s a profession that can last a lifetime, with many conductors continuing to work well into their 80s or even 90s. Even Manfred Honeck, the Pittsburgh Symphony’s music director, is still making debuts. In September, he’ll guest conduct the Metropolitan Opera in New York City for the first time.

“When you start, you think you have great musical ideas you want to show the world,” Joyce said. “It takes that kind of ego to want the job, but it’s not really like that in the end. The job is bigger than any one person.”