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    ARIA Popular Classical Music

Are Conductors Today As Good As They Used to Be?

This is the third of a four part article series discussing the role of conductors.  While best read in sequence, you’re welcome to skip at any time to the first two parts – The Evolution of Conducting, and The Rise of Conductors as Super-Stars, and the final part – Excellence is No Longer the Only Factor in Conductors’ Success.

We’ve seen, in the first part of this series, how the role of conductor became increasingly important from a musical/performance point of view.  The second part of this series showed how conductors became important from a commercial and marketing perspective, too.

Perhaps we should add a disclaimer before continuing.  Yes, there is a lot of generalization in these articles, and plenty of exceptions to what we’re suggesting.  But we feel there is a broad undercurrent of truth being revealed here, even if there are also standout exceptions.

And now, introduction and disclaimer completed, let’s start off this possibly-contentious third part with the good news.

Musicians Today Are Better Than Before

There is no doubt that some standards of musicianship have massively improved over the decades and centuries.  This is in part due to better instruments that are more easily played well; in part due to better education and training techniques; and in part due to people who can spend their entire lives dedicated to professionally playing music.  Perhaps it is also a bit like the “Four Minute Mile” – until a “barrier” is broken, a certain standard of performance (the many pieces of music originally described as “unplayable” or “unsingable”) is viewed as a barrier, but once it is broken, it is astonishing how many people then prove able to also break through it, too.  Pieces of music that were once considered unplayable are now being readily played by “normal” musicians.

Certainly it is also true that “the art of conducting” has in part evolved to more of a “science”.  A century and more ago, there were no formal conducting schools.  Conductors were in part self-taught, and in part learned in an unstructured manner from an experienced conductor.  There weren’t any international standards as to how to conduct and how to express oneself with one’s hands and possibly a baton.  Now there are formal classes and qualifications in conductorship offered by musical schools, with the expectation being that if you complete the coursework and pass the exams, you emerge as a trained, qualified, and capable conductor.

This perception/belief is of course encouraged by the musical schools who offer (a polite way of saying “sell”) their classes.  But we would suggest that a graduate of such a program, while having learned the techniques and theory of conducting, and even after having had some experience as part of the classes, conducting groups of musicians, in no way at all understands or is proficient at the semi-mystical “magic” of conducting.  We’re not even certain this can be taught as readily as the much more mechanistic and simple “stick-waving” and beating time techniques.

This is best exemplified by an interview on YouTube with an orchestral musician having some decades of experience with a major European orchestra (alas, we don’t have the link, but have watched it several times in the past).  He spoke about how the orchestra he belonged to was rehearsing with a guest conductor, and then at some point during the rehearsal, he sensed a change in the orchestra.  The music playing had improved “all by itself”, and the sound was much better in all respects.

This puzzled him.  What had happened to transform the quality of their music making?  He looked around at his fellow musicians and saw nothing.  The guest conductor was still behaving as before.  And then, he noticed, at the back of the concert hall, their main conductor had quietly entered the hall and sat down, listening to the rehearsal.  The mere physical presence of their main conductor, who was doing nothing more than sitting at the back of the hall, was enough to lift their playing from ordinary to extra-ordinary.

How is this possible?  There’s no obvious or rational answer, and for sure there’s no way it can be taught in a regular music school.  The whole point of the interview was to point out the strange and surreal nature of this phenomenon.  But just because a thing can’t be rationally explained or formally taught doesn’t mean it is not real.  Great conductors could lead their orchestra without a baton – possibly even without hands and arms at all!  Indeed, if you look at videos of conductors, you’ll notice that, in general (and with plenty of exceptions), the more respected and experienced the conductor, the more cryptic their conducting becomes.  The less well-known and experienced the conductor, the more precise their time-beating – perhaps better to say, the more mechanical their time-beating, and the more exaggerated their cueing and other gestures.

It is well-known that some of today’s “darling” conductors are performing for the audience rather than leading the orchestra.  That is even understandable – their role as “super-stars” is all to do with audience perception, not musician perception.  Which brings us to the evolving role of conductors and what it takes to become one.

Conductors Can Now “Cheat”

One hundred and more years ago, a conductor had no choice but to develop his own style because he wasn’t surrounded by examples of other conductors and their styles.  He might occasionally visit other orchestras and interact with their conductors, and might be mentored by a more experienced and better respected conductor, but at a certain point, when faced with a piece of music he had never conducted before and never heard/seen another person conducting it, he’d have to do what he felt to be right; alone and unaided.

Today, any conductor, anywhere in the world, can access Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and other collections of music and instantly hear (and often see) many other conductors and their interpretations of any imaginable piece of music.  They don’t need to come up with their own interpretation of a piece of music, they just need to copy someone else’s (or perhaps synthesize their “own” interpretation by combining two or three existing interpretations).  Even more than that, there are online services with digitized copies of “marked-up” scores by famous conductors showing the markings and comments these conductors had written onto their scores, giving still further guidance to a less confident conductor.

One of the criticisms orchestral musicians often make of conductors is exactly this – that some conductors have no original ideas of their own, they are just “hearing another version in their head and trying to copy it”.  What I find most interesting is how an orchestra can sense this, because for sure such conductors never say “I want us to perform identically to how (a different) orchestra performs with (a different) conductor.

Is a conductor who is simply trying to recreate an earlier performance by someone else really earning the sometimes stellar fees they charge?  Perhaps only if they are bringing in an appropriate sum at the box office or in a recording contract, but not as a measure of the musicality of their work, and this points to the growing separation between money-making and music-making.  Excellence in one is no longer automatically linked to excellence in the other.

An opposing perspective might also exist.  If there is a universally acknowledged brilliant interpretation of a work already out there, isn’t it acceptable and praiseworthy for a conductor to be able to lead his orchestra in a recreation of it?  Considering the evolution of conducting from one of simply beating time and following the composer’s instructions, isn’t this simply a return back to conducting roots – beating time to keep the orchestra together, and following some other set of instructions for how to interpret a piece?  And, from yet another view-point, aren’t conductors sometimes doing things differently merely for the sake of doing so?

But, and this is relevant, if all a conductor does is recreate another conductor’s interpretation, do they really need the reverence, fame, and big bucks they are currently rewarded with, especially when we as listeners have easy access to the “original” performance that is trying to be recreated?

Orchestras Can Also “Cheat”

There are lots of stories of conductors who “lose their place” in a piece of music, and who are saved by the musicians who know what comes next, even if the conductor does not.  There are also lots of stories of orchestras who ignore the conductor, setting their own speed and phrasing, to the point that the conductor ends up following the orchestra rather than vice versa.  In some cases, players will follow their section leader or orchestra leader rather than the conductor.

Again, the only way that such conductors “earn their keep” is by their ability to fill seats at a concert or to sell recordings.

This is not without precedent, of course.  Many famous movie stars show little innate acting ability and tend to make all the characters they play the same.  But for other reasons, unrelated to their acting ability, they can almost guarantee a box-office success for the movies they star in.

Audiences May Neither Care nor Know Better

I can’t count the number of times I’ve attended a very ordinary, and sometimes even a way-below average performance of some piece of music, only to have the audience rapturously applaud at the end of the piece, often even given a standing ovation.

There are two reasons for this.  The first is that the audiences don’t know any better and want to join in the fun and the experience of the event by doing so – indeed, many people feel peer-pressured to join in.  The second is the same phenomenon that is often observed in movies too – just as the star playing the hero normally gets more accolades than the stars playing the villains, the audiences are actually applauding the piece of music much more than the performers and their performance.

The tales of “a record breaking number of curtain-calls (or encores)” can be greatly encouraged by the performers who respond to the clapping and cheering with varying degrees of enthusiasm and interaction.

I’ve spoken to musicians after particularly poor performances but ecstatic applause who just laugh and shake their heads, because they see such uncalled for applause all the time.  Some even feel it a soul-destroying insult – “I have devoted 30 years of my life to becoming the best possible performer, and yet you equally shower with praise someone new to the art, and who delivered a terrible performance”.

For sure, an enthusiastic audience is in some part genuine in their appreciation – they have enjoyed the performance, but there is neither a penalty for mediocrity nor a bonus for excellent performance.  Conductors can get away with very ordinary conducting, as long as it looks good to the audience.

Commercial Reasons and Constraints Encourage Undeserved Hype

We’ve been involved with a mid-level orchestra in a mid-level city, and were never much impressed by it, and came to realize the problem was not so much the musicians as it was their resident long-time conductor.

We had a chance to hear a performance with a “big name” visiting conductor and were astonished at the orchestra’s transformation, and subsequently in gentle discussions with some of the senior opinion leaders in the local arts community had a near unanimous series of statements by people who, while ostensibly praising and venerating the long-time local conductor in public, in private conceded that he was without talent and a problem that was limiting the orchestra’s ability to improve.

But they were “stuck” with the conductor, because of the contract with him and because they lacked the money or appeal to attract a more gifted conductor.  They didn’t want to seem disloyal or unsupportive, so they publicly acted as uncritical cheer-leaders on his behalf.

Promoters can “Cheat”, Too

Classical music makes money in four main ways – live performances, donations, recorded music sales and royalty payments.

For most orchestras, live performances seldom make enough money for the orchestra to cover all their fixed costs – remember that a professional orchestra employs most of their musicians and the “invisible” army of administrators and technical people, full-time and year round.  Remember also that some of those administrators (and senior musicians too) get paid generous six figure salaries; indeed, the base starting pay for musicians in big-city US orchestras starts in the six figures.  An orchestra, in total, has massive annual costs, against which is perhaps a schedule of 50 – 150 public performances a year.  It is almost impossible to recoup all the operating costs of an orchestra from 50 – 150 performances; the orchestra necessarily relies upon the other sources of money too.

Donations are interesting.  One low/mid-tier orchestra we know of reports that over 90% of their donations come from people and companies who never attend their concerts!  Those sorts of donors choose to support “feel good” public causes that they can be proud about being seen to support – in other words, their support is unrelated to the quality of musicality of the group.

As mentioned in the preceding section, we’ve seen this, elsewhere, at first hand, where privately many people acknowledged that the leading regional orchestra was poor and the conductor inadequate, but in public everyone joined together to extravagantly praise (and fund) both the orchestra and its conductor.  To do otherwise was seen as being disloyal, as imperiling the survival of live music in the region, and (perhaps most importantly) to risk ostracism and cease to be one of the “inner circle” of musical supporters.

Recording contracts are harder to get these days.  Back in the “golden age”, recording companies were still growing and bulking up their catalogs of recorded music.  But now all the major recording companies – well, let’s stop at that point.  “All” is no longer a thing.  There’s really only three major recording company these days, with the Universal Music Group having swallowed up (classical companies) DGG, Decca/London, and EMI, Sony Music Group having RCA and Columbia/CBS, and the Warner Music Group having EMI Classics.

These three major conglomerates, as part of their mergers and takeovers, each have accumulated enormous back-catalogs of excellent quality recordings from the last 60 years or more, spanning dozens of performances of just about every imaginable piece of classical music.  They don’t need to incur more up-front costs to record new versions of anything, and surely don’t want to gratuitously spend money on new recordings unless they can find a way to sell them.

At the same time, most people who like classical music have built up their own personal library of classical recordings, and have most of what they want to have, already.  Or, increasingly, no longer feel a need to do so, due to the presence of online and streaming music.

The only way for the studios to sell new versions of music is to suggest that their new versions are somehow much better than the older versions already out there.  Sometimes this can be done by technological innovation (better quality sound, etc), but that has essentially slowed to a stop for now.  The only other viable way to sell still more versions/performances of a piece of music is to suggest that new conductors and soloists are better than the previous generations of conductors and soloists.  So this is what they do, eagerly helping build amazing new reputations for new performers that may or may not be based in musical reality at all.

Similar considerations apply to royalties.  If the music isn’t played, there’s no royalty being earned.

Please Keep Reading….

These preceding points suggest that, these days, a conductor’s “popularity” is no longer directly linked to their musical ability.  These reasons have evolved over the last many decades, they have not suddenly appeared.  But there are some new reasons that have more rapidly come from nowhere, and which provide a whole new level of threat to artistic excellence.

Let’s now look at some more of the reasons why this is.  Please now click on to the fourth of our four part series, Excellence is No Longer the Only Factor in Conductors’ Success.

This is the third of a four part article series discussing the role of conductors.  While best read in sequence, you’re welcome to skip at any time to the first two parts – The Evolution of Conducting, and The Rise of Conductors as Super-Stars, and the final part – Excellence is No Longer the Only Factor in Conductors’ Success.