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    ARIA Popular Classical Music

Excellence is No Longer the Only Factor in Conductors’ Success

This is the final part 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 three parts – The Evolution of Conducting, The Rise of Conductors as Super-Stars, and Are Conductors Today as Good as They Used to Be.

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, and the third part showed how conductors could become prominent even without much musical ability.

As in the third part, we add a disclaimer to what follows.  There are overgeneralizations and also exceptions to everything we say in this article.  But in broad terms, we suggest there’s a major undercurrent of truth.

Please do consider these observations with an open mind.  :)

New Considerations Threaten to Eclipse Musical Ability

It is fair to say that no-one in 1824 could have predicted the evolution of orchestral music making and the role of conductors in 1924.  It is also very true that no-one in 1924 would have imagined today’s new world of 2024.

Three of the many massive and unexpected changes over the last one hundred years have been particularly impactful.  The first is the rise of the visual component of music making via movies, television and now internet streaming.

The second is the collapsed role of classical music in people’s lives.  These days classical music is viewed as elitist, old-fashioned, obsolete, and unappealing.  But please never forget that, at the times it was being written and first performed, it was the popular music of its time.  People are still people, and while the world and how we relate to modern life has changed, there can still be a role for classical music.  We just have to find that role and promote it (hence ARIA!).

The third massive change – one we wish to approach circumspectly but can not ignore – is the rise of new social standards and values which cause achievement and excellence to be viewed as less important than non-musical concepts of diversity and equality.  It is dismaying, but hardly surprising, in a world where pilots, doctors, and others in critical life-saving fields now may qualify to practice not just as a result of their demonstrated skill and knowledge of their field, but also as a result of their ethnicity; that a similar retreat from the primacy of musical excellence would also occur in classical music.

Although the new concepts might seem at odds with profit and making money, there is a reason they have been embraced by some in the music field, and that is because these new concepts give perhaps undeserved prominence to new performers, which equates to new opportunities to sell new recordings or streaming tracks or performances.  A public that has faithfully attended many similar performances with “old white men” as conductors (and performers) for decades is now being encouraged to give people with opposite characteristics “a fair chance too”, in a new scenario where musical standards are at best equal and possibly secondary to these other considerations.

The visual element, whether it be on a poster, an album cover, or a video stream, is also increasingly important.  It is hard not to notice that most of today’s “hot musical stars” tend to be young and attractive rather than old and with decades of experience.  Musicianship is not a visible attribute and so, from this perspective, not as easy to sell as appearance.

The collapsed role of classical music has seen some people trying to rebuild its appeal and “relevance” to the twenty-something-year-olds of today by offering them music performed by people just like them – of similar age, and showing similar lifestyle values.  Again, the quality of the music-making is an abstraction, harder to quantify, and so becomes less important as a selling feature.  There’s an entire (small) orchestra in Britain populated exclusively by minority musicians, and enjoying popularity as a result.  Not because they are unusually good musicians, just because they are minority musicians.

It is certainly true and possibly unfortunate that for a long time, professional musicians who played and indeed the composers who wrote classical western music inevitably tended to almost exclusively be white men.

But this has been evolving.  The first orchestra to allow women to join was the Queen’s Hall Orchestra of London, way back in 1913.  The New York Philharmonic was also an early champion, allowing women to join in 1922.  At the other end of the scale, the Berlin Philharmonic did not allow women performers until 1982 and the Vienna Philharmonic remained resolutely male-only until 1997.  Women remain under-represented in major orchestras, in part because there is very little player-turnover other than due to retirement, and so it takes years and even decades for changes in hiring policies to make their way through to the concert platform.

Race has also been an issue, although it needs to be remembered that Europe as a whole has only become “culturally diverse” in the last several decades.  It is hard to get meaningful data on ethnicity in Europe, but in 1900 Germany was 98.6% Christian (an empirical measure of “European ethnicity”) and the UK was 97.4% Christian.  More recently, in the US, the 1950 census showed the country to be 90% white, and astonishingly, people of Hispanic origin weren’t mentioned at all.  Our point is that the orchestras and musicians of yesteryear reflected the countries and cultures they belonged to.

Most orchestras introduced screened auditions in the 1950s or thereabouts, well in advance of race becoming a broader issue.  These screened auditions, where the appointing committee could not see the players, were intended to result in players being picked exclusively for the quality of their playing rather than for their racial heritage or appearance or other non-musical reasons.

It is easy to support the removal of former artificial barriers that interfered with hiring the best musicians.  But some observers now suggest that the former barriers should be recreated but flipped, and more importance be given to a person’s gender and race than their musical ability, with the change being that instead of male/white being given primacy, now female/non-white are the most desired characteristics.  If it was bad to prioritize gender/color over musicality before, it surely remains equally wrong now, even if the specific priorities have flipped.

The Impact on Conductors

What does this mean in terms of the quality of today’s conductors?  First, let’s acknowledge that (almost) anyone can be formally taught the basic mechanical elements of how to beat time to coordinate an orchestra.  Second, it seems that society as a whole (whether or not they be classical music afficionados!) is predisposed to give more prominence to non-musical considerations when deciding which people should be given prominence as conductors.

It also means that modern-day conductors see the most assured pathway to “success” – whether they view success as ascending to lead a major orchestra and/or making enormous amounts of money – is no longer based on their musical skills.  This is hinted at by the way that new “stars” soar to prominence in the musical world.  Conductors appear suddenly out of nowhere, going from not very many years of leading minor orchestras that few of us have ever heard of, and suddenly emerging to lead some of the world’s finest orchestras.

While, in the past, there have been rare examples of conductors (and soloists) suddenly achieving overnight world-wide prominence (the most common way being with an unexpected emergency replacement for a conductor who was suddenly taken ill and couldn’t perform), and also there has always been an element of luck that influences which conductors get the breaks and which other ones do not, but these days we are no longer seeing today’s young super-star conductors as emerging from a long apprenticeship and slow steady rise through the ranks.

This new phenomenon definitely financially benefits orchestras and recording studios, giving them someone new to promote.  But does it also benefit us, the listeners?  We think not.

While some modern conductors may be every bit as good as the great masters during the “golden age” of musicality, we feel that many absolutely are not any better at all, and may indeed be markedly inferior.

NOTE :  We are not saying that conductors of previous generations were uniformly better than present day conductors at all.  Some of the previous generations of conductors have most definitely been disappointments, either some of the time or perhaps even all the time; just like some of the present day conductors are sometimes excellent, no matter what their age or experience.  But the subtle thing is that the poor quality conductors of yesteryear are no longer prominently promoted and most have been quietly forgotten, whereas the poor quality conductors today may be given undue focus.

Flashes in the Pan?

Conductors that have “passed the test of time” are more likely to be good because, with the passing of time, they are increasingly judged and remembered by their actual (and recorded) legacy alone, rather than by transient hype.  Modern faddish conductors are more likely to fade away from public awareness almost as soon as their recording contracts expire and they’re replaced by newer conductors who now need to be hyped in their place.

Similarly, conductors eagerly given prominence by their employing orchestras are quickly forgotten when they leave that orchestra, unless they truly have created a lasting legacy of excellent work.  Some conductors are still well known, decades after their passing.  For example, Karajan (died in 1989).  Klemperer (died in 1973).  Furtwangler (died in 1954).  And many other names you might also wish to mention (Toscanini, Solti, Boult, just to name another three).

Who among the current crop of wunderkinds do you expect to still be known and listened to in 50+ years time?

An Alternate Perspective?

Maybe this preference for considering non-musical things is not altogether a new trend.  We’ve had “super-star” conductors – and musicians of all types – in the past; conductors and soloists who have had a presence way beyond the podium and based on more than their musicality alone.  (Am I the only one to notice how many of today’s most-featured performers are young and attractive women?)

A conducting example would be Leopold Stokowski, who for many decades during his long career (his conducting debut was in 1909, his final recording was in 1977, a few months before his death aged 95) was prominent for reasons way beyond his musicality – he was even literally a movie star, having been involved in the creation of Disney’s “Fantasia” and being the featured conductor in the work itself.

Subsequently, Leonard Bernstein is probably another example, not only for (or because of) his “cross-over” talent as a composer of such works as “West Side Story”, but also for his television appearances explaining classical music.

But in both cases, these people were first and foremost gifted conductors who then “grew” beyond that point.

This is not to say that musicians should be secretive or keep only to themselves and narrowly to the realm of conducting music.  It is great they should popularize music, and use their abilities and powers every which way.  But we see a difference between a person who first becomes a conductor and then builds on that platform to become better known (such as both Stokowski and Bernstein) and people who become appointed to senior conducting positions based apparently on reasons beyond any innate ability as a conductor.

It makes commercial sense to feature conductors and performers who have a “name brand” and who will bring people in to concerts as a result of their broader image in the market.  But we need to understand the distinction between people who are popular and also musicians, and people who are musicians and also popular.

In particular, and from our perspective at ARIA, we feel it is most important to share music with you that has innate musical and performing excellence, rather than music featuring a musician who was at one time publicly popular but without any underlying musical excellence.  (Note that both Stokowski and Bernstein were richly imbued with underlying musical excellence!)

And So – At Last, a Conclusion!

This four part series has spanned approximately 7,500 words.  We are struggling to avoid the temptation to grow it still further!

Our point, now revealed after 7,500 words, is simple.  Much of the music you’ll hear on ARIA is not performed by today’s popular artists.  Not because we instinctively dislike them – that is absolutely not the case – we’re always eager to find another and better version of every piece of of music we feature.  We simply feel that many of the older recordings should not be automatically superseded and displaced by more modern recordings.  Some of the older recordings are of better musical quality than the newest recorded versions.

Our searching for other and better versions of the music we play, as often than not, has us reaching back in time to older versions, rather than pointing us to the very newest versions.  Sometimes “older” means a decade ago, sometimes it means 50 or more years ago, and as long as the sound quality remains acceptably good, we see no reason not to fully feature the greatest performances of many decades before.

Please Keep Reading….

This is the final part 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 three parts – The Evolution of Conducting, The Rise of Conductors as Super-Stars, and Are Conductors Today as Good as They Used to Be.