Chapter 4 - How Do You Learn to Be a Conductor?
The house lights go to half. The concertmaster signals to the principal oboist to sound an A-natural, from which the orchestra tunes. It is their North Star of intonation for the concert, and all the musicians—no matter how they make their sounds or what the individual characteristics and histories of their instruments are—agree on this point of departure.1 Then, after a short, or sometimes dramatically long, wait, the maestro enters and bows with the orchestra to general applause and occasional shouts of “Bravo!” Perhaps you might ask yourself how he or she got there.
Like all stories about the conductor’s art, there is no single way to the heart of the labyrinth. As I said earlier, the maestro can be an instrumentalist who rose from one of the orchestra’s various sections to a leadership position, like the violinists Bernard Haitink, the long-serving principal conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic (2009–2017). Nikolaus Harnoncourt also made the transition, from playing within the cello section of the Vienna Symphony to becoming the leader of the Concentus Musicus Wien, an orchestra that performed music from the classical period, and earlier, on replicas of original instruments of the period.
Conductors Daniel Barenboim, Georg Solti, James Levine, Riccardo Muti, and Michael Tilson Thomas all began as pianists. John Adams leads not just his own music but the music of other composers, much as Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Wagner did in the past. Stravinsky, Copland, Villa-Lobos, and Miklós Rózsa mostly focused on their own works in concert and on recordings. A few singers, like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Plácido Domingo, moved to the podium from the stage, and at least one choreographer, Mark Morris, frequently conducts performances of his own ballets.
For every one of these seemingly logical progressions, there are the exceptions. Leopold Stokowski was a trained organist, for example, and never played in an orchestra or formally studied conducting. As a teenager, he watched Hans Richter conduct concerts in London. Richter was the man Richard Wagner had chosen to lead the 1876 world premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen
. Stokowski’s other inspiration was Arthur Nikisch, whose concerts and opera performances the young man attended and about whom Johannes Brahms had said, “It is impossible to hear [my Fourth Symphony] any better.” For Stokowski, having graduated from London’s Royal College of Music at age sixteen, there simply were no courses in conducting at that time.
It also does not follow that a great instrumentalist has the interest or the capacity to conduct, even the most brilliant ones. Soloists like Jascha Heifetz and Vladimir Horowitz did not pick up the baton; and some former members of orchestras—great virtuoso players—have attempted conducting careers with mixed success.
Teaching the art of conducting is as amorphous as defining who will become a conductor. Like Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini never studied conducting. It was thrust upon him. Serving as the assistant chorus master and principal cellist of a traveling Italian opera troupe in 1886, he was pressed by the singers to take over a performance of Aida
in Rio de Janeiro after a crisis erupted in the opera house due to factions for and against the Brazilian conductor who was scheduled to lead that night. Conducting the opera from memory, his triumph was absolute, and the nineteen-year-old became, on that night, a conductor.
Today, every conservatory has a conducting program. Indeed, some students can be given a doctorate in it. These young people are trained in score reading and stick technique. They may take history courses and learn music theory, which will give them tools for analyzing a score. They will be given various opportunities to practice. As one can imagine, this is the most cumbersome part of the process. You can conduct in front of a mirror, imagining music in your mind, but that in no way prepares you for when you actually appear before an orchestra and receive the energies of so many people looking at you expectantly. You can conduct along with a recording (and probably everyone who loves music has done this), which is fun, but it is the very opposite of conducting in that you are responding to something, rather than engendering it. Recordings, unlike real performances, remain the same every time you play them.
At first, conducting students wave their hands in a class, standing before a piano (sometimes two, in order to give the sense of an ensemble). Later on in their studies they will stand before the student orchestra directing an excerpt or symphonic movement that the conducting class has studied. A young conductor may also be called upon to conduct new compositions by fellow students or an ensemble needed for a degree recital in which the soloist plays a chamber work that requires a conductor.
In European opera houses, a young aspirant who is a pianist will accompany rehearsals and move up the chain as an assistant chorus master or a junior-level kapellmeister. In the European “house” system, the young conductor will at some point be given a performance within the run of productions scheduled for the season. He will most likely have no rehearsals for this and/or be given a less desirable work from the repertory, like a production of Annie, Holt Deine Pistole!
, better known as Annie Get Your Gun
. It will most likely not be Siegfried
. If all else fails, he will join the administration of the orchestra and sit behind a desk, hoping to find fulfillment in making it possible for others to do what he had hoped would be his life’s work.
American orchestras generally audition young conductors for positions within their music staff. They become assistant conductors, and then associate conductors, and are given responsibility for leading children’s concerts, outreach concerts, pops concerts, and occasionally “serious” concerts on the classical subscription series. After a few years of this, they move on, usually to regional orchestras; and if they are noticed and there is belief in their potential, they can move up. However, as a colleague pointed out, “It is generally a good thing not to be an American.”
To that one can add, “or a woman.”
All of these are generalizations, of course, and every conductor you have ever heard of has a different tale to tell, a different journey, and, significantly enough, different weaknesses, which will prove irrelevant to the greatest in our profession while being disqualifying for lesser mortals.
There are a few common denominators among all conductors, however. Every one of us must have an innate capacity and desire to lead. We are, after all, sergeants. Our devotion to our troops is also commingled with a necessity to achieve agreement and commitment, and that can be done in many ways: employing fear, love, respect, and, yes, pragmatism. In the so-called Golden Age of the Maestro, the conductor was dictatorial and all-powerful. Well into the middle of the twentieth century there were vestiges of the tyrannical maestro to be found, for example, in the rehearsal tapes of Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. The enraged conductor can be heard screaming and apparently throwing over his podium in 1950 because the playing was not to his liking. “No! No!,” is followed by “Corpo di Dio santissimo! Noooooo!” (“By the body of most holy God, no!”) The sound of his voice, choked with rage, is terrifying to hear. If he were alive today, as great as he was, he would be lucky to be teaching conducting and leading a university orchestra, provided he wasn’t fired for inappropriate behavior.
Until American orchestras were unionized during and just after the Great Depression, a music director could point to a player and demand that he play a certain passage and, if he was found wanting, fire him on the spot. There also were no rules to determine the length of a rehearsal. When Serge Koussevitzky built a summer home for the Boston Symphony—Tanglewood—it was his personal playground, and members of the orchestra never knew when they might be released to go home and have dinner with their families. While Gustav Mahler, for example, ran short rehearsals, others could verge on being sadistic in their behavior toward orchestra players. It was how they got results and raised the standards we have come to expect from our great conductors.
In 1920, Toscanini was brought to trial for apparently attacking a member of his orchestra in Turin, Italy, breaking the man’s violin bow and striking him in the eye with his baton. The charges were dropped because Toscanini was “under the exaltation of his genius” and therefore not himself. A full-page and perhaps exaggerated story in the January 18 Washington Times
recounted how a contemporary psychologist, a “Professor Pastor,” testified that Toscanini’s subconscious was acting out, much as a mother would do anything to protect her baby, to excuse the maestro’s violent response to the violinist playing flat in a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Professor Pastor was doing research for a paper appropriately entitled, “Enthusiasm.”
In the first place, Professor Pastor said that he had made a special pathological study of Toscanini, and had found that on great occasions this prince of conductors becomes so possessed by sublime frenzy that his normal personality forsakes him. He becomes transfigured by genius, beside, or rather outside of, himself, so that the inhibitory nerves are completely paralyzed.
There is truth in Professor Pastor’s conclusion, of course. When we conduct we are not ourselves. Sometimes it feels as if a low-level electrical current were passing through us from the very moment we enter the room to rehearse, and an even higher level of electrical disruption during a performance. It can take hours to return to “normal,” even as one is greeting well-wishers and presumably saying things that other people remember, but you do not. Toscanini frequently could not sleep after a performance.
But while the image of the all-powerful tyrant still remains part of the mythology—it is something many people want to believe—it is absolutely untrue today. No one ever saw a photograph of Fritz Reiner smiling. In general, if a conductor was smiling in an official photograph, he was a pops conductor. The young Simon Rattle and James Levine had the courage to be photographed smiling, leading to today’s more approachable image of the maestro.
Copyright © 2017 by John Mauceri. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.