I like John Terauds’ blog because he writes about musicianship like it’s a way of life. Which it is. I appreciate any blogging about conducting, and I enjoy the headline:
He has, in fact, hit the nail on the head (one of the nails, anyway) when he identifies empowerment, but allow me to quibble–er, I mean, clarify:
It’s not a secret. And it’s not just a new generation of conductors who do this.
Jeffrey Renshaw, the wind conductor at UConn, played a DVD for his undergraduate instrumental conducting class. It showed clips of different orchestras with different conductors playing some of the “Overture” from Candide. A wide variety of interpretations were represented, and the penultimate example was Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic, in which he did his funky, odd-looking conducting, and the orchestra played the pants off the piece. It was clearly the most lively, interesting, richly-textured, dynamically varied performance of them all. The final example was of the NY Phil playing after Bernstein’s death. It was the same piece, but the conductor’s podium was left deliberately empty in tribute to him. It was even better than the performance with Bernstein on the podium. Bernstein’s gift–one of his gifts–was getting each player to give as he gave, to engage in every moment of the performance with artistic integrity. It’s what they do as solo artists. Without a conductor, that’s what these amazing professionals did as an ensemble.
Another mentor of mine, James Jordan, widely published author on choral conducting, has written even in his earliest books about the individual responsibility of each member of the ensemble to make music independently. Specifically, he has described how being in a large group tends to make a person feel like he or she doesn’t have to be responsible, since there are all those other folks to share the load. That natural inclination to abdicate to the whole group is a problem all conductors combat, and always have.
“I can’t crawl inside your head and make the music for you,” I tell my college singers. “You have to be musicians!”
John Terauds mentions a “long list of very successful and respected tyrant-micromanager conductors.” I have a theory about this. One might get the impression that those conductors are “successful and well-respected” because most arts administrators and audience members don’t know enough about conducting to recognize that tyrant-micromanager conductors aren’t actually all that good. If you ask a professional, specialist conductor (Dr. Renshaw or Dr. Jordan, for example) his opinion about a conductor on that “very long list,” I bet he won’t gush about success and respect. He wouldn’t bad-mouth a colleague, but buy that conductor a drink and promise him confidentiality, and he may shrug his shoulders and say, unimpressed, “enh. He’s okay.”
Further, I suspect that these tyrant-micromanagers find success by playing on people’s ignorance. It’s easy for people assume that if you are condescending and snobby about how much you know, then you must know more than they do. If you treat other musicians with disdain, then it must be because you are better than they are, right? And because conducting is such an esoteric field, few people know enough to explain or contradict. Beware the unpleasant conductor! He (there are so few prominent women conductors that it’s just statistically more likely to be a man, though a woman has all the potential to be unpleasant that a man does) may be hiding his own insecurity, if not incompetence. Also, so many undertrained conductors are on podiums that audiences keep getting exposed to mediocre conducting, with no one openly telling them “no, that’s not what conducting is supposed to be!” The guy on the podium must be what a conductor is. Right?
There’s a difference, and I’m glad to have this blog to explain it to anyone who wants to know. Of course, my perspective isn’t the only legitimate one; it’s just the only one I’ve had time to write about so far.
So, to John Terauds I say: “you’re right!” (well, more specifically, “I agree,” which, of course, is the same thing as far as I’m concerned): humble, collegial, inspirational conductors are superior conductors to tyrant-micromanagers (in my opinion. Because the resulting performances will be more colorful, vibrant, and alive with the artistry of each performer’s deepest humanity!). However, they aren’t a new thing. We’ve been around as long as there have been conductors. I’m working to debunk the myth of the jerk who flails, and I thank you for giving me the chance to explain it better.