This article from a couple of years ago made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter recently. “Conductor or automaton?” I was painting my house, so I didn’t get around to writing the response that was burning a hole in my brain.
The article complains the young whipper snappers with their highfalutin academic training who are conducting orchestras these days just aren’t as good as conductors were in the good old days, when demagogues on podiums threw concert masters to the wolves with no preparation at all.
Has my tone already given away my perspective? Good.
I don’t think conductors now are less musical than they used to be. And I don’t think a system of academic training denies artistic enrichment.
Let me tell you about a conductor I know. He’s a band guy, so most of his repertoire is less than a hundred years old. He told me that, at his audition for doctoral school, the conducting professor told him his score was gorgeously prepared — it was even color coded! And this conductor (let’s call him Maestro Bandguy), believed it was his responsibility to serve the composer, to do everything the composer marked on the score.
Remembering that Maestro Bandguy’s repertoire can be relied upon to provide this information, which centuries of choral and orchestral music cannot.
So, Maestro Bandguy gets into the doctoral program, and his professor, Dr. Fancyband, challenges him. What, Dr. Fancyband asks, about his perspective? What of Maestro Bandguy’s heart? Experience? What’s not on the page that matters?
And Maestro Bandguy argues that composers put everything on the page. Then his doctoral work requires him to write his own arrangements, to struggle with the problem of notation. He also has to analyze repertoire outside of his fach, recognize that the page is just the beginning. And Maestro Bandguy becomes an artist. Because he performed for audiences? Because he got reviews? Because his mentor was famous? No. Because he had a teacher who gently lead him to the water and said, “do you think maybe you’re thirsty?”
Dr. Fancyband was my instrumental conducting teacher, too. He’s an artist and a sensitive, unassuming, razor sharp pedagogue. A scalpel wrapped in a tea cozy is Dr. Fancyband.
In general, if people are seeing more low quality conducting, it’s because they’re seeing more conducting. There is more media coverage of everything in the information age. Conductors’ abilities exist on a bell curve, and the larger body of the bell curve has become more accessible to view. Back in the good old days, only the tiny upper end of the bell curve was put in a position to be seen and reviewed. Now, there are more conductors as there are more college educated people, and more people in general. That means there are more mediocre conductors, sure. And it also means there are more excellent conductors. So, no, conductors aren’t any worse than they ever were. And the system doesn’t need to go intro retrograde (or retrograde inversion. Ha! That’s a contemporary music joke.) to make conductors as good as they were in the old days.
We need to give young conductors a chance to turn into the artists they have the potential to be. The good ones will drift to the right edge of the bell curve in due course. What helps them get there, what matters in becoming a conductor, is training and artistry.
A whole lot of either will make you at least competent. A generous dose of both, and you got yourself a Fancyband in the making.