Last updated: June 15, 2012 9:39 pm

The modern maestro

Conductors used to be famously autocratic, inaccessible – and old. Not any more
Gustavo Dudamel conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2009©Getty

Gustavo Dudamel conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2009

When the exuberant Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra plays a programme of concerts as part of Britain’s Cultural Olympiad next week, the young musicians from Venezuela will seize the popular imagination in a way older, better-established ensembles from Europe rarely do. But it will be neither the principal violinist nor any of the rank-and-file players that catch the public eye. The focus of attention will be the man in front – Gustavo Dudamel.

That is what conductors do: they concentrate the efforts and skills of an orchestra in one powerful individual, so that the paying public experiences the music, its emotional highs and soothing lows, through the personality of the maestro.

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Dudamel, 31-year-old music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the leading US orchestras, fulfils that role better than most. He is the epitome of the 21st-century maestro – dynamic, articulate, media-friendly and, above all, young.

The rise of Dudamel and other fresh-faced conductors, such as the Latvian Andris Nelsons (33) and the UK’s Robin Ticciati (29) reflects the changing priorities of classical music as it seeks to adapt itself to the modern world.

For much of the 20th century, orchestras were a valued part of the western cultural fabric. In towns and cities on either side of the Atlantic, the cost of maintaining an 80-strong ensemble to play a diet of predominantly 19th-century music was rarely questioned. But by the 1990s the noise of popular culture had begun to drown out the sound of symphonies, and government subsidies were on the squeeze.

To survive, the orchestra sought to redefine itself as an educational and recreational tool for the whole community, rather than a once-a-week concert-giver for rarefied souls in a municipal temple. Not only that, it had to advertise itself as a driver of creative excellence, so that it could justify the support it received. All this meant presenting a much wider spectrum of music, from baroque to crossover – sometimes in a less forbidding style than the concert format. To lead and personify this change, the orchestra needed a figurehead capable of appealing to a wider public than the traditional maestro did.

“In the past, the requirement [of a conductor] was to have an understanding of symphonic repertoire to a level that would inspire and inform both musicians and audiences,” says American conductor JoAnn Falletta, 58, who will bring the Ulster Orchestra to the BBC Proms in August. “That has not changed but, in addition to this artistic role, the conductor must now be an ambassador for the orchestra in the community, making a case for why it should be supported. That requires different skills.”

. . .

Conducting is a very un-21st century activity. On one hand, it looks so simple that it could almost qualify as a phoney profession: the conductor gestures and the orchestra plays, a process piquantly illustrated by the BBC television series Maestro at the Opera. On the other, it expresses a power as mysterious as it is unquantifiable. Unlike everyone else on stage, the conductor does not make a sound – and yet it is by his or her charisma and communication skills that the success of a performance is measured.

Traditionally, the model conductor was one who produced interpretations of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky of such authority and sweep that he (it was very rarely she) became an idol, the very personification of the music. He was usually old and venerable – and invisible off the podium. The conductor’s inaccessibility only heightened his mystique and power.

Until the 1990s, this was the norm. Many veteran conductors of the postwar era were old enough to have known some of the great composers, giving their performances a truthfulness that could not be replicated by younger successors. When I attended Adrian Boult’s 1976 Proms performance of the Elgar First Symphony, I sensed an unmistakable connection to the music’s source. Boult, a stiff-upper-lip Englishman, had known Elgar in the 1920s, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra drew inspiration from that link.

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich congratulating Yevgeny Mravinsky after a concert©Lebrecht Music & Arts

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich congratulating Yevgeny Mravinsky after a concert

Another experience I will never forget is hearing the 80-year-old Yevgeny Mravinsky conduct the Leningrad Philharmonic on his final visit to the west in 1983. At the end of their Zurich performance of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, of which Mravinsky had conducted the world premiere in 1943, I was pinned to the back of my seat, unable to applaud. Despite the conductor’s physical frailty, the orchestra’s splenetic attacks under his command gave the music a visceral authenticity. The wartime suffering of the entire Russian nation lingered in the air, stoking my emotional responses.

While Mravinsky’s reputation as an orchestra dictator went before him, throughout his long career he never gave an interview. That sort of behaviour won’t do today. The conductor has to be able to talk to an audience in layman’s terms, telling stories in a way that demystifies the musical experience. Glad-handing sponsors and attending meet-the-audience functions are now part of the job. The question is: has this altered, or compromised, the musical authority of the person on the podium?

The arrival of 26-year-old Simon Rattle at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1980 – when it was still widely believed that “conductors begin at 60” – was the first sign that youth was pushing aside experience, a trend that culminated five years ago in Dudamel’s Los Angeles appointment, also at the age of 26.

Adrian Boult c1930©Getty

Adrian Boult c1930

Like most of their peers, Rattle and Dudamel made a name for themselves in music that was not considered “core repertoire”. When Dudamel conducts Beethoven or Berlioz it is a lightweight experience, just as it was with Rattle in the 1980s. Rattle has since found his way to the 19th-century classics, and it remains to be seen if Dudamel can do likewise. But give him music with rhythm or a contemporary twang, such as John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and he is clearly in tune with it. Such music is lost on veterans such as Bernard Haitink. Unlike Rattle and Dudamel, the 83-year-old Dutchman learnt his Beethoven and Berlioz out of the limelight. He embodies the great European tradition but has never been at ease with the music of our time.

A member of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (who prefers not to be named) says: “The conductors coming through [the door] today haven’t had the time and space to develop in the way their predecessors did. They want to be everywhere, and quickly. But recently we had a young conductor [the French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 37] who has it all. He treated us with respect, he knew how to rehearse, he had ‘good hands’.”

Musical authority is, then, not merely a question of age and experience. Orchestras usually respond to anyone who can rehearse efficiently, transmit a clear conception of the music’s shape and tempo, and raise the emotional temperature in performance. Vasily Petrenko of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Ilan Volkov of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, both now 35, have proved they are as adept in core 19th-century repertoire as they are in the music of our time. Younger conductors may lack the gravitas of their elders, but they bring with them the promise of revitalisation – and an awareness of the need to play a wider role in the life of an orchestra.

Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink in 1970©Getty

Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink in 1970

“A music director must identify with the whole endeavour, and work with management towards a common goal,” says Mick Elliott, the orchestra manager who introduced Petrenko to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2004. “It has to be a team effort. If the conductor wants to dominate the organisation, you have problems.”

. . .

For most of musical history composers were more important than conductors, who did not even exist until the mid-19th century. Only then did the rapidly growing size and sophistication of the orchestra necessitate that someone other than the principal violinist beat time and coordinate the playing. Since then the basic art of conducting has not changed. It still involves leading a band of musicians in a way that makes sense of the music. What has changed is the social and cultural context.

In the 20th century, as new music became more complex and less audience-friendly, the conductor took on more importance than the composer, exercising glamorous authority on the podium and brutal hire-and-fire power off it – a phenomenon exemplified by the Hungarian émigré conductors Fritz Reiner and George Szell at Chicago and Cleveland in the 1950s. By that time, electronic reproduction of music had turned the conductor into a superstar – Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini was the first. Some, such as Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti, became multimillionaires.

That type of conductor went out of favour with the CD revolution of the 1990s. Suddenly recordings became cheap and easy to make. The exclusive record contracts on which a select group of conductors had based their fame and fortune became a thing of the past.

This democratised classical music, shifting power away from conductors, their agents and record companies, and giving a bigger say to orchestral musicians and their managers and funders. “Today, the relationship [between conductor and musicians] is more informal, more collegial – and less reverential,” says Mark Elder, 65, music director of the Hallé Orchestra. “It hasn’t changed the way you make music, but it demands that conductors show respect.”

An equal contributor to making the relationship more democratic has been the early music movement – a phenomenon that swept classical music between the 1970s and 1990s, stimulating research into and implementation of baroque playing styles. Having spent decades playing Bach, Handel and Mozart in the same homogenised way as Tchaikovsky and Mahler, orchestras discovered they had been misrepresenting earlier composers, and needed a more “historically informed” approach, based on musicology and experiment.

Enter the period instrument guru – a scholarly type who could teach the symphony orchestra how to adapt its playing style for “old” music. Musicians such as Frans Brüggen, William Christie and Nikolaus Harnoncourt drew their authority from their study of composers’ manuscripts and 18th-century playing styles. They behaved more like a coach or tutor: they talked, demonstrated and explained. They were not trained conductors. Much as they tried, they rarely exerted the same authority in 19th- and 20th-century repertoire as they did in pre-1800 music – but it was their “democratic”, anti-traditional approach to the past that chimed with the times.

A handful of orchestras has taken democratisation to an extreme by opting to work without a conductor. Meanwhile, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the leading UK-based period instrument ensemble, often knows more about the music than its conductors, and has a committee to decide which ones it is prepared to work with in a partnership of equals.

Today’s conductor fulfils the role of primus inter pares – not running the show but part of a team. The orchestra’s publicity department may still present him/her as the divine spark that ignites the enthusiasm of everyone within their orbit but, in reality, the conductor now fulfils a role somewhere between promotional tool and musically inspiring frontman.

“All successful conductors are incredibly intelligent, and all have a big ego, which is fine – that’s the job,” says Anthony Sayer, a cellist in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. “What happens in the concert hall is an emotional connection, or lack of it, between orchestra and audience. To produce that, the orchestra needs inspiration. Nobody should think we don’t need conductors, or that anyone can stand up and do it. An orchestra is a big body of diverse opinions, which the charisma of a lively, powerful person can harmonise.”

There is no evidence that the decline of the old, authoritarian conductor-model has affected the vitality of musical life. Quite the opposite. Playing standards have never been so high. Despite the poor financial climate, audience figures remain healthy – especially in cities such as Birmingham and Los Angeles, where the resident conductor is young and visible.

Call it the Dudamel effect. Classical music has always been and always will be a minority interest. That is why, now more than in the past, everyone involved has to work extra-hard to make the “product” an artistic and financial success. “When it works, everyone reaps the rewards,” says Nick Mathias, manager of the London Philharmonic’s Vladimir Jurowski and several other leading conductors. “The conductor still personifies the brand but if they don’t connect with the players, you are not going to get the result you need. It boils down to chemistry – it always has done. When the chemistry ignites, it’s a very exciting thing. That’s the unpredictable element that no one can predict or control.”

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in an outdoor concert at Stirling, Scotland, on June 21 and in a series of events at London’s Royal Festival Hall, June 23-26

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Why Finland produces so many leading conductors

Susanna Malkki©Getty

Susanna Mälkki

Music recognises few national boundaries but, per head of population, no country has produced more conductors of international standing than Finland. Three, Susanna Mälkki, John Storgards and Osmo Vänskä, appear at this summer’s BBC Proms. Another two have principal conductor appointments with London orchestras – Sakari Oramo at the BBC Symphony and Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Philharmonia. Jukka-Pekka Saraste regularly guest-conducts the London Philharmonic and Olari Elts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Mikko Franck and Pietari Inkinen also have international reputations.

Such a concentration of leadership on the world’s concert platforms is impressive, given that Finland’s 5.4m population is considerably less than greater London’s. Are Finns more naturally gifted with the baton or do they just enjoy classical music more than other nations?

The answer lies partly in education. Along with a well-integrated music programme in schools, Finland has 88 specialist music schools. These are funded by a government grant five times greater than the British equivalent, though the overall spend on education in the two countries is roughly the same.

The emphasis on music education began in the 1960s, when the cold war was at its height and relations with the Soviet Union, Finland’s former colonial overlord, were difficult. It was important for Finland to express its identity, and the way it chose to do so – inspired by the example of Sibelius – was through music.

The other significant factor behind the proliferation of Finnish maestros is Jorma Panula, 81, professor of conducting at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki from 1973 to 1994. All the conductors mentioned above were Panula students. Panula never taught by demonstrating a vocabulary of gestures. His philosophy was simple: trust the composer’s markings, respect the natural flow of the music and don’t ape the mannerisms of celebrated maestros.

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