Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Vacant Podiums

This has been a bad year for conductors. Seiji Ozawa, recovering from oesophageal cancer, has been cancelling concert for more than a year. Ricardo Muti collapsed during a rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and has been diagnosed with “extreme exhaustion as a result of prolonged physical stress.” Valery Gergiev is also suffering from exhaustion and has been cancelling performances. James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera and, until last week, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had to resign his position in Boston because of ill health. Claudio Abbado suffered from stomach cancer about a decade ago, and has been pretty much working as a part-time conductor the last few years. And André Previn is looking quite frail these days.

Are we witnessing a Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the age of the great conductors? Aren’t conductors known for living long fruitful lives? Or is this merely a period of changing of the guards, for a new generation of conductors to emerge?

Conducting is the most inexplicable and mysterious of all musical arts. Theoretically, conducting is nothing more than someone beating time so that all the musicians play together. One can teach the basic technique of conducting in about ten minutes – how to beat one, two, three, four and six. Some conductors look elegant on the podium, others look clumsy. Some conductors conduct with a clear beat, others make vague motions in the air. Somehow, the mere presence of a great conductor standing in front of an orchestra changes the sound dramatically.

Composer John Williams wrote that there are two types of conductors, “The first will offer less than what your ‘inner ear’ imagined the music to be, and the second will infuse the music with a beauty that is beyond what you have imagined.” Obviously the second group of conductors described by Williams is made up of only a small handful of true “Maestros”.

I once witnessed a performance of La Boheme at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, conducted by a competent but decidedly second-rate Kapellmeister. The world class MET orchestra sounded, on that evening, very much likes a passable provincial orchestra. I have witnessed this also with our local symphony orchestra, which sounded a few notches better on evenings with a good guest conductor. So it is true that a great conductor can make a so-so orchestra sound like the Berlin Philharmonic, and a bad conductor can make the Berlin Philharmonic sound like the local high school orchestra.

Among the younger generation of conductors, the one who has been generating the most newsprint, or internet space, has to be Gustavo Dudamel, although it might be too early to tell whether the excitement will last. To my ears, the three most interesting of the younger generation of conductors are Kent Nagano, Myung-Whun Chung, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

I do feel sad that we seem to be witnessing the passing of a generation of great conductors. It appears that we will see many “job openings” in orchestras the world over, and that a frantic round of musical chairs will be played in orchestras around the world within the next few years. All we are waiting for are the right persons to come forward. I do hope that there will be many who will have the right combination of talent and charisma to step up to the podium. Although every generation has something new to offer, I cannot help but wonder whether the age of greatness, of a larger-than-life quality in conductors and conducting, is passing?

I sincerely hope that I am very wrong in this.

Patrick May

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