Are conductors overrated?

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Are conductors overrated?

Conductors are by far the most overrated of
all musicians. So said Harrison Birtwistle to Simon Rattle. I´m not musician
enough to give a qualified opinion, but I imagine some of you probably have
strong views either way. All I will say is that I tend to lose the rag somewhat
when I see some moody conductor with his (it is almost always a man) name
emblazoned at large on a CD or LP, and at the same time you find in miniscule
if at all the name of the composer or orchestra. I know this is advertising,
and whilst I suspect that the people behind this marketing strategy probably
know as much about the music as swans, I find it disappointing that the
conductors go along with this chicanery. What do others think?

RE: Are conductors overrated?

Hi again Dubrob. Another interesting one. I suppose the cult of the celebrity musician is what also affects conductors here like in so many other walks of life. It's a short route from maestro to celebrity! There are posters who have said it better in recent times. Is it Lebrecht who has quite a bit to say on it? 

Fraz Jo - disapntd. Bn ringin this grl al week. No ansr...looks lke she changed her mnd. O well...Ldwg...

RE: Are conductors overrated?

As Mark says, we have been round here before.

But as dubrob says the way musicians (not only conductors) are advertised is mostly to do with marketing strategy. Those of us who remember earlier times when the market may have seemed less dominant in the classical music sphere might usefully remember that the cost of even a full-price CD is less than a tenth of what it was in the 1960s (in terms of average cost of living), even less in terms of disposable incomes.  You can't have it every way!

And, as always, there are some very fine conductors around as well as many not worthy of the photograph on the CD's cover.

Chris

Chris A.Gnostic

RE: Are conductors overrated?

Sorry gents if I am dragging up something
that has already been done to death. Chris, just on that point about the
changing cost of records over the years, it is extraordinary. When Decca
started releasing LPs in Britain in 1950/51, if I am not mistaken they cost 21
shillings a pop. To put that in some kind of context, ten years later my old
man was earning 7 pounds a week. So if you earn 500 pounds a week now, and I
don´t, it would be similar to an individual CD costing 100 bucks. Praise be to
Naxos.

RE: Are conductors overrated?

Dubrob, in 1950 Decca were selling LPs for £2. so 200 bucks! And an LP then played for about 40'. 

Chris A.Gnostic

RE: Are conductors overrated?

Apologies Chris, you are dead right 39 and 6.

RE: Are conductors overrated?

There are conductors and conductors. Regardless of the sound they produce I'd prefer most of them were hidden from the audience by a screen.

Back in the day a friend of mine got a summer job doing backstage work for the LSO. He wasn't a music fan in particular but got the chance to sit in on many rehearsals. This is when Boult and Previn shared most of the conducting duties. My friend's observations were pretty much what you'd expect: Boult going about his work with quiet composure, Previn, even during rehearsal, on show.

RE: Are conductors overrated?

We may have discussed this before but it always good to reflect again. I would love to answer with a clear 'yes' but the truth is I think as audiences we have helped tremendously with the 'cult of the conductor'. The advent of recordings cannot have helped either. Just imagine the second company to put out a recording of Beethoven's fifth all those years ago - how do they market the music? Better orchestra, better sound perhaps? Or do you just say 'X's Beethoven fifth, the greatest ever'. It seems almost inevitable that we label recordings by the conductor - it is just so much easier than saying the Berlin Philhrmoniker's 1995 recording of Beethoven's fifth. And so the idea of interpretation is born, and so the conductor takes centre stage.

Funnily enough I watched (by accident I happened upon it) a documentary about a famous conductor, which ended in comparison with his contemporary and opposite in character, temperament and asthetic. The key point for me is that when faced with somebody they really rate a collective group of musicians seem quite easily persuaded that the conductor is necessary and when they don't like the person infront of them they think they should be shot! So probably for me the issue is not one of being overrated, it is more the issue of us assuming they are infallible. 

Naupilus

RE: Are conductors overrated?

I remember seeing in a documentary Charles
Groves conducting with one hand in his cardigan pocket. He looked like he could
have done the job smoking a pipe. Makes you realise that, in comparison,
conducting as a profession does include some awful clowns.

Bringing discussion across from the other thread

It seems we are having a similar conversation on the other thread (youtube controversy)...

So I am bringing my reply over here, as it seems to make sense to discuss it here as well / instead

Limitations of a score / Value of a conductor

There is almost always a great deal of room for interpretation in the performance of any work. Just considering the woodwind there is variation in tempo and phrasing, the space between the notes, the style of articulation, how the dynamics vary within a note, let alone within a phrase, the pace and intensity of vibrato, how individuals blend their tone etc. I hesitate to say the variation can be infinite, as the notation fixes certain aspects, but leaves many others unsaid, but enough is left to interpretation that no live performance will ever be identical.

The conductor serves as the person who decides upon and drives that interpretation if they are a good one, using their emotion and gestures to convey how the orchestra should respond to the music in front of them.

A score and parts provide notation and some typically some direction, and thereafter we have regard for style of the work and of its composer and period, having regard for what we know of its performance history, whether to replicate, emulate or consciously deviate from this.

Sitting in an orchestra as a player, you dont want some lame duck who merely beats time, and leaves it all up to you, as there will be no unity of interpretation.

You need to feel what the conductor is trying to convey.

While I can understand some onlookers being mystified by the maestro waving his arms around, less is certainly not always more, but that does not mean the conductor should seek to convey that they are beset by a swarm of mosquitoes!

When you have a conductor before you, you want a conductor who knows the work, and who knows what they want to get out of it, and who has the confidence that they can convey that to you the orchestra.

RE: Are conductors overrated?

Well as Tagalie says there are conductors and conductors... Can one necessarily compare the egotistical jet-setting "superstars" who migrate around the world continually demanding vast fees with those who genuinely stay and become committed to an orchestra for some years both developing and genuinely improving the orchestra and perhaps broadening its repertoire as well as their own.

No doubt the aim of some is to join the international elite but not all - Barbirolli in Manchester & Ansermet in Geneva for example whilst Reiner & Szell polished their US ensembles to perfection in certain repertoire. (I better not mention Von K - I don't want to stir up that controversy again).

I remember some years ago getting a videotape of "the Great Conductors" or some similar title with clips from old filmed performances: Toscanini staring and seemingly mesmerising his players whilst Strauss was somewhat nonchalantly waving his baton about and looking absolutely bored stiff - even in his own music!

Orchestras too seem to have differing views on their maestros from being much in sympathy, terrified (although not perhaps in today's PC climate) to hating them. Richard Morrison's book on the LSO gives some interesting insights as does John Drummond's (somewhat catty) autobiography.

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