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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Editorial: Falling Off Their Podiums

The changing role of the conductor in the 21st century.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Photoshop by the author.
 When you think about it conductors are held in a ridiculously high esteem. Now granted it is important for orchestras to cue in together and stay in time, and know when to start and when to stop playing. However, the idea of the conductor as celebrity, as some sort of mystic grand master of musical performance is one that is endemic to the classical music and opera business.

It is also toxic. In recent weeks, two internationally famous award-winning conductors have found themselves embroiled in sex scandals, each the subject of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. I'm talking of course about James Levine, the music director emeritus of the Metropolitan Opera and Charles Dutoit, the longtime international podium star who currently occupies that job at the Royal Philharmonic.  Conductors much to the surprise and chagrin of the public, are mortal and in some cases, deeply flawed.

In these stormy times, some of my colleagues have spent some column length talking about one's moral reaction to learning that an acclaimed artist has a dark side. However, I will point out that the conductor, while powerful and impressive as a visual and artistic focus of a performing ensemble, is by no means the most important person in the room. They are not gods: they are musicians who discovered a skill in preparing rehearsals, in reading scores and in putting together performances. And while they are important and sometimes aloof, they are not alone in their endeavors.

Sure the great ones can lend a particular style or artistic flavor to a performance (think of the Debussy of Pierre Boulez or the Mahler of Leonard Bernstein!) However the truth is that conductors are not the sole motivating factor of a performance--and they should not be treated as if they are more than they are. Conductors are hard workers with a gift for musical organization and an astounding ear and memory. They have to wrangle an ensemble of up to 150 players. They are standing at the helm of an orchestra who also work hard.  But the idea of the conductor as some sort of mystic priest of music is finally, thankfully coming to a well-deserved twilight.

The idea of conductors as demi-deities started in the 1800s, where the likes of Hans von Bulöw, Hans Richter, and Arthur Nikisch were just three examples of this new occupation. In the 20th century, the likes of  Arturo Toscanani, Herbert von Karajan and George Szell held sway, creating a worshipping culture propped up by the opportunity-seekers at record companies looking (as one does) to sell more product. A bubble rose, popped and rose again, where the likes of Mr. Dutoit and Mr. Levine were revered as members of this sacred club: all white men, all male, all steeped in the same traditions. In this new century, that tradition is finally changing.

The idea of an all powerful figure on the podium with eyes closed and the score committed to memory, drawing glories from the labors of musicians is one that appeals to the human psyche. The same worship pervades religion, politics and art throughout human history, from the likes of that old egotist Richard Wagner (who, it should be noted, eliminated the conductor from view in designing Bayreuth) to the artists mentioned above. Granted, it is safer to venerate conductors and composers than the likes of Mussolini, Hitler and Donald Trump; conductor worship is a much safer religion since they can only make your life hell if you work for them.

Before I go further I am going to point out that I am aware of the name of this blog is in fact Superconductor. I came up with it all by myself. That name is actually not derived from the image (however amusing) of Alan Gilbert running down Broadway in a blue bodystocking red shorts and a red cape. No. It comes from a a lyric by the Canadian songwriter and drummer Neil Part of the band Rush:

"Packaged like a rebel or a hero,
 target mass appeal,

To make an audience feel,
He really means it."

So yes, there is an inherent cynicism in that title.

"Watch his every move: Superconductor--orchestrate illusions."

I wasn’t trying to exult the myth of the maestro. The goal here is to treat musicians objectively and their performances as fairly as possible. That will continue to be my intent in 2018 as this blog enters the 11th year of its existence. aI hope you, the reader will be coming along for the ride.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.