The man (for it usually is) waving the stick

by / Friday, 09 November 2012 / Published in Advice, Musiquity

The online music universe is buzzing with discussion about a piece penned by the associate principal trumpet of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Russell DeVuyst, regarding conductors and the “cult of charisma”. (Check it out if only for the conductor joke at the end).

In it, Mr DeVuyst exposes the current mania for conductors as “personalities”, using a recent review in the Montreal Gazette to illustrate some of the foolishness that goes on around conductors currently. I completely agree with Mr DeVuyst’s points but I think it’s interesting to delve into why this is happening.

I think there are two main reasons:
1. Certain personalities are attracted to conducting. To many people, the conductor is THE BOSS. S/he’s in charge. But think about it, a conductor is a musician who presumes to stand up in front of a large group of equally or better qualified people and “tell” them what to do. That takes a certain amount of balls, or, sometimes, sheer arrogance. Conducting is also scary because not only is it relatively easy to mess things up, but the conductor also shoulders the blame if for any reason, it all goes wrong. Because of these factors, a proportion of conductors are, well, shall we say, showmen. Perhaps it’s a useful way to cover up for the nerves or perhaps they really are just “larger than life”. So, they perform, and the audience sees. Which brings me on to the second reason.
2. Concert goers are going to a show. It’s easy to forget this when you’re working as a musician, but the audience is made of people who go out to see things. They’ve taken some of their valuable leisure time, plonked their bottoms in a hopefully comfortable seat, and want to be entertained. Personally, I think watching the various sections of the orchestra do their things is fascinating but perhaps that’s because I know more about what I’m seeing. The conductor, the person in the middle with the stick, who seems to be making magic, is the obvious focus for the concert goer. The “showman” conductor is much more visually interesting than the background conductor. The showman conductor practically acts the music out and signposts to the audience what is happening. For inexperienced concert-goers, this is tremendously helpful- “Ooh, it’s getting mysterious now…now it’s pompous” etc. Yes, we’d all prefer that concertgoers “see with their ears” but I think that’s something that takes experience to grow.

So, we end up in the situation where critics think they “hear” conductors (see the linked article above) and wealthy patrons want the cute conductor with the curly hair. Where less showy conductors are criticised for displaying great musicianship and letting the orchestra shine. It’s really just another manifestation of society’s obsession with the thin opera stars, the authors with pearly white teeth, the identikit pop princesses, but probably everyone hoped that that sort of thinking didn’t extend into the hallowed halls of classical music. But it does.

There’s no actual solution to this, obviously. But, as I need to finish this post, I’ll offer three suggestions. Firstly, the more introverted conductors unfortunately need to make more of an effort to engage with the audience, whether it’s by speaking to them or by bigging things up a little bit. Secondly, this kind of debate needs to continue as do other efforts to educate concert-goers on what it is they should be looking for in a concert experience. Thirdly, perhaps everyone should just stop listening to certain critics. 🙂