Friday, 6 November 2009

Who needs Runnicles, et al? (Nobody, apparently....)

Many orchestras seem to be suffering financially just now (e.g. Cleveland and Philadelphia). However, if this rather poor piece of journalism in the Grauniad is to be believed, there is a simple solution: sack the conductor. According to Philippa Ibbotson, they not only do nothing useful, but are also massively overpaid for the privilege.

Who is this person? One could be forgiven for imagining that such ramblings come from the pen of one who rarely, if ever, gets out to hear an orchestra, and certainly not the same one regularly with different conductors. The article gives no biography, but a little googling reveals she is, staggeringly, a freelance violinist (presumably one not expecting a great deal of work in the near future).

I go to a lot of concerts, too many, frankly, and listen to even more recordings and radio broadcasts. If the weight of all that experience has taught me anything, it is that it is utter nonsense to suggest that the conductor makes no difference. Of course, I don't doubt that there are those who fall into precisely this category (and I have heard unflattering things about various people from performers who've worked with them; I've seen others about whom I'd say as much), but if there are such poor practitioners, it only underscores what is absent and the existence of those who can deliver it. Simply because not everyone can do something, we shouldn't write the whole idea off.

Put Charles Mackerras in front of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, for example for their concert series of Beethoven symphonies back in 2006, and you have a standard of musicianship to rival any in the world. As someone who lives just round the corner from them, take it from me when I say would that they always sounded that fantastic, regardless of who is up there waving the stick. Of course, they almost always sound good in all but the worst hands, but with someone like Mackerras they are great.

Mackerras, of course, is a particularly fine example of just how much difference a conductor makes. Possessing one of the largest private collections of full orchestral parts, he brings all the scores with him, marked up with decades of experience and research, so he can get just the sound he wants.

Orchestras can, and often very successfully do, play without a conductor. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra are both examples of this. However, even those performances are conducted after a fashion, being directed by a member of the ensemble. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra blog had a fine piece on the subject earlier in the year. Now, great though their principal cellist David Watkin may be (and regular readers will know that I think he's pretty fantastic), I'm sure even he would admit he's no Charles Mackerras. The blog post makes an interesting point:

First of all, I should clarify that this week we have been performing without a conductor. If you are surprised to hear this, remember that as a small performing group, we don’t really need one.

To me, the key word here is need. No, they don't need a conductor, they can get along just fine without one, I've heard and seen them do it. But there's another key word here: small. The SCO are a fairly small ensemble. I'd like to see somebody do Mahler's eighth symphony or Berlioz's requiem without a conductor (actually, I wouldn't, I'm not daft, but that's exactly the point - the words train, wreck and catastrophic would doubtless feature in any review of a concert that attempted either). And that's not even mentioning opera, from whence many of the best conductors come, doubtless because of the sheer quantity of different factors to be brought together for success.

But just because the SCO doesn't need a conductor, it doesn't mean they don't benefit from having one, usually they do.

That's just my view. After all, what would I, a lowly spectator (albeit one who goes to a quite crazy number of different concerts, and owns equally absurd numbers of different recordings of some works, so has ample opportunity to compare different conductors) know? We should clearly be grateful to Ibbotson for telling us the truth. Doubtless all orchestral players share this view but are afraid to speak out. Except, wait, what's this from Gareth Davies, principal flautist of the LSO, writing in their blog:

I think any discussion over the difference a conductor makes could be settled when you here the LSO play Mahler 9 with Haitink on one night and Gergiev on the other. I’m sure you’ll each have our own personal favourite, but I don’t think any of you would say that we sound the same!

And what a fine example that is. Just personally, I cannot stand Gergiev's Mahler. It strikes me as rushed and altogether reminds me of a man late for an appointment. Others will, and do, adore it. That's just the point - it's nothing like Haitink's, even with the same orchestra, as anybody who heard their Prom this year will have been able to tell. Clearly the man on the podium is doing something and having some effect.

But what is she/he doing exactly. My experiences as a musician, which are extremely limited, since I don't play very well, suggest they do a lot. I play trombone, pretty badly, in an amateur orchestra. Over the last year or so we've had a least four different conductors work with us, and they're all very different. Given my talent, or lack thereof, I like a clear beat, the clearer the better as it's harder to get lost that way. I also find their general attitude makes a huge difference in how hard you try and consequently perform for them, much as with any manager in any job I've ever had (I should say that I do think all our regular conductors do a very fine job; Louise Martin is particularly great at making me feel I'm not as useless as I surely am). Then there's having someone who knows what to do in rehearsals generally, i.e. that you need to have just the violins and flutes playing this passage, then the cellos and brass say, that if you can't hear the violas here it means you're playing too loudly. Not to mention paying attention to exactly what dynamics will work and what tempi to use. We're back to Mackerras and his library of parts now.

In an orchestra of professional players, doubtless most people are capable of doing such things sufficient for a competent performance. However, it surely makes sense to assume that someone who has dedicated their career to taking an overview of a piece will generally be able to get a better result. Similarly, the tuning that goes on is likely of an altogether finer form than with us (though another bit in Gareth's blog did remind me of our fine leader Caroline, one of a number of very talented players we have, as he described the LSO's leader demonstrating a technique to the rest of the players).

Even if Ibbotson was right and players never look at the conductor, clearly something has gone on before hand. Of course, I think the suggestion that the musicians spend the whole evening with their heads buried in the score simply doesn't mesh with my experience. Last night I was at another SCO concert and I couldn't help but notice just how much principal cellist David Watkin looked conductor Andrew Manze, at times he seemed to be looking up almost every other bar. Of course, Watkin is a superb musician, doubtless she could learn something from him.

But why do the results of one conductor's labours lead to a transporting experience while another's may fall flat. Well, that's altogether a tougher question to answer. I once attended a talk with Charles Mackerras where he addressed the issue. Some great conductors, he said, give an exceptionally clear beat, others an impossibly difficult one to follow (Furtwangler had a notoriously difficult downbeat, but the results were unique and incredible: I defy you to say Karajan's Berlin recordings sound anything like his); others spend hours in rehearsal, still others rush in at the last moment then rush out again immediately after; some are dictatorial and scream, fortunately a diminishing trend these days, while others are collegiate in their approach. More interestingly still, the dynamic between one conductor and one orchestra may be extremely successful yet put them with another and it could be a disaster with less chemistry than was located during the search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Earlier in the year, when I spoke to a researcher for the recent Runnicles documentary who didn't know much about classical music, she asked me what I meant by him having a great relationship with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The analogy I came up with on the spot was one of a conversation between two people: sometimes it's awkward and uncomfortable, sometimes they hit it right off from the word go. The reason isn't entirely clear, but it is normally pretty easy to identify people who are getting along and people who aren't. But just because something isn't clear doesn't mean nothing is happening or that it's worthless. Physicists still don't understand how or why exactly gravity works, but it still keeps my laptop firmly on the table while I type this. Which is nice.

Of course, the question of whether or not a conductor is effective is a quite separate one from whether the salary is excessive, despite the author's insistence on conflating them (and while it may seem fashionable to tie it in with bankers' bonuses given the current climate, the two have about as much in common as astrophysics and astrology). After all, if someone truly is pointless, any salary is outrageous, not just one running into the millions. Even if they were useless, the conflation with bankers would still be unfair, since they've been rather worse than that. However, as I think I've demonstrated, it should be pretty clear that they're not.

Now, it may be valid to argue that there is a fundamental inequity between what the players get paid and what the conductor gets. However, to some extent this is simply market forces at work as is the nature of capitalism. Rightly or wrongly, more people are going to come and hear an orchestra with Claudio Abbado standing in front of them than with Joe Bloggs. Not only, therefore, is an orchestra right to pay top dollar for top conductors, they would be shooting themselves in the foot not to. Until audiences stop caring about hearing the best conductors, they're going to command high prices. The trouble is, for the reasons given above, I don't think that's very likely.

Certainly argue that orchestral musicians should be paid more, everything I know about their finances suggest that for the most part they don't get nearly as much as they deserve. However, in a world where reality stars make millions and Jordan can publish books (yes, note the plural), it seems to me there are more glaring and baffling inequities. I also suspect the proportion of conductors who make millions isn't the majority.

Leaving cold economics aside, though, if someone is capable of creating a revelatory experience in the way the very greatest are, then shouldn't they make a lot? In most of the orchestras I know well there are many great players. However, if one falls ill, or is off doing something else for a given concert, while it is a shame, it doesn't seem to make the same difference as the conductor: the SCO are lifted up when Ursula Leveaux returns to the principal bassoonist's seat, but when Charles Mackerras climbs onto the podium they are transformed.

The simple fact of the matter is that if conductors really were so pointless, far more orchestras would do away with them far more often. They, and the people running them, are not complete idiots.

The real puzzle in all this is whether the Grauniad has any kind of editorial process and how on earth this dross got through it. Therefore, without further ado, I present the Philippa Ibbotson Award for a Bafflingly Terrible Piece of Arts Journalism that Reads Like it was Written by Someone for whom the Arts are a Foreign Country and which was Inexplicably Unhindered by the Editorial Process. I suppose we should retroactively award it to Charles Hazelwood for this too.


  1. Thank you for this thorough and comprehensive response to an artice that only fosters ignorance! It was frightening to read the comments, most of which agreed with the article. I also didn't realize that being a "freelance violinist" was the only prerequisite to becoming an expert on what is best for classical music.

  2. You're welcome.

    You're also quite right about the comments on the Guardian piece - frightening is the word.