The Maestro: Benevolent dictator or collegial facilitator?

by John Andrews

photo: Robert Workman

Ivan Hewett recently defended the image of the ‘tyrannical male maestro’ against a perceived inclination by orchestral managers to book conductors they hope will be more collegial, collaborative and unthreatening. The gendered language of the headline was doubtless aimed at attracting controversy, but if we set that aside for a moment, the article raises pertinent questions about the role of the conductor: specifically, how far the process of music making can be truly collegial with large forces and complicated works. It is no accident that the idea of collaborative and democratic music-making with the conductor (or director-from-keyboard-or-violin) as more of a facilitator emerged from the revival of early music in the 1960s. Smaller ensembles and fairly regular metrical structures allowed for something less driven from above, an approach encouraged at that time by a sense that everyone was rediscovering styles and techniques together. But how far can this way of working carry into later repertoire with its greater range of rubato and much larger forces?

Let’s start by stating the obvious: there have always been as many personalities on the podium as there are conductors, but – and this is the crucial point – whatever the conductor’s personality and approach, they are in charge. They are responsible for the quality of the performance; they are responsible for ensuring that every player and singer is able to give their very best; and more than that, they are responsible for leading and directing an interpretation of the work which is more than the sum of those individual parts. Tyrant or facilitator, that responsibility cannot be passed on.

Because the orchestra does not, as some may imagine, magically speak with one voice. In a symphony orchestra, there will be seventy-five to a hundred views of how the piece should be interpreted: all of them valid, all of them interesting. The conductor does not necessarily need the ego to think that their view is inherently better than all of those, but they do need the self-confidence to believe that theirs should prevail on this particular occasion. In the United Kingdom in particular, rehearsal time is so very, very, limited that the pressure to coalesce rapidly round a musical approach is intense. And whilst there are multiple views within the orchestra, and most will be held quietly, there will also be strong personalities amongst the players who have clear ideas about tempo, balance, and phrasing. If the conductor resigns their authority to lead in these questions, it will pass to the loudest voice, or worse still, to a discussion between conflicting voices. The conductor has to engage all of the people in the room in a consistent view of the piece, giving the musicians unity of purpose, or that power, but without the responsibility, will simply pass elsewhere.

Whether done with charm or bluntness, this is liberating for the orchestra, who are not (or hardly ever) there to discuss, but to play. This is equally true of the most ethereal artistic decisions as it is of the nuts and bolts of rehearsing. By taking responsibility for balance, ensemble and intonation, the conductor frees the players to play. By taking responsibility for correcting errors, the conductor not only frees up the orchestra members from constantly self-monitoring; they also inhibit the inevitable inter-orchestra tension that will emerge if infelicities are allowed to persist.

So, we can say quite decisively that the conductor must take full responsibility for the overall artistic endeavour, but leadership takes many forms, and being in charge need not be exercised with an iron fist, nor does it necessarily require micromanagement. There are as many conductors who are diplomatic, accommodating and approachable as there are directors who are authoritative, uncompromising and distant. Must the conductor necessarily be a tyrant? Those qualities of diplomacy, of listening, and guiding with a light and respectful touch were highlighted in Susan Cain’s remarkable 2013 book ‘Quiet.’ It is perhaps the classic expression of the case for the power of leaders who are on the more introverted end of the personality spectrum. In a world which often privileges the outgoing, talkative, charismatic personality, she demonstrated many areas in which a more introverted leader can draw the best from the talent around then, flourishing beyond the classic extroverts of marketing myth. And what is the aim of a conductor after all, if not releasing the power of others?

Andrews at the International Composers Festival 2018

But every orchestra has its own character, and different personalities flourish in different environments. Whether a more authoritarian, directive style of leadership is appropriate, or whether a more approachable and gentle direction is in order will depend a lot on the personal and professional environment the conductor encounters. Whilst a disparate group of strong personalities may need an extrovert form of leadership to pull all of its members in the same direction, a close-working group whose members are both skilled and respectful of each other will often flourish more easily under the greater listening skills and quiet direction of a more introverted approach. In reality, most organizations, and therefore most orchestras lie between these two extremes. The same is true of conductors, and the best leaders sense which part of their personality they need to get the best out of the orchestra in front of them on that day. But with the best will in the world, an individual conductor can’t be all things in all situations, and there are countless examples of musicians who have close relationships with some orchestras, but just can’t get on with others.

In a fantasy world, where rehearsal time existed for a conductor to take on board all of the thoughts of all of the players in the room, would we want to listen to that? The averaging out of all those brilliant ideas until something squarely in the middle was left. We can hotly argue about the relative merits of Toscannini and Furtwängler; but we can also safely agree that nobody would want to listen to the average of the two. And this is surely the point. The glory of this particular musical tradition is that it allows for a huge range and diversity of performances. Smoothing out the individuality of approach kills the inherent variety, and this is where the ‘personal stamp’ of the conductor is all-important. As a conduit from the composer, through the orchestra to the audience the conductor must endeavour to release the personality of the composer. Since the composer is so rarely present these days, this is necessarily through the imaginative range of the conductor’s own persona.

Of course, it’s clear that some composers assume the need for an overt personality than others. Nothing would be more obscene than hearing a Byrd Mass or Bach cantata invaded by the personality of the director, but it is worth remembering that the personality visible in performance may differ wildly from that in rehearsal. At one extreme Claudio Abbado rarely raised his eyes from the score in rehearsal, saving everything for the concert; Adrian Boult by contrast could be passionate and outspoken in rehearsal, but stepped out of the way to let the music unfold in the concert. The ways in which a conductor translates the work of the rehearsal room onto the stage are as diverse as music itself, and the performance on the podium may be more for the audience’s benefit than the orchestra’s.

A conductor plays no notes, makes no noise. Their job is to allow the people on stage to do their job with flair, brilliance, and a unity of purpose that makes a powerful whole out of a set of hugely skilled and musical individuals. We can celebrate the diversity of ways in which that can happen, without forgetting that the buck stops firmly on the podium.