The Classical Music Armchair Critics and their worship of celebrity conductors. But Classical Music Violinist Nigel Kennedy seems to disagree with them. He says “Conductors are completely over-rated.”
Hola a todos. The Classical Music Snots — also known as classical music armchair critics — and their god conductors. Yes, with the Classical Music Snots, a performance is all about the conductor whom they see as a god. That’s the impression one gets from them. It doesn’t matter what the piece is. One sees this all the time in the comments under YT classical music videos. With a certain group of people, there’s this fixation/obsession with the conductor of a performance as if s/he is solely and entirely responsible for the quality of a performance, which of course is nonsense. The Classical Music Snots — those self-appointed authorities on classical music where everything is “sublime” with them; they do have a new word “nuanced” (as in “wonderfully nuanced”) but they’re misusing it — consistently feel the need to name-drop their favourite celebrity conductor’s name, as if they think by doing so gives them credibility as a “seasoned musician,” Dahling. I often think that the Classical Music Snots are people who wanted to be professional musicians but didn’t come close to possessing the required talent, skill-level, musicianship and intelligence necessary to be a professional/degreed musician. And frankly, rather than go through all the work required for that — the years of study, practising, training and discipline as well as costs — to be a professional musician, it’s so much easier and requires no work at all to be an arm-chair critic of classical music performances trolling around and dropping the name of one’s favourite celebrity conductor(s), as if one were a professional musician. I say that because I’ve never known or worked with any musicians who behave like the Classical Music Snots (CMS). They are a unique group and so predictable.
Also, as part of their pretentiousness and class-consciousness (roll eyes), the Classical Music Snots sometimes have to go on about how “classy” some conductor is or some “classy” gesture that one of their god conductors made during or at the end of the performance. I personally never use the word “classy,” which is defined as: “of high class, rank, or grade; stylish; admirably smart; elegant.” To me, this ugly “classy” mentality comes off as class-ist and normally I don’t give any thought to what social class/social standing somebody is in. I see people as people, for the most part. But that’s obviously not the case with the Classical Music Snots and their attempt to be elitists. So tiresome.
Mi amigo/My friend asked me if was going to respond to any of these CMS people and their comments under YT videos. It’s tempting, but no. That would be a most futile effort. I suspect if I were to write what I’m about to say here in any YT comment where people are gushing over their favourite conductor, most people — if not all — would not understand my comment because they have brainwashed with this ridiculous mentality that the conductor of a performance is the “ultimate and end all” for that performance. I would hit a wall and would probably be hated on for writing the following:
In reality, a performance of a work is only as good as all of the musicians are. It’s a joint effort. It’s not about one person (the conductor).
For example, Gustavo Dudamel — the music director of both the superb Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela as well as the Los Ángeles Philharmonic — or Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan and any other conductor would have an inferior performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (Choral), for example, if the Orchestra and/or Chorus were not well-trained.
I don’t really understand this obsession and gushing over conductors (or vocal soloists for that matter, but that’s for another article). And of course they are always big-named, “celebrity” conductors. I’ve done some conducting in my background and overall my performances didn’t really sound that differently than anyone else’s performance because we’re all presumably using the same (urtext) authentic performance-edition score and hopefully closely adhering to the wishes of the composer therein. It’s not like (celebrity) conductors are making stuff up and adding it to the score — which is strictly frowned upon to begin with if one is to have any credibility — in order to make the “Bernstein performance” or the “Dudamel performance” different than the “Karajan performance.” When the CMS drop the name of their favourite celebrity conductor and that his (it’s usually a guy) performance is supposedly the best, they never say how or why it’s the best, probably because they don’t know and saying any more than that would expose their musical ignorance. No description of the performance and what makes it the best (according to them as self-appointed musical authorities) is ever written. No, the Classical Music Snots usually refer to a performance solely by the conductor’s name. A CMS will write: “The Solti is the best.” Well idiot, that tells me nothing about the musicians on stage who performed the piece. Yet another arm-chair expert/critic who has probably never played an instrument in their life. The musicians on stage played the piece, not the conductor. The conductor didn’t play one note, unless s/he conducted from a keyboard (piano, harpsichord or continuo). So who were these stellar musicians that you’re going on about when you write “The Solti is the best?” Were they the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus where Chorus Director, Margaret Hillis, prepared the Chicago Symphony Chorus? Or was Solti guest conducting somewhere in el mundo/the world? If that’s the case, was the Chorus in that performance of the same superb caliber of the Chicago Symphony Chorus prepared by Ms Hillis (who by the way won 9 Grammy Awards over the years for Best Choral Performance)? Or do you not care about any of that because “it’s all about the conductor” in your insipid mind? Idiots. You said absolutely nothing about the Orchestra and Chorus on stage. It was all about Solti. And often with a symphonic choral work, the Chorus is completely ignored by the Classical Music Snots as if they live under the absurd belief that the choristers are not really musicians or are of a second-class musician status. That’s terribly disrespectful to the Symphony Chorus. Choristers of that caliber are of a comparable level of musicianship to that of the orchestral musicians. That’s why they’re there! An orchestra’s Symphony Chorus — or an invited guest Orchestra Chorus — is supposed to be of the same level of musical excellence as that of its Orchestra. But with the Classical Music Snots, they refer to just the orchestra’s name, if they mention the orchestra at all really. The overwhelming majority of the time their comment contains only the conductor’s name which is also very disrespectful to the other musicians on stage. It should also be pointed out that some celebrity conductors have recorded some works multiple times with different performing forces and with different recording companies. So in that instance, one performance can be better in some ways — either musically or due to recording techniques or both — than another performance by the same conductor, so which “Bernstein performance” or which “Solti performance” were these idiots going on about? While writing this I saw a video that read “Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem – Abbado.” The idiot that posted the video didn’t have the intelligence to list any of the performers’ names. To him, it was all about the conductor. So one had no idea who the Orchestra and Chorus were. They were completely disrespected. I guess Claudio Abbado sang it himself and accompanied himself. I’d like to have seen that spectacle. In the comments, they were just as bad. One person mentioned one of the soloist’s names. Of the comments I scanned, it was all about “Abbado” and “Abbado, rest in peace.”
I’ve heard countless performances of Beethoven’s Ninth, for example, and have performed the piece myself in two Orchestra Choruses: the Choral Arts Society of Washington (with the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center) and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus with the San Francisco Symphony. Frankly, other than the performance with the Symphony Chorus — and that performance was conducted by Kurt Masur where he held that fermata in the score forever on the word “Gott” keeping the soprano section stuck on their high A indefinitely (which I liked by the way) — the performances I was involved in all pretty much sounded the same because, again, all musicians (including the conductor) were of the highest caliber and were using the same authentic edition scores, perhaps even the same performance (urtext) edition, by that I mean publisher (such as Editions Henle, Peters, Bärenreiter, and so forth). Also, it should be pointed out that the public expects well-known classical music works to generally sound as they’ve always heard them with only some minor differences depending upon the conductor’s interpretation. So, as for that fermata on the word “Gott” that I mentioned earlier in the score of Beethoven’s Ninth, by comparison Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the conductor of my favourite hr-Sinfonieorchester/Frankfurt Radio Symphony holds that fermata for a surprisingly short time compared to the late Kurt Masur. But that’s his interpretation. In the performances I had the pleasure of being in, each conductor’s interpretation in places was only slightly different than that of another conductor.
But it’s Beethoven’s Ninth, people/CMS! It pretty much always sounds the same regardless of which conductor is at the podium.
What makes each performance different in the case of the Beethoven is not the conductor, per se, but rather the caliber of the Orchestra and a very well-prepared and polished Symphony Chorus singing with a straight tone (perfect intonation). Which reminds me speaking of Beethoven’s Ninth, the stellar University of Maryland Chorus performed Beethoven’s Ninth over 38 times. They served as the guest Chorus of many (inter)national orchestras and conductors. I don’t think any other Orchestra Chorus holds that record. I guess one could say it was their “signature” piece. “The Word” among orchestras and conductors must have been: “You want the best Beethoven’s Ninth? Get Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus.” For example, this was written about them on their 36th performance of the Ninth in the late 1980s:
National Symphony Orchestra & University of Maryland Chorus
“…an excellent performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was presented to an overflow audience Saturday night at Wolf Trap. This excellence, however, was a last-minute development, and primary credit goes not to the National Symphony, which was the orchestra for the occasion, but to the University of Maryland Chorus, which came to the orchestra’s rescue. The Chorus — one of the best — celebrated its 20th anniversary and its 36th Beethoven Ninth by singing the final movement as well as I have ever heard it sung, live or on records.”
Source: The Washington Post, Joseph McLellan
Note that the reviewer doesn’t even mention the conductor’s name, the way the CMS do. Instead, for him it was all about the Orchestra and Chorus as it should be since they were the performers. In Britain, it may still be true but I think it’s accurate to say that Beethoven’s Ninth was — and still is? — the “signature” piece of Simon Haley’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus especially for their performances of the Beethoven at the BBC Proms. “The Word” in Britain must be: “It has to be the CBSO Chorus.” (Pronunciation note: for those who don’t know, the word “Birmingham,” as in City of Birmingham, is not pronounced the way it’s pronounced in the shithole US).
I guess one has gathered by now that I don’t worship conductors. Never have. For a choral performance, the last thing I do is to see who the conductor is. The first thing I look for is to see who the Chorus is and who prepared them (who the Chorus Director is). As a choral person, that’s far more important to me than who the conductor is since I’m there for a well-trained polished Chorus (and Orchestra) and not for a celebrity conductor. And from having performed under many celebrity conductors in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, conductors’ level of experience varies when it comes to having worked with a Chorus. Some have more of a rapport with the Chorus and level of respect, where others don’t. There are some orchestral conductors who are more like “choral people” — especially when the Chorus Director conducts the performance which is rare — and other conductors are not, as they’ve had more experience working only with orchestras.
Some celebrity conductors act like pompous assholes frankly. Self-absorbed and really stuck on themselves and their celebrity status. Where others such as Andrés Orozco-Estrada and Daniel Barenboim are much more humble and modest and try to make it about the music and the musicians rather than about themselves, and in my opinion that’s far more respectful. I can’t stand arrogant people. Basura. Arrogance is a sign of insecurity and feeling the need to pump oneself up.
So this nonsense about some conductor does it better than another conductor is really so tiresome. I also find it amateurish and it shows a lack of understanding of what makes a superb performance. It’s not just the celebrity conductor standing up there “waving his arms around.” And I should point out that some of the finest orchestras can play without a conductor, even in a concerto setting. They rely on the leader/concertmaster and the principals (first chair players) in collaboration with each other as extremely experienced professional musicians.
So in conclusion, one can have the best conductor in the world but if the musicians s/he is conducting are not that good, it won’t matter who’s conducting them. And who cares who the best conductor is? How would that even be judged? That’s as pointless as when these Classical Music Snots refer to a composer as “the best composer who ever lived” or “the best pianist who ever lived.” Being or like sheeple, the “best” mentality is so brainwashed into them. It’s also so terribly amateurish, because best composer and best pianist is subjective. There are many superb pianists whom the Classical Music Snots have never heard of who could be in the running for “best pianist who ever lived.” One of my former piano professors is outstandingly superb. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to study with her. She’s of the caliber of any world-renowned pianist today, but she chose to go into teaching at the University level — rather than living in the grueling performance/concertising grind of living on planes and in hotel rooms and with trying to play the Brahms’s First or Second (or both as some pianists prefer to do) on an interrupted sleep schedule with jetlag — and until her retirement she was Head of the Keyboard Department at the major University’s School of Music where she taught for decades. She’s now Professor Emerita. Yet most people have never heard of her, but she could easily be in the running for “best pianist who ever lived.”
Someone is probably ready to ask me: So there are no conductors that you like or respect? And where did I say that? That’s what you got out of what I’ve written here?
There are some conductors I like but I’m a bit slow to come up with their names because, unlike the Classical Music Snots, I don’t worship conductors and they’re the last person I think of in a performance. I really like Václav Luks, the conductor of his superb Collegium 1704 and Collegium 1704 Vocale from the Czech Republic. I also like Benjamin Northey and Paavo Järvi (they’re both excellent in working with a piano soloist in a concerto), Andrés Orozco-Estrada (he’s superb in working with the Chorus in a symphonic choral performance), and orchestral/choral conductor Philippe Herreweghe. They are four conductors who come to mind. And Philippe founded his own choral ensembles, the superb Collegium Vocale Ghent which performs throughout Europe with major symphony orchestras, such as the hr-Sinfonieorchester/Frankfurt Radio Symphony. But when I think of a performance, I never or rarely think of the conductor first because of all the performing musicians on stage. Some conductors look like they’re just waving their arms. I saw a clip on the Classic Arts Showcase of the Classical Music Snots’s god Sir Georg Solti conducting like that. He wasn’t “beating time” at all. And the superb performances I watch could likely be performed without a conductor, as I’ve seen with some performances. Pianist Boris Berezovsky played — was it one of the Brahms’s piano concertos? I think it was — without a conductor. It may have been removed from YT “due to copyright reasons” (groan; this copyright shit is out-of-control) since I can’t find it now unfortunately. Boris sort of conducted from the piano instead and looked like he was working with the principals. But that performance sounded as if they did have a conductor.
And like some other musicians who engage in what I call “play-acting” there are conductors who engage in “conducting-acting.” For them, they think they have to act out/put on this emotional show for the cameras, musicians and audience as if they’re “feeling” every measure of the piece. So if the piece is Chopin, for example, they act out/put on these pained looks to make it look like they’re feeling the pain of Chopin when he wrote the piece. One might think they’re auditioning for a role in a telenovela. Many pianist do the same ridiculous shit. And even some violinists, flautists and other musicians. They look like they’re having an orgasm while they’re performing. Then there are the legendary pianists such as Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and some others who didn’t do any of that play-acting nonsense. And I don’t remember seeing Robert Shaw do any of it either, and the same for Margaret Hillis. As for conductors who engage in this ridiculous behaviour, I won’t name names but SR (his initials) comes to mind. I saw him conduct a performance of The Bells by Rachmaninov and he put on quite the erratic emotional spectacle show for that. It’s just really needless theatrics and it’s learned behaviour. I think some conductors think they have to make it look like they’re doing something when in reality a well-rehearsed and prepared Orchestra and Chorus could probably play the piece without the conductor. But I think the bottom line is that at the end of the performance the conductor that engages in all these antics is trying to send the message to the audience as to how important he (or she) is and that the performance couldn’t have possibly been as outstanding as it was without his emotionally-crazed and pained looking antics from the podium. And he acts all hot and sweaty and huffing and puffing, as if the performance is all because of him.
I have two favourite performances I like of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, and when I mention them I would list the pianist first, then the orchestra’s name and then the conductor, in that order. I would not say just the conductor’s name — it’s the same conductor for both performances, same orchestra but different pianists — because that doesn’t really tell anyone anything, especially when he wasn’t the piano soloist. And the conductor didn’t play a note in the performance, but he’s a superb conductor and I enjoy watching him and he works beautifully with the orchestra and with the pianist. I include all of the superb musicians on stage and not just gloat and cheer lead over the conductor like many people do, such as the know-it-all Classical Music Snots. And the leader/concertmaster has a major role with an orchestra second to the conductor but nobody ever talks about him or her, including the Classical Music Snots. I guess they don’t know the role/job of leader. I always watch the leader very closely whenever the camera is on him/her. They’re quite interesting to watch. Chau.—el barrio rosa
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