This article was written for The Instrumentalist magazine.
The age of the super conductor has arrived. There have never been so many capable orchestral conductors as there are today. Incredible amounts of repertoire have been committed to memory with stick techniques so nimble that conductors can flick a phrase from an obscure piece and subdivide it thirteen ways to Sunday. As with the bumper sticker proclaiming that the one who dies with the most toys wins, so does it seem to be in music, the one with the most notes in his cranium wins. However, as far as capable interpreters are concerned, with a few exceptions, it’s a vast wasteland. There are multitudes of conductors who use the music to conduct an orchestra, but only a handful use an orchestra to conduct the music.
Much like surgeons using the most up-to-date techniques, conductors today can tackle a Mahler symphony without leaving so much as a trace of an incision. The patient experiences no discomfort whatsoever, and there is no lasting effect of any kind except a large depletion of the orchestra’s operating capital.
On the inside of every piece of luggage, ever memo and date book, the modern super-conductors have written their credo: slow is profound, slower is profounder, and slowest is profoundest! Of course this only applies to music in which the composer had lively, dramatic, energetic music in mind. Music which is written at adagio or largo tempos, music of great breadth and grandeur, such as the final movement of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, is taken moderato because modern interpreters lack the architectural ability to sustain such tempos and quickly become bored with such slowly unfolding music.
Modern conductors use slow tempos in pursuit of what they refer to as refinement, to give the impression of thickness; but the result is only a pseudo-cantabile (which I refer to as the big slur) and the elimination of all intensity.
Almost every musician, sometime in his life, starts to realize that music lives as much in the silences as in the sounds. Phrasing is largely built on interruptions of sound or implied interruptions; great phrasing is built on strategic silences, implied or otherwise.
Pianists know this better than others, in part because the piano lacks sustaining power, but also because it is incredibly boring to play or hear an entire recital with the sustaining pedal depressed. However, this is what many orchestras are being compelled to produce. Not a true legato, which as singers know, borders on the portamento, but a droning that is devoid of intensity and full of a throbbing expression.
It is strange that the piano, which is incapable of producing vibrato, still achieves remarkable expression through phrasing. It also achieves something that orchestras are almost never asked to do except in tremolo, and that is a tranquility or a feeling of stillness through pure sound produced at soft dynamics.
Modern orchestral style holds that expression comes first and dynamics come into play only after the big sound has been achieved. Dynamics are the single most neglected aspect of orchestral performance today. (On the rare occasions that conductors venture into correcting intonation, it’s with a vengeance.)
What actually happens is that nothing ever gets too hushed or too intense. Pianissimos don’t have the misterioso quality that composers intended because conductors pursue only expression, which means to play louder. Of the innumerable conductors who seem compelled to try their hand at Mahler’s 1st Symphony, no one, in my experience, has yet captured the stillness (Mahler’s word) of the opening pages. Don’t interpreters have visions just like composers? When it comes to visions, Mahler should be acknowledged as the ultimate dreamer. Consider this passage from the first movement of his 2nd Symphony (Resurrection):
In the orchestral world today, Mahler’s vision is never realized because the compulsion is for everything to sound. My definition (and I think Mahler’s also) of ppp is to be barely audible. It should be uncertain whether the sound is a dream or reality.
Mahler wrote what is possibly the ultimate dream sequence in all of music.
Symphony No. 3
This passage presents the problem of an off-stage solo that should be heard but at the same time it should sound far away, in a reverberant and rich acoustic. Mahler wrote ppp, which seems to suggest a dream-like atmosphere in which a listener with eyes closed couldn’t tell if it was real or imagined.
As difficult as this is to achieve in a concert, with current electronic miracles a recording could produce a near-perfect realization of the composer’s vision, yet none has appeared. Perhaps Wagner’s fear that a “fully realized Tristan und Isolde would be unbearable, only indifferent performances can save me,” is being transferred to other parts of the repertoire. Perhaps none of these examples is possible to achieve, but the point is that hardly anyone tries. Where are the dreamers?
Conversely, the hammer strokes that start the Eroica Symphony are now always clothed in velvet slippers and make Beethoven-the-ruffian sound like a drawing-room dandy. Perhaps the velvet-slipper approach merely reflects the life styles of the modern conductors. However, just as a movie with the top and bottom cut off the screen leaves only a thin picture running through the middle, music without a full range of dynamics loses much of what the composer envisioned. Conductors today spend valuable rehearsal time skillfully trimming the picture ever smaller.
The Tragic Case of Robert Schumann
In the early part of the Romantic movement Beethoven and Schubert stretched the boundaries of the musical world as far as any composers ever had. The Beethoven and Schubert 9th Symphonies set symphonic music on a new course. Or was Schubert’s symphony the end of the classical era driven to its utmost limits? Schubert used essentially a classical orchestra like a giant string quartet, with every instrument as an equal partner, to achieve a freedom of instrumentation that is unmatched in symphonic music. The form was of gigantic proportions, but the texture of the orchestration was transparent. The result is an energetic, dramatic classicism.
A number of interpreters have attempted to make late romantic noises out of Schubert’s 9th by slowing tempos and thickening textures, but by and large this work has managed to escape the heavy hand of the bloaticians. Only one word accurately describes the character of this work: soaring. Just as an era of moral freedom is always followed by a period of religious and social repression, the astounding freedom of orchestration Schubert achieved in the C Major Symphony was followed by a period of retrenchment in which all the instruments of the orchestra were taken and put away like religious artifacts, to be used only in certain ceremonies which made them seem more magical and select.
Schumann, Mendelssohn, and especially Brahms were largely responsible for the new classicism, and brigands like Berlioz struck out on original paths. Schumann was a product of his age and grappled with the weight of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert in search of a new direction for what seemed to be the final pillars in the pantheon of music. Schumann and other composers of his time searched for new means of expression, especially in orchestral music. One solution was to expand the dynamic range of the orchestra by using richer textures with instruments in new combinations, doubling the voices to create a line in which the sum of the whole was greater than its parts. Above all he emphasized color: horns, bassoons, and cellos doubling flowing lines in unison, flutes delicately doubling violins, and truly imaginative trumpet writing instead of the usual tonic and dominant. Strings double-stroked eighth notes for more intensity and not the heaviness for which he has been monumentally criticized.
This was but one ingredient in the new music that joined with harmony, form, and chromaticism in the thematic material. As a development from the late 18th century, it was a logical step in expanding the expressive power of the orchestra. Yet modern interpreters pounce on this like a pack of hyenas on a small rabbit. To put it another way, if a teaspoon of butter will cook an omelet, surely a pound is that much better.
Tempos are slowed to Bruckner-like proportions so that extra weight can be piled on, layer after layer, (also Bruckner-like) using sostenuto and ignoring Schumann’s pleas for sforzando and staccato to differentiate the texture. When all the lumps are taken out of the sauce, we are left with a musical pablum. All this is done in the name of the long-uninterrupted line, which it isn’t, because the one thing our modern conductors don’t have (and which is the single most important responsibility of the conductor) is underlying rhythm. This has nothing to do with beating time. Absence of underlying rhythm is like an ocean liner without a rudder. When standing on the bow of a huge vessel it seems to move on a charted course; when viewed aerially, it becomes apparent that the ship is merely steaming in circles.
The super-conductor steeps himself and the orchestra with so much profundity that the entire thing is in danger of collapsing under its own weight, and it sounds like a parody of German music. Like an eagle with lead weights strapped to each wing, it cannot soar. The result is that Schumann’s orchestrations are usually described as being muddy. Then come the alterations. I’m convinced that changes in what the composer wrote are always made after the first reading and never after carefully scrutinizing what the composer originally intended. I doubt that many people have ever heard the Schumann symphonies in the original orchestrations and with the dynamics the composer envisioned. The big slur requires orchestras to play with a big sound, so the misterioso quality of pianissimo in so many magical phrases is always lost. In 30 years of orchestral playing, I have never experienced an instance when the composer’s original idea, accurately translated into sound, wasn’t superior to a doctored version.
The concept of the allegro has taken a strange path in modern times. In the first movement of his Symphony #2, Schumann wrote allegro ma non troppo, quarter = 144, and allegro molto vivace, half note =170 in the 4th movement.
I haven’t heard an allegro vivace (except in the “Typewriter Song,” where it turned out the typist was more musical than the conductor) come close to 144 in any romantic era symphony. One wonders how Mendelssohn and Schumann managed to live in the same era; while Mendelssohn’s music is played with the reverence of a late Mozart symphony, Schumann is made to sound like a grotesque parody of the coming romantic movement.
I recently conducted Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony after contemplating it for something like 15 years. I found the composer’s tempo marking in the first movement, dotted half note = 66, perfect for the concept I had in mind. However, the final movement, lebhaft, is marked half note = 120 and I actually found this slightly slower than the light, spirited, buoyant style I had imagined, so I ended up at 126.
Why is it perfectly acceptable (even encouraged) for conductors to adopt tempos 40 metronome markings slower than the composer indicated, but the composer’s tempo, or one metronome mark above, is considered musical heresy?
If Richard Strauss’s famous comment on the interpretation of Salome was “play it like you were performing Cosi,” then our modern performing historians insist that Schumann would have wanted his music to sound like the 5th symphony of Bruckner. For people who buy this, I have a bridge for sale.
Regarding the eternal questions about Beethoven’s tempo markings and the metronome found in his belongings that was 10 points too fast, I am reminded of Mark Twain’s insight: to every problem there is a simple, logical, and perfectly obvious solution that is completely wrong.
The Black Hole
I have an eerie prediction for the future, one which I hope will never happen. There is a giant invisible musical black hole that is slowly but surely sucking all tempos, allegros, adagios, everything, into one moderately slow, plodding pace. The same black hole is also swallowing the dynamic ranges composers imagined, especially the soft end of the tonal palette. To balance soft passages the conductor of a chamber group will stop to ask everyone to “play softer so I can hear the solo voice” but in a symphony orchestra he asks the solo voice to “play louder so I can hear you.”
Eventually, the entire symphonic literature will be streamlined in a muzak style somewhere between 60 to 72 beats per minute and at a mezzo-forte dynamic.
The reason for this is that conductors hand down generations of tradition (mannerisms) through word of mouth(performances) like some ancient Indian tribe that has no written language. Because written scores do not even remotely indicate the traditions, the only way a conductor can learn the acceptable mainstream of “individualism” is to copy the mannerisms of the other interpreters. These mannerisms are designed to set him apart from the rest; but the more each departs from the written text, the more they all sound the same. Contrary to universal belief, it takes much more imagination to bring to life what is written and to make music out of it than it does, to use Hanslick’s nightmarish phrase, “Symphonies freely adapted after Beethoven.” Berlioz had the right idea when he said, “It’s not talent that counts in music, it’s ideas.” This applies as much to an interpreter as a composer. Everyone is familiar with Mahler’s remarks that “tradition is the memory of the last bad performance”; today the tradition is to deviate from what the composer wrote. He, too, must have been a classicist at heart.
The Dreaded “Non Troppo”
Brahms was probably the most steadfast classicist-composer of the 19th century. A passionate musicologist, once he obtained the original added clarinet parts to the Mozart Jupiter Symphony, he refused to let anyone see them. He could trace a musical lineage from Mozart through Beethoven to Mendelssohn, although he was well aware of the music of previous periods.
Whereas Beethoven’s orchestral writing seems to be chiseled out of granite with little concern for whether the orchestration was idiomatic to individual instruments, only for whether it was inevitable in pursuit of his musical ideas, Brahms seemed to have orchestrated as if he had a love affair with each instrument of the orchestra while never subverting his musical objectives.
What a master of the orchestra Brahms was. It was not just his thorough knowledge of each instrument but his romantic vision of how each could sound. His orchestrations could be described as classical with rich glowing warmth; transparent and delicate, capable of expressing many different aspects of emotion. His reported reading of the 4th Symphony in 36 minutes strongly suggests that he expected his music to be classically oriented with the richness of sound already built into the score.
In the original version of the 3rd symphony, the first movement was marked allegro vivace in 6/4 time. Brahms, obviously thinking of the quickness that the marking implied, especially in that era, changed it to allegro con brio because he was afraid it might be mistaken as a scherzo. Have no fear Dr. Brahms. Modern interpreters have loaded that movement down with so much baggage that any scherzo would sound like a ballet for a herd of pachyderms.
It’s fortunate for our contemporary bloaticians that the venerable composer isn’t alive today, because Brahms reportedly shot noisy felines with a bow and arrow. He would surely use it to let the air out of inflated egotists.
Brahms used several allegro non troppo markings to distinguish the serious mood he wanted from the effervescent allegros of Schubert and Mendelssohn, but the musical hyenas use non troppo as a license to kill, or at least to drain every ounce of energy from the music.
In the hands of the super conductors the opening phrase of Brahms’s 4th Symphony has become one of the most hilarious examples in the kaleidoscope of musical mannerisms. It’s difficult to describe on paper, but here goes. Brahms wrote:
This is invariably interpreted like this:
Another example is the quarter rest grand pause in the last movement of Brahms’s 1st Symphony. Here Brahms uses silence to dramatize the end of the development in much the same way Beethoven uses that powerful bar of silence in the first movement of his 5th Symphony. (Remember the teaspoon of butter that turned into a pound.)
If a single beat of silence heightens the drama, then a hole you could drive a truck through would be monumental, wouldn’t it? After a modest printed calando lasting four bars it is somehow transformed into a gigantic molto largamente, which always starts 12 bars before Brahms indicated, and all impetus grinds to a halt. This produces a Les Preludes effect that is common in nearly all renditions of Brahms.
Brahms was such a classicist that he wrote natural horn and trumpet parts long after chromatic instruments were in general use. It should be obvious that he crafted music that could and should be performed basically at one unified tempo with the full range of musical expression. Because modern conductors usually lack the ideas necessary to exploit the enormous expressive and dynamic possibilities of an orchestra, each section of a movement is interpreted as a vignette to make the conductor seem musical and because all that droning at the unified (though subtly inflected) tempo Brahms imagined would put even the conductors to sleep.
One might think that I advocate taking the entire symphonic literature at faster tempos. Nothing could be further from the truth. There has been only one conductor in recent memory who had the insight to take Wagner’s “Funeral March” from Gotterdammerung at the powerfully slow and majestic tempo Wagner had in mind. The opening of “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” that atmospheric depiction of sunrise on the Rhine, starts with a beautifully unfolding cello melody. Wagner marks it nicht schleppend (not dragged); this comment has the opposite effect as the dreaded non troppo marking of Brahms (which proves that in music, as in society, the majority is always wrong and when it is right, it’s for the wrong reason). Wagner had phrasing and not tempo in mind; this scene should unfold at the pace of nature itself: unhurried but inevitable in a true legato. The same applies to the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin.
I have not described the heaviness with which Schumann and Brahms are interpreted as being “like Wagner” because I hate it when Wagner is played “like Wagner.”
In the 20th century it is so common to hear Die Meistersinger performed in a heavy pseudo-Teutonic, plodding style. Such a pace reminds me of the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a wagon being rolled down the street during a plague and Eric Idle ringing a bell, proclaiming “Bring out your dead, bring out your dead.” Wagner conceived Die Meistersinger as a medieval festival portraying the German people as lively, passionate, and thoughtful. The pedantry of the Meistersingers is only one aspect (and a negative one at that) of a panorama of lusty life in the middle ages. This is notwithstanding Strauss’s report that Wagner conducted the overture in just nine minutes.
I think there must be a universal conducting school somewhere that teaches the soft/slow-down and loud/speed-up system of music making. For as abominably as interpreters treat Brahms through the vignette approach, they absolutely decimate the symphonies of Tchaikovsky. Why does every performance of the 5th Symphony have to start out sounding like “Song of the Volga Boatmen” at the first allegro (and the 4th like a maudlin Valse Triste)? Then comes that inevitable accelerando to the first ff. Those first few ppp eighth notes inthe strings are always made to sound as if the players were sentenced to a life of being chained to their oars. Tchaikovsky carefully wrote romanticism into his music; it doesn’t need ten times more.
To put all this in culinary terms, if Brahms served up a delicately spiced goulash, they usually smother it with a thick musical sauce; the Russian blintzes of Tchaikovsky are invariably covered in a layer of sweet, sticky syrup that is reminiscent of 101 Strings. Why is it conductors only distort familiar music? Such unfamiliar repertoire as the early Dvorak symphonies lend themselves to these contortions, but they are almost never subject to modern traditions, perhaps because there aren’t performances, recorded or otherwise, to copy.
Toscanini summed it up best when he said: “Tradition is treason. Don’t listen to any conductor, and I include myself. Look only to the music. It tells you all you need to know.” As remarkable as Toscanini’s philosophy was toward composers, his concept of rehearsals and concerts was truly inspiring. He approached rehearsals with the usual technical details but also added all the energy and intensity he sought in the concert performance. He rehearsed phrasing, excitement, and emotion. Having already supercharged the orchestra, both technically and spiritually, his practice was to be very discreet at concerts: Toscanini didn’t want to intrude between the music and the audience.
Compare this with the norm in today’s symphonic world: music is dissected during rehearsals with all the excitement of a forensic laboratory but never giving a clue as to what the performance will be like. Suddenly at the concert the conductor goes into a studied frenzy with hair flying in all directions, drawing as much attention to himself as possible (or as Toscanini put it, “only caring about his frock”). Because the orchestra wasn’t let in on the surprise ahead of time, there is a curious reticence to partake in the orgy.
I’m beginning to believe in my middle age that an overabundance of intelligence in interpretation is a bad thing. Perhaps I should say intelligence gone awry; true musicality is a gift regardless of intelligence. Put another way, some conductors are too smart for their own good. Today there seems to be an inverse ration between the amount of repertoire committed to memory and the conductor’s emotional involvement. For a conductor who commits a huge amount of music to memory there is a curious emotional detachment in his music making. I cannot explain this bizarre trend, but perhaps the mere feat of learning so many notes dilutes their intensity and they lose meaning, in the same way that repeating a word over and over finally leaves only the physical act of pronouncing the sound.
After studying scores for over thirty years and dreaming how they could sound, I always use a score even after memorizing it to excite my imagination and stimulate a picture of the sound. (Toscanini often rebuked an orchestra with, “you destroy my dreams.”) Making musical decisions is an exciting process, but the goal of accumulating a large mental library of compositions is like pouring water on the glowing embers of inspiration. Georg Solti has said that he never would have been successful at conducting competitions because it takes him so long to learn and absorb a score. His admirable work ethic has served the composers very well.
In the jet-setting world of hit-and-run performances, conductors repeat the same music with so many orchestras that they must suffer from the “Tuesday-must-be-Belgium syndrome. This is when the trouble starts. The smarter a conductor is, the sooner he becomes bored and the insidious disease of doing something different tonight sets in. He abandons hopes for a perfect performance as being only a pot at the end of the rainbow and starts amusing his mind.
The result is an encyclopedia of bizarre phrasing in which the original concept is endlessly changed and distorted. In the same way that someone with a limited I.Q. may find an assembly-line job, endlessly putting the same screw into the same hole, to be fascinating, while a genius will seek ways to make the job more interesting, so may it be that some conductors find the 50th performance of Beethoven’s 7th to be tedious and seek amusing diversions rather than pursuing the perfect performance of the music the way Beethoven intended. Genius used to be measured in terms of musicality; today it seems to be determined by how much music a conductor can memorize and possibly conduct completely wrong.
An interpretation is like keeping a small vial of water in your pocket for years. It came out of the source sparkling and clear; the difficulty is keeping it pure over a long time. Although a conductor’s first interpretation may have been sparkling and clear, with th longevity of conductors, this purity is seldom maintained. Sibelius remarked, “Other composers manufacture cocktails while I brew pure, cold water.” I would rather feel a ray of sunshine through pure, cold water than through a cocktail. Sometimes pure is mistaken for cold.
Give me the conductor who performs three of four composers well, with passion and principles. For him there is a perfect interpretation locked in the score, he pursues it with the abandon of Don Juan seeking the eternal woman. Such a conductor seeks to be a lightning rod, the conduit between the composer and the listener. I believe this is the most important attribute of an interpreter. Stravinsky said he didn’t compose the Rite of Spring but was only the vessel through which it passed. If a conductor doesn’t have a rock solid idea of how a score should sound beforehand, he has no business conducting it at all.
Modern conductors seem to lack discipline in the interpretive process. Stravinsky also said that no matter how far he ventured from the conventional path of composition, there always had to be rules. He made his own rules, as every composer should. They can also be viewed as an inner logic. Every interpretation should stem from this inner logic, this underlying rhythm. Picasso predicted that art was finished because the establishment was dead. Music critics long ago gave up holding interpreters accountable to the composer; they search in vain for hidden musicality in the most chaotic music-making.
Evaluating the Conductor
The system of evaluating and engaging conductors should be reviewed and revised. For the recording companies and the artist agencies, the show business and marketing aspects matter most, but there are also many organizations that make an honest attempt to engage conductors on the basis of talent and ability. The fatal flaw is to judge conductors on the way they look while conducting and choose a pretty time beater. This approach is no better than making sure a novelist can read and write before contracting him to write a book. Can you imagine a publisher saying, “We don’t know how well he writes, but we like the way he looks when putting pen to paper”?
A conductor should be judged on whether his musical ideas and inspirations portray the larger picture of the composer’s visions and dreams that are embodied in the score. If a conductor doesn’t make great music, don’t engage him. This would relieve music of the syndrome present in baseball, with the same tired faces moving from one team to another. Once a manager reaches the big leagues, he can remain in that circuit forever if he doesn’t stop too long in one place. In music the notion persists that there is a terrible shortage of good conductors because orchestras hire the same mediocrities and never discover new talent.
I find that many conductors fit into several basic profiles, of which these are a few. The “Kapellmeister’s” claim to fame is that the knows so much about music and has done it all. It is only necessary for him to show up and preside. When conducting, he looks like an old oil rig pumping a dry well; head in the score, body and arms stationary, hand flapping as if every wrist tendon had been severed. Intensity starts in the heart and is transmitted through the wrists.
Next is the “Calligrapher,” a genius of such magnitude that he conducted in Bayreuth at age 11. For him the music has taken a back seat to the calligraphy itself. A master of technique, he turns flowing strokes into fussy filigree. He views Shakespeare’s words as only a vehicle to display the calligrapher’s art. Never has such a twisted mind been attached to so healthy a body.
Finally, the “Zen Master,” like other zealots throughout history, attempts to mesmerize the masses. He boldly proclaims that only he can read and revise a score to achieve more than even the composer envisioned. If Strauss wrote half = 88, only the Zen Master knows that he actually wanted it played quarter = 88, nor does it matter that recordings of Strauss and other composers conducting their works reflect straight-forward and intense interpretations. With the Zen Master dynamics and tempo become so extreme through excessive rehearsals that the music is bled white. Meanwhile, the masses continue to gather to pay homage to his bizarre productions.
Not all conductors are self-serving or misguided charlatans. As much as I disparage the bloaticians, I absolutely cherish the great ones. Can anything be more riveting than Rafael Kubelik conducting Smetana’s Ma Vlast or Carlos Kleiber conducting Brahms 2nd? Consider the glory of Pierre Monteux conducting the Franck D Minor Symphony, or Adrian Boult’s Philharmonia recording of The Planets, Toscanini with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, Solti’s Bruckner 7th, or Reiner’s 1954 recording of Zarathustra. I cherish Koussevitsky’s recording of Sibelius 2nd, Simon Rattle’s Sibelius 5th, Mengelberg’s New York Heldenleben, or F. Charles Adler’s 1951 Mahler 3rd (one of the most intense, emotionally-charged performances of all time), or Strauss’s own Alpine Symphony (a piece the critics hate but every good musician I’ve ever known has loved). These performances have one thing in common which is conspicuous by its absence: tradition.
Rafael Kubelik is the model of what a conductor should be. Performing Ma Vlast or Mahler’s 9th Symphony with him is one of the great experiences in music. When he conducts, he is not an interpreter, or the composer, but the score itself. His arms are charged lightning rods through which the score passes. His curious, jabbing wrists and grinding jaw would quickly dispatch him from the first round of any competition. His intensity is at such a high level that he approaches every performance as if it were to be his last.
Carlos Kleiber is the epitome of the musician’s musician; he gives new meaning to the concept of tradition. Although his musicality seems to derive from the mainstream of Viennese tradition, upon closer examination it is apparent that his music-making is built on a solid foundation of classical principles (almost Toscanini-like) and is coupled with an amazing imagination that captures the composer’s dreams. Kleiber conducts in long, sweeping phrases that sometimes seem unrelated to the orchestra. His repertoire is small but lavished with affection. He is the most unmannered of interpreters because his bigger-than-life style is based entirely on musical inspiration.
In the well-known story about “The Emperor’s New Clothes” the people were persuaded to believe what they were told instead of what they knew to be true. The modern conductors have similarly persuaded many people that bloated and distorted renditions of the great classics are better than what Beethoven, Brahms, and other masters originally wrote. I dissent.
I believe the conductor’s role is that of a recreator; he is the illuminator who breathes life into a work of art that otherwise lies dormant on sheets of paper. He is not a frustrated composer. Stravinsky characterized some conductors as parasites because of such statements as “My Brahms, my Beethoven.” A conductor should be humble and secure in his place as a musician, one who is motivated by a true reverence for the work of art.
Berlioz understood the roles of both conductors and composers and over a century ago wrote these words: “The players must feel that he feels, understands and is moved; then his emotion communicates itself to those whom he conducts. His inner fire warms them, his enthusiasm carries them away, he radiates musical energy. But if he is indifferent and cold, he paralyzes everything around him, like the icebergs floating in the polar sea, whose approach is announced by the sudden cooling of the atmosphere.