After Litton

The e-mail just poured in, after I wrote my post about Andrew Litton. I’ve never gotten so much mail, even when I’ve raised questions I think are more important. But I’m not objecting. Conductors are big news, and, more to the point, they affect people directly — listeners, orchestra managements, critics, and, not least, musicians.

The Dallas Symphony staff member who wrote to me angrily, wrote back still more angrily to say he didn’t want his message to me posted here. Of course I’ll respect that. One critic wrote asking whether artistic evaluation arguably didn’t belong in the original story I’d quoted from the Dallas paper, since it was a news story, not a review.

That’s a reasonable point. On the other side, I’d have to say that the events the story reported raise some questions. For instance, how often do conductors leave a post with a major orchestra so they can produce childrens’ television? One of my Juilliard students asked me that, quite seriously. He wanted to know. If he did, I’m sure others might have, so from that point of view it might be a legitimate question to raise even in a news report.

Another critic wrote to say how tricky it can be to write in a city smaller than New York, when you’re constantly writing about a very few institutions, and need to preserve relationships with them, both on the record (to get access to news and interviews), and off the record (to cultivate confidential sources). These relationships can be compromised if a critic isn’t careful. I know this is true, and I respect it.

A reader from New York weighs in with an objection of a different kind. Why do I waste my time with Litton and with Gerard Schwarz, when Lorin Maazel, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, is (in this man’s view, not that he’s alone) a larger-scale disaster? My answer would be that I’ve written about Maazel in the Wall Street Journal three times, and that anyway his conducting has been loudly damned by other New York critics. Plus the situation at the Philharmonic isn’t as clearcut as situations elsewhere. The musicians love Maazel, so it’s not like Maazel’s presence there is any kind of festering scandal. Nobody disputes that he’s a master conductor, successful in many ways. It’s just that many people think he’s unexpressive.

A musican who disagrees with me on Litton congratulates me on exposing other “fraudulent” conductors. I must say, though, that I’m not going to make a practice of this. The issue I wanted to raise was rather different — it’s why conductors who don’t do very well aren’t often called on that by the press.

But here I want to add two things. First, that the New York Times has made a point of covering backstage doings at the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center. They don’t always get it right (one problem is that their cultural reporters don’t really know the classical music world), but at least they do it. Just yesterday they reported that the Philharmonic’s board is deciding whether to renew Maazel’s contract, and the musicians strongly want them to do it. Similar stories sometimes come from other cities, too, about the local orchestras. They’re usually about administrative matters, though, and much less often about music.

Second, one reason conductors get a free ride is that it’s hard to tell exactly what they do — even sometimes for professionals who observe them from backstage or from the audience. We have to understand (have I said this here before?) that a professional orchestra can play without a conductor, or in spite of one, as long as the players know the music. So when someone ineffective gets onto the podium, the results won’t be disastrous. The orchestra will cover for the conductor, ignoring his or her mistakes, and in some cases doing a far better performance than the conductor would have managed, if the musicians actually had followed his or her conducting.

Remember my post some weeks ago, about musicians from a mid-sized orchestra who thought most of the conductors they work with might as well be beating time in a mirror, to a CD. There’s also an old joke. The music director of a wealthy church hires the Chicago Symphony to play Messiah at Christmas. He gets one rehearsal with the orchestra, and makes the mistake of criticizing the way they play. Comes a voice from the back: “Maestro, one more word out of you, and in the concert we follow you!”

Let me end with one thought. I was asked — in questions about classical music criticism, put to me and other critics on a rock criticism site — if many classical critics were musicians. Part of my answer was to say that they certainly look at things very differently from the way musicians do. If you talk to instrumental players, you hear (consistently, across the board, no matter who you talk to, as long as the players are professionals) that many conductors aren’t very good, and that some, who might be names many people know, aren’t even competent.

But critics don’t say this. You won’t read music reviews around the country, and find critics often writing that a conductor simply didn’t do his or her job. So there’s a gap between what musicians, at least, perceive as musical reality, and what critics write.

Of course musicians can both overestimate and underestimate conductors. I can’t blame them for this. They may get disgusted with someone’s lack of conducting technique (understandably, because that sometimes makes their work quite difficult), and overlook how powerful the musicmaking is, in spite of all the problems. Or they might fall in love with a conductor with a delightful, world-conquering technique, and not ask too strongly if the music comes off all that well. In the ’80s, players in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra would say Guiseppe Patané was their favorite among all the conductors they worked with. I don’t know that the rest of the world shared their excitement, though I could hear how wonderfully they played for him.

But musicians certainly know more than critics about what’s really going on. They’re on the frontlines of music, and it’s a shame their views aren’t better represented in the world at large.

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