Conducting Talent: Give It Time to Mature

I am old enough to remember a time when conductors were thought to be still growing artistically when they were in their fifties; those under 45 were considered young. At the age of 42 Herbert von Karajan was still music director of the orchestra in Aachen, Germany. Everyone considered that the New York Philharmonic took an enormous chance (certainly one that worked out) on hiring Leonard Bernstein as music director in 1958. His youth was talked about constantly in music circles.  He was 40!
It used to be true that conductors learned their craft over many years, in small "provincial" orchestras and opera houses, and then when they hit the age of perhaps 50 they began the "golden age" of their careers. There was time to learn scores, time to mature artistically, time to read and learn the literature and the culture of the eras in which the great masterworks were composed. There was time to learn life. To gain wisdom.

For better or worse, three conductors really changed the landscape, though I doubt they even knew at the time that they were doing that. All three achieved superstardom in their twenties, during the 1960s and early 1970s. They were conducting virtually nothing but the biggest and most famous orchestras and opera houses in the world by the time they were 30--that is, when they were ten or more years younger than Leonard Bernstein when he was identified as riskily young in 1958! The three conductors I'm referring to are James Levine, Seiji Ozawa, and Zubin Mehta.

Levine made his Metropolitan Opera debut just before his 28th birthday and was named principal conductor two years later, when he also became music director of the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Ozawa became music director of the San Francisco Symphony at 35, and of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at 38. Zubin Mehta was before his 30th birthday leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and  was guest conducting and recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and all of the world's leading opera houses. None of these conductors spent years as apprentices in any place like Aachen, or Wiesbaden, or Grand Rapids.

I mean to make no judgment about the careers of Levine, Ozawa, or Mehta. Clearly each has been an enormous success, and each has made major contributions to the music world. But there can be no question that their careers, when combined with the effects of publicity and television and instant gratification that came into being in the 1960s and 70s, changed the expectations of both conductors and music administrators, as well as those of the public.

Somehow lost was the idea of superb conductors developing their careers in smaller orchestras, either in the U.S. or in Europe. An excellent conductor at the age of 45, but one who had not yet achieved "stardom," came to be seen as passé. An attitude of "well, if he were any good, wouldn't he be further along by now?" tended to stick to that conductor.

We must, as a field, rethink this. Surely there will always be those who have the musical talent and personal maturity to be important music makers in their twenties; Gustavo Dudamel would seem to be that person now. But for every Dudamel, there are probably many other conductors who will reach the height of their artistry in their 40s or 50s. We do a lot of damage to our art form if we consider them "has beens" before they ever were.

December 19, 2008 3:43 PM | | Comments (9)



Is anyone aware of a study that was done within the last few years on the age trends of conductors? I was told of one, and I am interested in finding it for a project I'm currently working on. I'm sorry I don't have more details, but if anyone knows where to find it, I suspect someone in this forum might.

I'm told that the study documented how conductors are traditionally thought to "reach their prime" in their later years.

I apologize for the vague description, but that is all I have to go on. I sincerely thank in advance anyone who is able to point me in the right direction.

I am not aware of such a study and I too would welcome any news of it.
-Henry Fogel

Well, for JG, it's not hard to name various elder statesmen/women in the arts:

Conducting (not including retired conductors):
Bernard Haitink
Sir Charles Mackerras
Sir Colin Davis
Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Charles Dutoit
Christoph von Dohnanyi
Georges Pretre

Visual arts:
Jasper Johns
Helen Frankenthaler
Claes Oldenburg
Gerhard Richter

Granted, I'm more up on music than the visual arts.

Mr. Fogel's point is quite valid that conductors need time to build their craft. However, regarding moving more towards "the big time", sometimes just dumb luck plays its role, when an orchestra happens to see a conductor for the first time and sparks fly. This is particularly the case with several European appointments in the last several years:

- Andris Nelsons to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
- Kirill Karabits to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
- Yannick Nezet-Seguin to the Rotterdam Philharmonic

There's also the whole question of how much of a role music managements play in manipulating conductors' careers and who gets invited where (yes, this is getting into "Maestro Myth" territory, so I'd better stop there). The question is also relevant as to how open-minded the US "Big Five" are to giving new faces a chance. For example, we have in several US "regional" orchestras conductors such as:

- Grant Llewellyn at the North Carolina Symphony
- David Loebel at the Memphis Symphony

When was the last time these people have been invited to "higher tier" orchestras? The one exception to that rule that I can think of is Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director of the Fort Worth Symphony, who's conducted several times in Chicago, as Mr. Fogel well knows.

"Geo." is right to a degree about conductors of smaller orchestras and their ability to move upward in this field, though this situation is changing over the recent past, thanks in part to efforts of the League of American Orchestras. A few other examples -- Gian Carlo Guerrero, music director of the Eugene, Oregon Symphony, has conducted many of the major orchestras and has gone on to be music director in Nashville. In fact Eugene has a fabulous track recording - Guerrero's predecessor was Miguel Harth-Bedoya, mentioned by Geo., and Harth-Bedoya's predecessor in Eugene was Marin Alsop. But even before them, Semyon Bychkov launched a major international career from the Grand Rapids Symphony. And David Loebel, mentioned by Geo., has in fact conducted many of the major orchestras (including Chicago) and had a long position of Resident Conductor at the Saint Louis Symphony. So there are examples, but I agree that there are too few (and I agree that Grant Llewellyn is one of those who does deserve that kind of opportunity).

This trend is somewhat analogous to professional sports these days with kids straight out of high school signing with the NBA and baseball players spending maybe a year or two in the minor leagues before being brought up to the majors. In the old days, it was expected that you would start out in the "A" minor leagues, then work your way up to "AA" and "AAA" before the majors. (Come to think of it, back then baseball had "B," "C," and "D" leagues, too.)

A very wise comment from someone who knows the field!

The drawback of this attitude is that it may limit the growth possibilities of conductors as they age, as orchestras, opera houses and professional vocal ensembles seek the next new hot star rather than an older artist.

Conductors cannot grow in a practice room; they have to conduct actual ensembles, and they need time for study and reflection.

A parallel comment should be made about conductors in wealthy cities versus conductors committed to smaller communities or centers of music learning and research.

Beyond the undeniable talent of the young conductors, I suppose there are powerful social forces at play, including our longing for lost youth; the glare of fame and fortune; the narratives of child prodigies in Western music history... All these play well into marketing strategies that aim to attract new audiences for Western Classical music.

Thanks for bringing this topic to the professional dialogue.

I agree that conductors cannot grow in a practice room. But I guess I contend that for the most part, it is harder to grow in the glare of bright lights, and better to grow by conducting out of the spotlight of fame, with smaller, less visible orchestras, and let maturity come gradually. There are plenty of places for young conductors of talent -- over 400 professional orchestras exist in the U.S. alone. Anyhow, thank you for your addition to these comments.

Insightful comments (as ever. It has long seemed to me that the two conductorial career of the past 30 or so years which have developed most productively in the U.S. (other than Levine's) would be those of Tilson Thomas and Salonen. Not coincidentally, one suspects, they most closely followed the formerly traditional path Mr. Fogel describes. In addition to their own musical development, both men have proved to be fine orchestral builders. They were, of course, abetted in that by supportive management(s).

I agree. I remember when I was a student at Teatro Colon, Jesus Lopez-Cobos was the protege of Peter Maag. He held his coat, as we sued to say there, checked balance for the Maestro, and conducted some of the rehearsal at times. Look at what a splendid conductor he has become, making his way up through the ranks.

By the way, I think he had an excellent musician in Maag, whose work I respect enormously.

We *are* doing a lot of damage, not just in classical music but everywhere. Quick, name me some elder statesmen today, in nearly any artistic fleld. Hard to do, right? One-hit wonders (who are usually very young) and child prodigies are much, much more common, although it seems we may even be tiring now with the 6-year-old in pigtails who plays Mozart.

Don't forget about Thomas Schippers!

Absolutely, Henry! I would only add that it shouldn't just apply to conductors!


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