What Musicians Want from their Conductor--and Why it Matters

"Isn't it normal for 60 percent of the orchestra to hate their music director?" "Musicians never like their conductor." "Why would you give employees any rights in choosing their boss?" 
All of these comments, and many more like them, have been made to me over my career by well-meaning board members of orchestras. This is not really surprising, because most orchestra board members are not professionals in the orchestra business and have no experience with orchestras other than their own. And some music directors, in their own interest, and as a form of self protection, promote that kind of thinking.

I can tell you without any doubt--after 45 years in this business, and having spent time with more than 150 different American orchestras--that that kind of thinking is way, way off the mark.  

People choose to make a life as performing musicians with one goal--to make the best music that they can make. This is true whether they are playing as soloists, or as chamber musicians, or in an orchestra. What orchestra musicians want is a conductor who displays both technical competence and emotional communication. Not all musicians will agree on whether the conductor is doing that successfully. When I was managing the Chicago Symphony, I once got two letters, after a multi-week residency by a guest conductor, from two experienced musicians. One complained that my engagement of this particular conductor was an insult to the CSO because of the lack of clarity of his beat, the other said "there is no guest conductor I look forward to with keener anticipation than XXX." I photocopied the two letters, whiting out the names, and sent them to the opposite musician with a note from me that said "see how hard it is to get a consensus around here."

You will rarely get unanimity from an orchestra about a music director or a guest conductor. But the truth is that you will almost always get an obvious consensus. And it is not true that support will be earned by being the "easiest on the orchestra." In fact, I know of many cases where orchestra musicians demanded a change precisely because they felt their music director was not demanding enough. Yes, they want "demanding" to be done with professionalism and respect, not rudely or dictatorially. But musicians want to be challenged and stretched. If a majority of any orchestra thinks it is time for a change, in my experience it is virtually always time for a change. And devaluing the opinions of an orchestra will be as strong a morale killer as just about anything.

The whole idea of "employees picking their boss" is evidence of a complete misunderstanding of the relationship between musicians and their conductor. Yes, there is an element of "the boss" about the role. But more importantly there is the role of colleague. A cliché among musicians is that the one instrument in the orchestra that makes no sound is the baton. And there's a reason for this: The conductor's job is to lead, inspire, provoke, stimulate, challenge, and bring about a performance that comes alive to the audience as something more than a recitation of the notes. That requires a relationship based on something more than fear. Fear may have worked in the old days of Reiner, Szell, or Toscanini. But we live in a different time. People's expectations are different, their rights (protected by a union) are different, and that manner simply won't do.  Conductors who base their approach to the job on old-fashioned authority, and nothing more, are in the end bound to fail.

Another remark I have occasionally heard from board members is that "about 10 or 15 percent of our orchestra doesn't like the conductor, another 10 or 15 percent love him, and the remaining 80 or 85 percent don't care, they just want to come in and do their job.  I guarantee you that that is never true. I have never met an orchestra where 80 percent (or even 25 percent) of the members didn't care. The conductor has more power over their professional and musical lives, and the way they make music, than any other person.  To assume that they wouldn't consider him the most important aspect of their professional lives is to misunderstand the nature of musicians.

January 2, 2009 12:22 PM | | Comments (6)



Leinard Slatkin's remarks remind me of my own teacher, Sir John Barbirolli's, advice when I was a student. He said "If you're ever in front of a professional orchestra, and only 75 percent of them are a better musician than you, you'll be lucky. If the percentage is higher, you're unlucky!" Too many conductors either don't know that or choose to ignore it to their cost. As a conductor and an ex-orchestral musician, we all work as a team. A conductor should remember that an orchestra could manage reasonably well without him - he would look very silly without them!


Wow - thank you, Henry, for writing an article which accurately reflects what we orchestral musicians feel, without the usual orchestra-baiting rancor which one usually finds written in public (including on this site by another critic). It could not have been put better or more fairly.

Leonard Slatkin tells the story -- apocryphal, one assumes! -- of what a conducting teacher once said to him: "When you're standing on that podium, always remember one thing. Eighty per cent of those musicians think they can conduct better than you. The other twenty per cent probably can."

One of the inherent conflicts of the music profession is the way that we train and assess players of orchestral instruments as soloists -we demand a distinctive imaginative approach as well as technical skill for higher degrees in performance - but then life as orchestral player involves handing over so much of that interpretive work to the conductor. It is not surprising that it matters so much to players how a conductor works with them: it is not only that the conductor has such power to shape the musical and interactional experience, but the potential of all those years of dedicated training are vested in them. Appearing to not care is a defence mechanism for players, and a sign of things already wrong with the relationship.

The great conductors who remain popular with their orchestras are those who find a way to take a chamber music approach to making music, even though they must maintain control in the end. I remember once when I saw Daniel Barenboim conduct Schubert's Ninth Symphony twice in a span of less than two months, once with the Chicago Symphony and once with the Berlin Philharmonic. When I remarked to him on how different the two performances were - not in overall interpretive shape but in myriad internal details - he looked surprised at my comment and said "well of course. They're two different orchestras." I think that great conductors know how to take from the orchestras members as well as give to them. But sadly, many conductors do not take that approach.

This comment is certainly right on from the musician's standpoint. The Houston Symphony and Christoph Eschenbach were in sync for 11 straight years and it was wonderful. I think that managers are puzzled when they see successful concerts from the audience point of view from lesser conductors whom the musicians hate. What they don't know is that the musicians are under enormous stress trying to salvage the music making from an either unclear or unmusical conductor. And that additional muscular stress can even lead to extra physical problems. This is the one field in music where the musician does not have direct control over the interpretation. The best we can hope for is a conductor who clearly makes the case for a compelling interpretation which we can wholeheartedly support.

There are also other factors such as programming which affect audience response. A combination of the right programming and the right conductor should make an orchestra thrive and management should make these two areas a priority. Only then will ticket sales and fundraising become much easier.


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