George Zack, right, conducts a 2003 rehearsal of the Lexington Philharmonic with violin soloist Nathan Cole. Zack recently announced his retirement from the Philharmonic, and Cole is in town this weekend directing the inaugural Chamber Music Festival of Lexington. Copyrighted photo by Joseph Rey Au.
The first conductor I ever interviewed was JoAnn Falletta (Photo, left, by Mark Dellas), 16 years ago, to preview her first concert with the Virginia Symphony. She said something that has stuck with me since then: There are two ways of conducting: “making the musicians want to play for you or scaring them into it.” She preferred the former, and looking back, it seems appropriate to have heard that statement in 1991, when a shift was taking place in the world of orchestral conducting.
The cover story in this August’s edition of BBC Music Magazine explores the altered role of the maestro in the 21st century, and it offers some compelling insight given that we are now embarking on our own search for a new conductor of the Lexington Philharmonic.
According to BBC Music, gone are the days of conductors such as George “the screaming skull” Solti, the Chicago Symphony maestro whose conducting style was as aggressive as his dealings with musicians, or Arturo Toscanini, whose batons were often snapped along with his temper. (BBC Music doesn’t publish its stories online, but if you go to its Web site, you can hear one of Toscanini’s legendary tantrums.)
That wouldn’t fly today, say most people interviewed in the BBC story.
For one thing, particularly in the United States, unionized musicians have balanced the power in orchestras. Secondly, the music director of an orchestra now has a large role in public relations for an ensemble.
“Conductors today have to give a good deal more of themselves to audiences in the form of pre-concert talks and, in the U.S., behind-the-scenes meeting and greeting,” BBC Music editor Oliver Condy says in his column.
And being Maestro Maniac won’t work in a culture where private support for the arts is hardly a given.
Indeed, outgoing Lexington Philharmonic music director George Zack has been an example of that, involving himself with community organizations and often appearing around town to talk about the orchestra. Over his 35 years on the podium, Zack has become the most widely recognized figure in Lexington’s arts community, and not in a way that makes people want to cross to the other side of the street when they see him coming.
That’s the sort of act a new music director will have to follow.
But that director probably will be much more attuned to that expectation now than in the early 1970s, when the Philharmonic last made a change at the top.
For the BBC cover story, the magazine interviewed four conductors at length, including 79-year-old Sir Colin Davis and 29-year-old Tugan Sokiev. The younger the conductor, the more accepting he or she seems to be of a collegial attitude toward working with musicians and an openness to interacting with the audience — although Davis hardly comes across as an ogre.
Asked whether a conductor can chat informally with an audience about a Beethoven symphony and then turn around and “conduct this huge, emotional work,” Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop (photo, right) replies: “Why not? Audiences are smart and they want to feel involved, that they’re having a personalized and relevant experience at a concert. … They want to know why the Beethoven symphonies relate to their life. And that’s the conductor’s job. One can’t successfully do that by being distant and tyrannical.”
But is the music compromised? When temperamental giants such as Fritz Reiner and George Szell roamed the stages, wasn’t the music more disciplined? Better? Maybe, maybe not. Christoph Mueller, assistant to revered conductor Claudio Abbado, told BBC Music, “There can certainly be great performances where people hate each other. It happened a lot in the past. But for me the most fulfilling occasions are those when everyone creates something together in unity of spirit.”
A few years ago, I went to Chicago for a story about Nathan Cole, a Lexington native in the violin section of the Chicago Symphony. Cole, who is directing the inaugural Chamber Music Festival of Lexington this weekend, arranged a ticket for me in the gallery that wraps around the back of stage in Orchestra Hall. That allowed me to observe then-conductor Daniel Barenboim (photo, left, by Thomas Muller) as he interacted with the orchestra, with smiles, ecstacy and anguish flashing across his face as he guided the musicians through the evening.
It was that feeling of seeing people collaborate to make something special, and that sure beats seeing a bunch of musicians shaking in their opera pumps.
Note: Don't forget the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, featuring Nathan Cole, opens tonight at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion. Click here for the full story and ticket information.