why so many bad conductors?

In one of his recent posts, Robert Levine asks why certain conductors or so over-payed in comparison to the average musician in their ensembles, and suggests that the answer might be found in the concept of scarcity:

It is a core weakness of the orchestra industry world-wide that there are lots of good orchestra musicians and very few good conductors. Adam Smith’s invisible hand thus writes lots of trailing zeros on their paychecks.

And he suggests that our own industry is to blame:

And our industry is very poor at identifying conducting talent early. I suspect that if every professional orchestra in America devoted 10-20 services per season simply to finding conducting talent – including from within its own ranks – we’d have a lot more good conductors.

It’s interesting to note that there are a lot of orchestras hiring relatively unknown conducting talent (more or less) to fill in all of those concerts that are not covered by other members of the conducting staff or the music director, yet the system of sharing information seems to be fundamentally flawed.

Artistic administrators of the various orchestras seem to share information, but there seems to be relatively little input from the musicians involved.  There is a fundamental disconnect between how a conductor is perceived from the front of the house and from the back and onstage.

A conductor can appear charming and erudite and chatty from the audience’s perspective, but be a horrible stick waver with delusions of his/her self-worth and poor rehearsal technique from the point of view of the orchestra. 

Often it doesn’t matter much what the orchestra thinks – if the conductor sells tickets, then she’ll be invited back. Word gets passed on to other orchestras, and suddenly the conductor has a “break” in their career and are all over the place.  The converse can also happen: a conductor can be efficient, friendly, precise, and musical, but doesn’t make a big impression and so they’re not invited back – and that impression gets passed on to other orchestras, and they get less and less work.  And that’s where orchestral musicians’ cynicism is born.

Musicians have the same information sharing network, or grapevine, but it often seems to be given short shrift by artistic administrators, as if we were trying to pull one over on them – but we don’t want lazy, overly-friendly conductors – we want GOOD ones.  We’re happy to be worked like dogs if the artistic payoff and quality of the working experience is professionally rewarding.  That seems to be a fact often lost on some in management.

Happily, here at the OSO we have more good guests than bad, or at least more mediocre than bad.  There are occasional dogs, but we musicians give quick and vociferous feedback in those situations, and we seem to be listened to more often than not.

9 Replies to “why so many bad conductors?”

  1. I have found the same phenomenon somewhat present with orchestra administrators, as well.

    A past Executive Director of the now defunct Sacramento Symphony had a dubious track-record with other orchestras, before and after his tenure with us. Yet, this person continued to be hired.

  2. One of my musician friends from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra suggested to set up a website for conductors, CEO-s, etc. It would be something like those web pages that list sexual predators… I think you get the message. My only question is: should we do the same for orchestra musicians? 🙂

  3. i have a conductor friend in Seattle who firmly believes that nothing indicates a conductor’s greatness more than his/her hair. i once asked him how a certain conductor was that he recently had seen and his response was, “well, he certainly has the right hair.” now, what is the “right hair” you wonder? according to my Seattle fratello, Abaddo and Muti are model “hair maestros.” anything less than an Italiante mane is a strike against the potential long term success of a budding maestro’s career. good stick and/or schtick technique is certainly a requirement. however, great hair impresses audiences and donors even more. someone like Jimmy Levine is an anomaly.

    so, let’s see a list of conductor ratings based on the performance of their locks. which ones need a new barber? any and all recommendations for the right hair products would also be helpful to those less fortunately endowed than the Abaddo’s and Muti’s of the world.

    1. Funny but untrue: Mitropoulos, Jarvi, Petrenko, Munch, Paray, Toscanini, Furtwangler…to name a few, either classical haircut or even no hair at all ! 🙂

  4. Bob – that is hilarious! But arguably false – two of the worst conductors I know have “Italiante manes” – I run screaming when I see “conductor hair”!!

    Gregory – that would be a great idea, and having musicians listed as well would be fair – and maybe prevent lawsuits: an aggrieved conductor could submit several musicians’ names in exchange (but what would the ratio be? How many bad musicians equal one bad conductor?)… :-0

  5. hahahaha, excellente. Charles. imagine the response of a first rate, chrome-domed, conductor like Robert Spano to the “blow-drying in the wind” nature of our exchange!

  6. Charles, seriously, just for a moment, expectations about conductors are so complex, that musicianship, unfortunately is almost never on the top of the list. This topic might worth some more blogging and talking…

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