I had the great fortune recently to engage in a late-night conversation at the Vermont home of a long-time friend and colleague during a stopover on the way home from the Int’l Viola Congress in MontrÃ©al. My friend (who I’ve known since our youth orchestra days) had just introduced me to the intricacies and humor of the Ben Folds Five and Ben Folds’ subsequent solo projects with orchestra when we started in on a true late-night conversation topic: where have we been, and where are we going? We’re a few years apart in age, but we both began our positions at the same time: 1995. So here we are at the conclusion of a decade of work, he as a conductor and I as an orchestral musician, and we were wondering: where are the good ones, anyway?
As the member of what the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) defines as a “major” orchestra, I see many different conductors each season. They come in to do anything from a pops show to a full classical subscription, yet in either case, they often seem to be no better suited or prepared for either one. In general, the common denominator is youth – extreme youth in some cases. Not that I’m ageist, far from it, but I can only comment on what is shown to me in the course of my work. There has been one Finnish conductor in his twenties who shows great promise and poise, and that’s about it. Many English accents with way too much to say and nothing showing in the stick, though. The Americans are even worse, in many cases. Their unfortunate familiarity with the english language results in many paragraphs of description that leave the orchestra reeling, and in self-defense asking “Faster? Slower? Softer? Louder?” to a litany of alternately poetic and Tarantino-esque descriptors. We exchanged stories of seeing conductors who had just won major conducting competitions who were unable to effectively rehearse – they couldn’t triage what was wrong and know how to go about crafting a rehearsal plan to correct what was wrong. Without exception, these folks were all in their late twenties or early thirties.
So, where are the lost generation? Those who are the age of me and my friend and many other very capable, qualified, and artistically sensitive conductors and musicians who are above the age of 35 and under the age of 50. You may not be aware of this, but there is a pretty elaborate farm system in the US which seeks to identify top talent in the cradle, so to speak, and nurture it through the orchestral heirarchy from lowliest regional orchestra or youth orchestra to the top ranks of both. Somewhere along the line, however, the systems seems to have broken down. The emphasis seems to have become “who can best impress our board” than “who can best help further the artistic excellence of our organization”. I remember having a talk with another long-time friend about an assistant conductor who was being looked at by his orchestra, who had just spent some time with mine. I told my friend – the board will love this person, but the orchestra will hate them – do anything you can to avoid a hire of this person! He was not able to effect any change (and the musicians on the search committee did indeed dislike this candidate intensely) because the person in question was an instant darling of the influential board members. The newly-hired conductor did not stay long, however, and has yet to hold a position for very long, but keeps getting re-hired. I think that boards operate their conductor hiring process much like buying securities – past performance is not an indicator of future returns.
People who have been around for a few years longer and have had a chance to see how the business works have a much better idea of how to schmooze donors and build relationships with their orchestras and communities – it’s just a fact! Have we become so incredibly enamoured of youth in this society that we pursue it at any length, regardless of what our stated goals and needs are? Let’s take a look at what all the stakeholders in an orchestral organization need from a conductor/music director:
The orchestra needs someone with musicianship beyond reproach: excellent rhythm, an ear for pitch and balance, and a clear, expressive beat. They should have flexible phrasing, and be able to “sell” their phrasing and interpretation, regardless of whether the players “like” it or not. They need someone who will be seen has tough, but fair. No screaming fits, no embarassing public debacles, just a firm hand and unrelenting artistic standards which are plain to see and which are always pursued, regardless of the repertoire or occasion.
The board needs someone who has all of the above, plus: an ability to clearly and effectively express their vision for the future of the organization and how that fits with a vision of an enhanced community at large. The ability to take that vision and convince others of its merits. The ability of translate the merits of the vision into dollars to support said vision. The conductor should effectively become the public figurehead of the orchestra or organization in the larger community, region, and nation.
The problem is, there are some clever sots out there who are very well able to meet the requirements of the board while pretending that they can meet the requirements of the orchestra. Given the often large gulf of understanding between boards and orchestras, it often takes a couple years for the board to realize they’ve had the wool over their eyes, and by this time the conductor has taken their title and go on to a bigger and better position, where the same thing happens over and over again. There are some music directors of MAJOR orchestras who meet this description, I assure you. Almost equally bad, and nearly as common are those who are the complete opposite – they live for music, inspire their orchestras to great feats of virtuosity, and ride them into the fiscal void because they have no head for the business of music.
I think that there should be a new initiative on the part of the ASOL to pursue this lost generation. Instead of looking for candidates that are fresh out of school, with their shiny letters of recommendation from the conducting “wizards”, there should be a call out for capable conductors who haven’t been through the traditional mill, and see what turns up. I think that turning the soil in a new direction might produce a greater yield.