World Class Conductors: What does it take
There is hardly a week that goes by that doesn't have an article about Gustavo Dudamel and his amazing conducting exploits. Some of this is because he is young and very impressive on the podium. But he is hardly the only conductor on the world stage at the moment.
Looking back at the posts on my blog, I've covered conductors Keith Lockhart Jeffery Kahane, Jack Everly, Mario Venzago, James MacMillan, Joji Hattori, Hugh Wolff, James Gaffigan, Kurt Masur, Andre Previn, Michael Tilson Thomas, Leonard Slatkin, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Marc Minkowski and John Nelson - and that's just in first half of April. Some of these conductors were mentioned because of their association with leading orchestras:
Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops Jeffery Kahane and the Colorado Symphony Jack Everly and the Baltimore Super Pops Mario Venzago and the Balitimore Symphony Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (YouTube Symphony)
Some are mentioned because they are conducting performances which include other world class musicians
James MacMillan with voilinist Nicola Benedetti Joji Hattori with violinist Sarah Chang Hugh Wolff with violinist Nicola Benedetti James Gaffigan with pianist Christopher O’Riley Kurt Masur with violinisit Sergey Khachatryan Esa-Pekka Salonen with pianist Yefim Bronfman
Some are composers or conductors of their own fame:
Andre Previn Leonard Slatkin Esa-Pekka Salonen Marc Minkowski John Nelson James MacMillan
I am sure many of these composers would argue they should be included in the final category - and there is some justification that they wouldn't be conducting for a world class orchestra if they weren't a world class conductor.
One aspect we look for in a conductor is the quality of performance of the orchestra they are leading. In the various reviews on my blog I have spoken about how the orchestras sound - how moving or energized the music seemed during the performance. Some of these performances were amazing and some seemed to lack a sense of life. Obviously, the better the performance the more we are willing to praise the conductor.
But a performance that lacks isn't always the fault of the conductor. Last Saturday I posted a review on the Colorado Symphony under the baton of Jeffery Kahane. Granted most of the review was about the music of Kevin Puts, there was still moments where the orchestra was under scrutiny for their performance. At the beginning of the second half of the concert, the performance seemed to lack the energy it had during the first half. However, the energy of Kahane's conducting didn't seem to lack, so my review "blamed" the orchestra (whether that was correct or not).
In a much earlier review of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and the BBC Scottish Symphony the performance was definitely the fault of the conductor. The entire performance seemed to lack life, all stemming from a sense of boredom coming from the podium.
Other reviewers have spoken specifically about the conducting when reviewing performances. Placido Domingo was praised for what he did for the music in the opera "The Fly" and yet the music received lukewarm praise at best - giving the impression that even bad music can be well conducted. In a recent article in the LA Times, Esa-Pekka Salonen is praised for both his compositions and his confidence on the podium -becoming a conductor because he wanted his music performed (so someone had to do it).
Gustavo Dudamel is often spoken of in terms of the energy and dynamic personality he has on the podium. Perhaps this is the most important quality, a quality a world class conductor must possess (and one an up-and-coming conductor must find if he/she wants to become world class). Energy doesn't necessarily translate to broad strokes danced across the podium. But in looking at the performances of some of the very best, dancing on the podium also seems to be fairly common.
For those budding conductors out there reading this post, perhaps letting go of your inhibitions is a good first step.