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50 Best Conductors in History

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  • #16
    Originally posted by tima View Post

    First among many things, the conductor is the orchestra's clock.
    Interestingly, the conductor at the front of the orchestra is a relatively recent development in the history of classical music. Before the early romantic period (Mendelssohn is often given credit for establishing the conductor in front of the orchestra with a baton), there was no conductor. The leader of the orchestra (still called that in Europe, called the concertmaster in the US), would lead the orchestra from his (it was almost always a he in those days) seat at the front of the first violins. Today there are a few orchestras who play without a conductor (the Chamber Orchestra of Europe comes to mind). Back in the classical period, Haydn led his famed Esterhazy Orchestra from the leader position at the front of the first violins.

    One of the great insults one can give to a conductor is that he is just a bandmaster, meaning he just keeps the beat for the orchestra. When I sat in with the Oakland Youth orchestra (playing last stand viola with another parent - youth orchestras are almost always short on violas), I really appreciated that our conductor had a very precise, clear beat, very easy to follow. That is important in less skilled orchestras, but with the professional orchestras, they all know how to keep time and where the beat is. What the conductor provides is all the nuances, slight changes in tempo, the length of the silences, the dynamics, in short, what makes one performance of the Nutcracker different from another.

    Larry

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    • MylesBAstor
      MylesBAstor commented
      Editing a comment
      Sounds like a sports team. The conductor hires the musicians that best fit his overall philosophy. And the best conductors and orchestras attract the best talent. Just like sports teams again too because of the salaries. But it was no accident that the CSO under Reiner was renowned for its string and brass sections.

    • 1morerecord2clean
      1morerecord2clean commented
      Editing a comment
      The days of permanent orchestra conductors are long gone. It just isn't accurate to attach a specific orchestra sound to a conductor today. The days of Ormandy/Philly or Koussevitsky/Boston, Reiner/Chicago, etc and a "house" sound don't exist. Conductors don't spend enough time with any specific orchestra to facilitate this kind of relationship. Most of the European orchestras are self owned today and have no regular relationship with a conductor. Being self owned they pick and choose their guest conductors well in advance of a concert year. Even the greats like Vienna and Berlin, Vienna is self owned with no permanent conductor and I'm not sure with Berlin who still has a conductor, are having a difficult time holding onto their musical identies. In the US the orchestras no longer have identity. They all sound basically the same. Even if they have a permanent conductor they spend little time together in any given year, perhaps 20% of the year? And rehearsal time is so limited for any conductor/orchestra a conductor's interpretation will only be realized partially. Filling vacancies with a conductor's idea of an ideal sound? Forget it. Even if he is present for auditions, it's more important for a player to attract the attention of the principal and the playing might very well take second place to whether the principal and the perspective player get along and whether the perspective player will tow the line so to speak. i think only Vienna tries to hire players trained in their system and clearly that isn't holding up so well anymore. Berlin still tries to maintain hiring for their sound but that too is growing tough. Both orchestras are so worried about this that they don't really hire from an audition no matter how exhaustive. They hire and then have a year in limbo with that player until they make him/her permanent. Berlin has had a round robin with their first trumpet players in the last 20 years. And BTW, the sound of the Chicago Symphony resulted more from Bud Herseth, principal trumpet 1948-2000 then it did because of Reiner. I'm not alone in this belief.

    • MylesBAstor
      MylesBAstor commented
      Editing a comment
      Thanks for the insight Mark! Very interesting!

  • #17
    Something that is easy to overlook on live performances and recordings is that there are rehersals where everything gets worked out ahead of time, its not always done right on the fly.
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    • #18
      Originally posted by astrotoy View Post

      Interestingly, the conductor at the front of the orchestra is a relatively recent development in the history of classical music. Before the early romantic period (Mendelssohn is often given credit for establishing the conductor in front of the orchestra with a baton), there was no conductor. The leader of the orchestra (still called that in Europe, called the concertmaster in the US), would lead the orchestra from his (it was almost always a he in those days) seat at the front of the first violins. Today there are a few orchestras who play without a conductor (the Chamber Orchestra of Europe comes to mind). Back in the classical period, Haydn led his famed Esterhazy Orchestra from the leader position at the front of the first violins.

      One of the great insults one can give to a conductor is that he is just a bandmaster, meaning he just keeps the beat for the orchestra. When I sat in with the Oakland Youth orchestra (playing last stand viola with another parent - youth orchestras are almost always short on violas), I really appreciated that our conductor had a very precise, clear beat, very easy to follow. That is important in less skilled orchestras, but with the professional orchestras, they all know how to keep time and where the beat is. What the conductor provides is all the nuances, slight changes in tempo, the length of the silences, the dynamics, in short, what makes one performance of the Nutcracker different from another.

      Larry
      Don't forget the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra based out of New York. For years their mission statement was they don't have a conductor.

      To me the conductors role is interpreting the music since the score isn't always as clean cut as it seems. After all, there's technical competence vs musical interpretation. For instance, the interaction between/among sections. How he/she wants an instrument to play. Trying to capture the intent of a composer who has been dead for 300 years. Conductors are also known for their specialties e.g. Certain composers better than others.
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      • 1morerecord2clean
        1morerecord2clean commented
        Editing a comment
        Very true Myles but let me take your point and put it a little differently. Can musical, interpretive performance be realized without technical proficiency? OTOH the world is loaded with technically fantastic players who don't make music. Who would you rather hear? Myles or Wynton? Doc Severinson always said technical perfection is great but at some point you have to make music. Louis Armstrong was far from technical perfection but brother he could make music like nobody's biz. So in the end how closely are they related? In general a certain level of tech expertise is necessary but it's not the last word in every case.

    • #19
      Originally posted by Kingrex View Post
      In a Opera, who is the controlling member? Lets say Pavarotti is singing. Who decides the orchestra layout, tempo etc. Also, how much control of the actual orchestra musicians does the conductor have. Can he hire and fire members, or is that a function of a board?
      To answer the last question first, most major opera orchestras have tenure rules, like major symphony orchestras. So, for example, the new music director or permanent conductor has a major role in the hiring of new members, when a vacancy occurs, but essentially inherits an orchestra when he or she starts. So, for example, if a music director has a very long career with an orchestra, like James Levine with the Met, then many of the members of the orchestra were hired by him, although some of the senior members predate his reign. For a symphony (I know the SF Symphony best), MTT has been the MD for 21 years and I would guess that close to half the orchestra were hired by him. However, there are members that go back more than forty years in the orchestra. I was talking to one of them in May, and he had been hired by Seiji Ozawa in the mid '70's!

      As far as the first question, operas are the most complex of classical music events. For a major company, at the head, there is the general director and the music director (who will usually conduct many, but not all of the productions). They determine (in consultation with many others) the operas that will be produced during a season. They also will determine which artists to engage and which conductors will conduct the performances. This is often done years in advance, particularly with major singers. For the opera itself, which normally has several performances during a season (sometimes with more than one cast, particularly with major roles double cast), there is the director, who is engaged to provide the overall vision of the opera production - where and when is the story set (modern productions often are set in eras that the composer did not intend), how do the singers move on stage, what are the costumes and sets - working with costume, set, and lighting designers. Musical decisions are generally led by the conductor, but with major input from lead singers, who also know what they can and cannot do with their voices. Rehearsals start with individual singers working with pianists and usually the conductor, so decisions like tempo and dynamics can be decided quite early on.

      As far as the orchestral layout, normally that is the purview of the conductor, although the layout of the pit, which is much more restricted in space than a normal stage, means there is often little room to move instruments around.

      We just saw La Boheme and Don Giovanni in the past two weeks at the San Francisco Opera. Boheme was set as Puccini wrote, in a Paris garret in the 19th century. Don Giovanni was sort of set in mid-seventeenth century Seville, but with great liberties. There were very large reflective video sceens that moved up and down over different parts of the stage, sometime projecting image of faces.

      We also saw two operas at Glyndebourne (south of London) in May. La Traviata was set in the early-mid 20th century, instead of the 19th century. Cavalli's Hipermestra was not set in ancient Greece, but in a 21st century middle east war zone! It is not often performed and the original opera is about 5 hours long. The production was cut by about 50%, so the production was about 2 and 1/2 hours and all the Greek gods were eliminated from the story. I'm sure the cuts were made by the conductor, William Christie.

      Others may have additional comments.

      Larry
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      • 1morerecord2clean
        1morerecord2clean commented
        Editing a comment
        Today musicians retain their jobs more from the union. They are rarely fired for incompetence and more for personality clashes with the conductor. They are usually demoted to a lower chair so even this form of punishment is usually more with principal players who regularly interact with the conductor and not section players. Sometimes a section has a problem, should I say a personality problem? With a section leader they will challenge that player and audition against him as was the case in Philly with a first player some thirty years ago. The conductor, Muti at the time, was present with a union official. End result? The player stayed and continued as principal because the union said there had to be a compelling reason to demote or fire the player and none was clearly shown. OTOH, sometimes, and this is rare today, a conductor is a stalwart long long time leader and they personally have such a distaste for a principal player, they don't care about section players as much, that they have them demoted. This happened at least once with Levine at the Met that I am aware of. And players can work the system in reverse too. When Solti took over Chicago he had heard that some of the principal players were old, tired, lazy, not quite with it and he was considering trying to replace them. The principals
        heard about this and insisted on auditioning for Solti one by one. Solti was convinced he was lucky to have those players. Singers at the Met? They are in charge of themselves and absolutely answer to the conductor and reviews and this can even include big shots like Kathleen Battle who was fired by Levine for missing or being late to rehearsal. Jussi Bjorling was fired by Rudolph Bing for missing performances, Bing fired Robert Merrill for singing pop songs on radio outside of the Met domaine. So in opera, soloists are more controlled by a musical director who may not be the conductor.

      • Kingrex
        Kingrex commented
        Editing a comment
        Wow, very very interesting. Thank you both Astrotoy and 1morerecord2clean.

    • #20
      Originally posted by astrotoy View Post

      Interestingly, the conductor at the front of the orchestra is a relatively recent development in the history of classical music. Before the early romantic period (Mendelssohn is often given credit for establishing the conductor in front of the orchestra with a baton), there was no conductor. The leader of the orchestra (still called that in Europe, called the concertmaster in the US), would lead the orchestra from his (it was almost always a he in those days) seat at the front of the first violins. Today there are a few orchestras who play without a conductor (the Chamber Orchestra of Europe comes to mind). Back in the classical period, Haydn led his famed Esterhazy Orchestra from the leader position at the front of the first violins.

      One of the great insults one can give to a conductor is that he is just a bandmaster, meaning he just keeps the beat for the orchestra. When I sat in with the Oakland Youth orchestra (playing last stand viola with another parent - youth orchestras are almost always short on violas), I really appreciated that our conductor had a very precise, clear beat, very easy to follow. That is important in less skilled orchestras, but with the professional orchestras, they all know how to keep time and where the beat is. What the conductor provides is all the nuances, slight changes in tempo, the length of the silences, the dynamics, in short, what makes one performance of the Nutcracker different from another.

      Larry
      He may be seated or standing, he may have an instrument or not, he may be called different things but first among many things, the conductor is the orchestra's clock. Sure, musicians know how to keep time - they couldn't be musicians without that facility. Everybody has a metronome for practice at some point or other in their career. Everybody has their notion of allegro or andante but yours and mine don't count except in practice - there is no platonic idea of a performance - it is the conductor who sets the interpretation of the score. As you point out, one thing that that is relatively newer is the baton.

      The clock starts before any note is played. Whether you're first chair or a substitute, when you or your section have an entrance your eyes better be on the conductor to receive his cue because he will be looking at you. There is never a question about the beat because he is the beat. The conductor does not have to stand alone without an instrument, for example Harnoncourt conducted the Chamber Orchestra of Europe from the keyboard. Same held true for Beethoven and Mozart.

      I suspect we're in agreement Larry, coming at this from our own perspectives and experience. :-)
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      • 1morerecord2clean
        1morerecord2clean commented
        Editing a comment
        Sorry guys. You are confusing "tempo" controlled by the conductor and time signature which is not controlled by anyone playing the music. The conductor controls the tempo, we hope, and the players play the notes according to that tempo within the time signature which is written by the composer.

      • tima
        tima commented
        Editing a comment
        Nah, I don't think anyone is confused. The score is what it is. If you choose to play The Blue Danube in half-time you're not playing what Strauss wrote. While the score gives relative insight as does the ear and, in this case what Dick Clarke may call 'danceability' it's the conductor who answers the question: "how many beats per minute."

    • #21
      Originally posted by tima View Post

      He may be seated or standing, he may have an instrument or not, he may be called different things but first among many things, the conductor is the orchestra's clock. Sure, musicians know how to keep time - they couldn't be musicians without that facility. Everybody has a metronome for practice at some point or other in their career. Everybody has their notion of allegro or andante but yours and mine don't count except in practice - there is no platonic idea of a performance - it is the conductor who sets the interpretation of the score. As you point out, one thing that that is relatively newer is the baton.

      The clock starts before any note is played. Whether you're first chair or a substitute, when you or your section have an entrance your eyes better be on the conductor to receive his cue because he will be looking at you. There is never a question about the beat because he is the beat. The conductor does not have to stand alone without an instrument, for example Harnoncourt conducted the Chamber Orchestra of Europe from the keyboard. Same held true for Beethoven and Mozart.

      I suspect we're in agreement Larry, coming at this from our own perspectives and experience. :-)
      Yes! Take the group I was on the board of for years The Ensemble for Early Music. The conductor Frederick Renz conducted while also playing his harpsichord.
      Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
      Senior Editor, Positive-Feedback.com
      ________________________________________

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      • tima
        tima commented
        Editing a comment
        Back in the baroque days it was not uncommon for the guy at the continuo to be the guy in charge.

    • #22
      Hello from central Europe! This is my first post on this forum after few weeks of reading...

      Originally posted by tima View Post

      The conductor does not have to stand alone without an instrument, for example Harnoncourt conducted the Chamber Orchestra of Europe from the keyboard.
      A small correction on the above - Harnoncourt was cellist, he never conducted from piano, as far as I have had the opportunity to hear him live ~ 50 times, around 20 times with CoE... With CoE it must have been Murray Perahia or maybe Pierre Laurent Aimard who were in this double role (pianist, conductor) which is IMHO always tricky. Only once I have heard it worked really well - Leif Ove Andsnes playing and conducting all Beethoven Piano concertos with Mahler Chamber Orchestra (similar size and type as CoE) in Musikverein few years ago...

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      • #23
        Originally posted by cough View Post
        Hello from central Europe! This is my first post on this forum after few weeks of reading...



        A small correction on the above - Harnoncourt was cellist, he never conducted from piano, as far as I have had the opportunity to hear him live ~ 50 times, around 20 times with CoE... With CoE it must have been Murray Perahia or maybe Pierre Laurent Aimard who were in this double role (pianist, conductor) which is IMHO always tricky. Only once I have heard it worked really well - Leif Ove Andsnes playing and conducting all Beethoven Piano concertos with Mahler Chamber Orchestra (similar size and type as CoE) in Musikverein few years ago...
        I heard Bill Christie in May conducting from the keyboard with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at Glyndebourne at a performance of Cavalli's Hypermestra. I have seen Bill conduct his own group, Les Arts Florissants from the keyboard a couple of times also. Masaaki Suzuki also conducted his Bach Collegium Japan from the keyboard. I think this is quite common for early music groups.

        Mitsuko Uchida has been recording the Mozart Piano Concerti with the Cleveland Orchestra, conducting from the keyboard. The recordings are on Decca (which has absorbed the Philips label as part of Universal Music).

        I may have told this story before on AN. John Dunkerley told me that during a recording session with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting from the keyboard with the Cleveland Orchestra many years ago (IIRC it was the Beethoven cycle), his diminutive stature meant that the musicians could not see his head motions while he was playing. They were trying to come up with a solution and one of the Decca engineers had a Mickey Mouse hat with ears. Ashkenazy, always a very good sport, agreed to wear the hat while playing. The orchestra could follow his head motions, watching Mickey's ears move.

        Larry
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