I Don’t Think He Likes this Conductor

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A friend posted a link (I saw it on Facebook) to a most interesting post in a new blog by David Finlayson, second trombonist of the New York Philharmonic.

Finlayson comments on a topic close to the heart of every orchestral player, the topic of bad conductors. I have played a lot of concerts, as a member of the Nashville Symphony and elsewhere. We have all seen too many bad conductors. Some of them are probably fine musicians but not good conductors. More often however they are maybe only tolerable musicians that play the part of conductor. Some of those people due to a variety of circumstances rise to the upper levels of the conducting profession. Perhaps they look good from the back or are great at talking things up with donors and such. At least they look good on paper to someone in management.

The post is titled “Some words about Gilbert Kaplan’s ‘conducting’” and is very worth reading in full. I was recently asked because orchestral conductors are so highly paid what would be considered good conducting from an orchestral player’s perspective. This article lays a lot of it down; he considers Kaplan to be an imposter in terms of conducting ability and musicianship. Toward the end he notes that

Members of symphony orchestras truly have an unfair advantage over their audience. The musicians sit through countless rehearsals of a composition and are able to witness the culmination of careful, skillful study of a score combined with the conductor’s ability to communicate his or her ideas clearly. At its best, the preparation of any great composition for concert should always be a profound, intimate and introspective journey shared between the interpreter and the instrumentalist. This is the intent of the composer and should never be compromised. When musicians are denied that journey, they feel cheated, marginalized and estranged from what they hold so dear.

Mr. Kaplan and his assault on conducting leave many musicians angry, bewildered and befuddled….

With careful marketing, money and influence, this no-talent, self-proclaimed Mahler expert has made his way to the front of many of the world’s leading orchestras relying totally on their collective talents and experience to pad his conducting résumé. Orchestra management after orchestra management has been complicit in perpetuating his woefully sad farce. At the end of the day, his worth to classical music has been totally overstated.

Ouch! I have never performed under Kaplan, but I have played Mahler 2 professionally. Read the whole article and also follow down into the comments, there are comments from some pretty recognizable people in music including for example former Principal Trombone of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Ralph Sauer, who will be joining the brass faculty at ASU next year.

A great orchestra can make a bad conductor sound good but the musicians know even if management does not. Finlayson says exactly what many of us would have liked to have said in reference to a number of conductors we have seen. Mahler, which is among my favorite literature to perform on horn (I have played every one of his symphonies, most multiple times, except for the 8th), especially separates the great from the near great and the less than near great conductors. Too many conductors will present themselves as though they are great and probably believe that they are experts on every instrument and masters of score study and the baton (no ego problems!), but the reality is we know there are few really great conductors. Many are imposters to varying degrees and we can see through it. Score study is not just making notes on a yellow pad about where you think people will mess up their parts; if you drop beats, ask for odd things because you don’t have a good ear, or conduct in an unclear manner you will not get a great result.

Unfortunately the bad conductor may also be our boss in a very real professional sense, or in an academic situation a faculty colleague, and it becomes difficult to criticize in the manner they deserve. Bravo again to David Finlayson for getting the ball rolling.

University of Horn Matters