Conductors and the cult of personality

Two conductor profiles in the New York Times in recent days highlight the dangers of thinking that conductors are special people. The first was on Riccardo Muti, and was an unadulterated puff piece:

Realizing that the Met musicians might not have been familiar with the opera, he occasionally paused to clue them in on the plot, the characters and why Italians still consider this opera in which Attila the Hun invades Italy and the Roman Empire as central to their historical experience: the country was still festering under Austrian domination in 1846. “This is one of Verdi’s most important Risorgimento operas,” Mr. Muti told the musicians, “it is an opera of revolution, and audiences of the time recognized it as such. And yet the music is never brutal. There is always a nobility present, even in Attila’s music.”

Often Verdi’s accompaniments look deceptively simple, but Mr. Muti carefully polishes each one, stressing proper articulation, intonation and rhythmic definition while always insisting on expressive, singing tone. “If we can concentrate on the small things,” he said, “they will become big things. Even the staccato notes must sing. And remember a Verdi staccato is not like a Rossini staccato; it is detached but not as abrupt. Let’s try to show the difference. And the final chord on the passage we just played — it is too short. The last chord is like the last child, and should never be abandoned.”

I’m sure that the Met musicians, who only do Verdi every other day or so, were grateful for the history lesson and the stylistic tips. They are, after all, only one of the best orchestras on the planet. No doubt they were kicking the shit out of the staccato notes before the lesson.

It was Mr. Muti’s choice to conduct “Attila” at the Met, and his preference for the piece belies his reputation in some quarters as a dictatorial maestro and ego-driven personality who must always be the major attraction. “Attila,” like all early Verdi operas, needs a strong guiding hand and a musician with a keenly sympathetic understanding of the composer’s style, but it is scarcely a piece that automatically calls attention to the man on the podium.

Hence, of course, the puff piece.

…Another fiction surrounding this conductor is that his singers are little more than puppets who execute his will. I’ve watched him interact with colleagues during rehearsals often enough to dispel that myth. As he rehearsed Verdi’s “Macbeth” for a 1993 concert performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he tirelessly discussed fine points with his cast. He commented to the singer of Lady Macbeth that one plaintive woodwind note in her sleepwalking scene held the whole key to her twisted psychology. I can still hear his cries of “I want to hear the terror!”

Opera conductors rehearse one-on-one with singers less these days than in the past; some know little about the voice. Mr. Muti, though, comes from the old school. And he is eager to pass on some of the old traditions to the next generation. “I’m even inviting conducting and vocal students from Juilliard to sit in on my ‘Attila’ rehearsals,” he said. “One can never learn too much. When I did ‘Otello’ at La Scala in 2001, Domingo, who had by then sung hundreds of Otellos, stayed with me to rehearse for 25 days. We worked on the character and staging together with score in hand, since we both agreed that the whole drama comes directly from the music.

“Pavarotti was the same when we did ‘Don Carlo.’ He worked with me for a month, and came to every rehearsal whether he was singing or not. People too often talk about the circus aspects of that amazing career, but when he was in good hands, Luciano could be a singer of breathtaking refinement, even humility.

“I also fondly recall America’s own great tenor, Richard Tucker, who sang ‘Ballo in Maschera’ with me when I was a youngster. Imagine, a 29-year-old conductor instructing a tenor who had sung with Toscanini. I can still hear his voice saying, ‘Grazie, Maestro,’ quietly but with genuine surprise, when I asked him if he wouldn’t mind holding a particular high note a little bit longer.”

Of course his singers aren’t “little more than puppets who execute his will.” They’re puppets who execute his will and then thank him profusely for the help. Pavarotti even came to all his rehearsals to sit at the Master’s feet and, as a result, was “breathtaking.”

I have no doubt that Muti is a wonderful conductor and, in particular, does great Verdi. Unfortunately the article proved nothing of the sort, but rather simply confirmed most of my prejudices about conductors.

Stravinsky once described Bernstein as having a “Copernican ego,” in that he thought the world revolved around him. Sadly, it’s a common trait amongst conductors. I’ve known enough conductors to know that some are quite decent people who honestly try to remember that being a conductor and being a god are not the same. I also know that conducting is not the only profession to have a distorting effect on self-image.

But this article is a great example of how conducting can mislead those who practice it into believing that they have unique insights to share with the world simply because those who work for them do so in a semi-feudal social structure.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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