How important is the conductor?

If there is such a thing as a “conductorphile,” I am one. 

I alluded in yesterday’s barbecue post to my interest in classical music. It started when I was an undergraduate student during the eighties. I took a Humanities class that was sort of a primer on Western culture, including an introduction to classical music, as well as art and literature – with a different professor for each art-form. Extra credit was offered to students who handed in written reports on their experiences in exploring these art forms – and they really were hand-written in those days. I can’t even say why at this point, but I felt drawn in the direction of classical music rather than art or literature. 

I purchased a couple cassettes of classical recordings – one with Beethoven’s fifth symphony and the other with a couple Mozart piano concertos. I had a strong preference for the  passion of the Beethoven symphony, which was a recording by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer, the father of Werner for Hogan’s Heroes fans. I wrote up my report and received the extra credit from the class’ music professor, who seemed pleased with my new-found interest. 

Otto Klemperer conducted the first Beethoven recording I purchased.

Deciding to take the next step, and happy to receive more extra credit for something I expected to enjoy, I attended a Philadelphia Orchestra concert for the first time. They have been considered one of the world’s elite orchestras for a century, since they were led by conductor Leopod Stokowski. (“It’s Leopold!” – Those of you who watched Bugs Bunny know what I’m referring to.) 

Leopold Stokowski of Fantasia, Bugs Bunny, and Philadelphia Orchestra fame

It was an all-Beethoven program conducted by the Orchestra’s then music director, Riccardo Muti, who could have been picked from central casting for the role of a maestro. The opening piece was the Fidelio Overture, which starts fast, suddenly slows significantly, then just as abruptly speeds up again with a repeat of the opening theme. When, at Muti’s cue, the orchestra suddenly erupted into that theme again, his longish black hair went flying in every direction as he implored his musicians to give it their all. The maestro was much more demonstrative on the podium  in those days than he is now, as an octogenarian leading the Chicago Symphony or Vienna Philharmonic. His sudden and violent movement and that hair had me within an inch of bursting out in laughter. It caught me completely off guard. But I managed to maintain my composure and enjoy the performance, along with the rest of the program, which climaxed with Beethoven’s fifth symphony. 

Riccardo Muti, pictured on one of my early classical album purchases, led the first classical concert I attended.

The following semester, I took a music appreciation course that went a little more deeply into classical music. I started reading books about conductors in the school library during my free time, learning who the greats of the past and current veterans were, as well as which young maestros showed the most promise. Riccardo Muti was one who fell into the last category. 

I also was gradually adding more classical cassettes and records to my collection, which was then dominated overwhelmingly by popular music (Today, the reverse is true. I have a handful of pop recordings and many shelves of classical CDs., while I’ve attended at least a couple hundred orchestra concerts). 

Something about my personality makeup led me to seek out multiple recordings – each by a different conductor and orchestra – of the same pieces right from the start. I probably had three recordings of Beethoven’s fifth before I had single recordings of ten other pieces. I immediately noticed significant differences in the approaches of the three conductors – Klemperer, Muti, and Herbert von Karajan – first and foremost, in terms of tempo, but also things like how prominent the brass was or differences in the sound of the string sections. 

Herbert von Karajan succeeded Wilhelm Furtwangler as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic I also picked up this recording – on cassette – early on in my exploration of classical music.

I eventually settled on Wilhelm Furtwängler, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from the early 1920s until his death in 1954, as my favorite maestro. He came to my attention initially in one of those books I read in the library. When I saw a recording of him conducting Beethoven’s ninth symphony in a used record shop, I decided to buy it because, from what I had read, he was widely regarded one of the greats of twentieth century conducting. The experience of listening to that recording the first time was revelatory, to say the least. Furtwängler had a significantly different approach to conducting the ninth than I had previously heard. It was much more emotionally intense, with extreme tempo shifts at times. I sat speechless for several minutes after it was over, so strong was the impact of the live recording on me. 

Wilhelm Furtwängler’s romantic and intense Beethoven interpretations made him a favorite of mine.

I’m not a musician and I can’t say in the technical language of musicians what a conductor does, other than setting tempos and cueing sections. But the impact they make is impossible to miss if you take the time to do A-B comparisons of the same music led by different conductors. For starters, give the below video a try. It features 42 different conductors leading the opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony and lasts only 15 minutes.

This post falls under the header of Miscellaneous. I’ll be back with more food and travel in my next post, which may not be for a few days.

Note: The conductor in the top photo of this post is the late Leonard Bernstein, another giant of the twentieth century podium. It’s probably my all-time favorite maestro action shot.

Published by BZ Maestro

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4 thoughts on “How important is the conductor?

  1. The differences between performances is as much the difference between orchestra musicians as between conductors, if not moreso.

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    1. That may be true in some circumstances, but you can put 42 conductors in front of the same orchestra playing Beethoven 5 and it will also sound completely different. A great conductor makes a huge, huge impact on the orchestra. A not so good conductor often makes less of an impact. A great musician with a lot of musical insight will have a wonderful effect on a great orchestra.

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  2. I really enjoyed this post. I loved seeing the conductors, especially Usuki, who I can’t imagine how the orchestra played at all in the opening. There must have been 10 beats before the opening bar! There were also a couple of them that I think I would have killed myself at those slow tempos.

    Liked by 1 person

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