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A channel for the music: Conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy

What makes a great conductor? There's no musical profession more surrounded by mystique, controversy and bunkum. Some say conductors just wave their arms around; others that the man (or sometimes woman) with the baton is a mystic medium uniting composer, orchestra and audience. Either way, vast fees are often involved. But if orchestral music is to survive the double whammy of financial crisis and government cutbacks, it must encourage eager, capacity audiences; to do that, it needs to set people alight-both listeners and performers. It needs great conductors: maestros who can deliver a musical experience that's profound, inspiring, unforgettable-even life-changing.  

The maestro magic isn't just about keeping time. Wilhelm Furtwängler, often regarded as the ultimate great conductor, was notorious for his apparently non-existent beat. Now Valery Gergiev is known for his fluttering finger technique more than clear time-beating. As for the orchestra, a conductor has to be manager, time-manager, mascot, engine, coach, mentor and headmaster rolled into one-but even after all that, if a conductor doesn't have something more to offer, everyone will fall asleep. That "more" is what keeps audiences coming back for more of the "more". 

You know when it's there. Our response to music is physical, visceral, pheremonal: what we want is to be moved to tears, or walk on air, or feel glad to be alive. Two years ago I encountered a conductor whose interpretation of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro sparked all of that and more-so all-giving that I felt I'd never truly heard before this ultra-familiar piece in its full glory. It was a revelation. This conductor was neither a grand maestro of 85, nor a young whizzkid with the requisite mop of curly hair. Nor was he a household name. But it was someone whose musicianship has always been exceptional; someone who was once a phenomenal quartet leader and remains an inspirational mentor to young musicians. 

His name is Gábor Takács-Nagy — the former leader of the Takács Quartet —and this autumn he takes over as principal conductor of the Manchester Camerata. Currently he's principal conductor of the Verbier Chamber Orchestra. He has just been appointed principal guest conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra; there, his compatriot conductor Iván Fischer, founder of the BFO —another of today's true greats — commented: "There are many conductors in the world who can get orchestras to play together but there are very few who can profoundly inspire. Gábor Takács-Nagy is one of them." 

I asked Takács-Nagy what, for him, makes a great conductor. "First, the conductor has to be a very good musician with lots of imaginative power," he says, "someone who not only knows musical rules but feels extremely strongly the human emotions that radiate from the score: music is the language of emotions. He must be an interesting person, because the great danger is that orchestral musicians can feel like civil servants, losing their initiative, their individual characters and their feeling of importance. So the conductor has to challenge, stimulate, surprise and motivate them. A good communicator is essential and a warm human heart has to be there. My experience is that if an orchestra knows that the musical ideas and feelings from the conductor are genuine and come from a warm heart, they will do what he wants." 

With time, the role of the conductor has undergone some awkward evolutions. The great conductors of the past surfed the waves of a society that was prone to hero-worship. Conductors in the time of Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler were heroes, nearly demi-gods; their music-making was regarded not as entertainment but as "high art" — and high art was an acceptable, indeed a desirable, concept. This remained true as recently as the era of Sir Georg Solti and Leonard Bernstein. These days we don't like to worship human beings too much; the notion of the demigod-conductor is gone. But it doesn't have to be a loss: the new model is more democratic, more collaborative, and often more positive. 

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