The Maestro’s Mystique

A new generation of conductors must show that the concert hall can be the venue for a truly emotional experience

Jessica Duchen

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. 

Today’s young conductors step on to the podium with a ready smile. Gustavo Dudamel (30) from Venezuela is a whirlwind presence who galvanises everyone around him. Vasily Petrenko (35) is a charismatic Russian who has put the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic firmly on to the map; the Latvian Andris Nelsons (32) at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is likewise a very hot property indeed. Yannick Nézet-Séguin (36) has proved a smash hit in London where he’s principal guest conductor of the LPO.  

Three still younger ones to watch are Robin Ticciati (28), a Rattle protégé who is sweeping fresh air through the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Nicholas Collon (28),  the LPO’s assistant conductor, who has already founded the young, forward-looking Aurora Orchestra, which scooped this year’s Royal Philharmonic Society Award for best ensemble, and Ilyich Rivas, who, incredibly, aged only 18, has proved himself a charismatic fledgling maestro who seems sure to have a dazzling future. 

What these conductors do at 40 will probably tell us more about their artistry than what they do in their twenties, but the task ahead of them is clear. Takács-Nagy says: “In music there are extremely strong emotions, but often orchestral concerts which I have heard have not represented these extreme feelings. I think if extreme emotions radiated really strongly in classical concerts today, classical music would be more popular. People go to football matches or watch soap operas because there they can experience extreme happiness or extreme sadness. We are often attracted to extreme feelings, and the music of the great composers is full of them. Beethoven, for instance, experienced every emotion in life with around ten times the intensity of any normal person.” 

Maybe that genuine extremity of feeling is the quality that injects orchestral music with the overwhelming communicative power it can have, and should have. And it bowls freely out of Tákacs-Nagy’s interpretations. “I love music!” he exclaims. “I love music more than myself. And I try to feel and live it and communicate it with my colleagues. We all have ego and the hardest thing is how to put aside the ego in the performance.” And become a channel for the music? “Yes!”

There’s that crucial difference. I anticipate some interesting trips to Manchester.

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