Maestro’s Baton Passed to Youth

The age of megalomaniac conductors seems to be over—and about time too

Norman Lebrecht

There is one 2011 anniversary that I have kept strictly to myself. It is 20 years since the appearance of my book The Maestro Myth, which transformed the public image of the orchestral conductor from mystical leader to power player. It sold a quarter of a million copies, more than any classical music book of recent times, and it pointed to a future — perhaps now — when maestro rule would ultimately be broken.

My commission, and this shows how far back it goes, was to write about “Great Conductors”. In the late 1980s such dinosaurs still roamed the earth. The best-known of the species were Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti, heirs to a grand tradition that stretched back to the dawn of musical creation. The trail of evidence, however, led me to a different assessment of their guild.

Karajan, tutored by Joseph Goebbels, pursued power, technology and wealth. He dominated the music world to an extent that anyone who crossed him — Nikolaus Harnoncourt, for instance — was barred from the summits of Salzburg and Berlin. Bernstein and Solti, less megalomaniac, were nonetheless treated as living gods. The Maestro Myth examined the ways they played politics, career and markets in tandem with their inarguable achievements at producing an indelible musical experience.

Greeted with establishment revulsion — “this may be the most disgusting book I have ever read” began a TLS review by a Nietzschean philosopher from Cambridge — its uptake by musicians was instant and universal. Samizdat copies circulated in Russia years ahead of the official translation. Students read it on their first day at conservatory. Vladimir Jurowski, now music director at the London Philharmonic, told me it made him want to give up the baton — until he decided next morning that he could run his life on different lines.

Others had already made a breach. Simon Rattle, working in glamour-free Birmingham for 18 years, scorned the three-continent career. Quiet Finns, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen, offered Baltic consensus as an alternative to rostrum rants. Post-Soviets like Semyon Bychkov and Jurowski rejected monolithic authority. When a collapsing record industry threw out famous maestros like used tissues — four in one morning at Decca in 1997 — the former lion kings were left looking like mangy cats. 

Yet, for all the modifications, willing and enforced, the old authoritarian model proved resilient. Rattle, promoted to the Berlin Philharmonic, now plays Salzburg and Baden-Baden festivals off against each other in true Karajan style. The electrifying Valery Gergiev adopts an absolutism that he says is necessitated by Russian chaos. Daniel Barenboim is a distinctly old-fashioned music director at the state opera in Berlin, though not quite as pre-war as Christian Thielemann at Dresden.

Riccardo Muti, in a memoir, hankers for the hard-hat maestros of his youth. Lorin Maazel, 81, has just landed a new job in Munich. A forthcoming Faber survey by Tom Service takes an altogether softer and more admiring view of conductors than I did in The Maestro Myth. One can almost hear the clock turning back.

Until this past summer, that is, when three events changed the balance of power, perhaps for good. In Brazil, a bumptious conductor called Roberto Minczuk ordered his players to reaudition for their jobs, or face the sack. The musicians went on Facebook and shared details of their plight. Major soloists boycotted Rio and the maestro was demoted. Social media had triumphed over rampant ego.

In Russia, the conductor Mark Gorenstein was caught on a live webcast abusing a contestant in the Tchaikovsky competition. Within hours, the clip was on YouTube. Gorenstein’s musicians who had long complained of his high-handedness demanded his removal. When the ministry refused, they turned up at rehearsal and sat four hours without playing-posting the confrontation Rio-style on YouTube. Within days, Gorenstein was gone. Musicians of the world had been empowered by mod comms.

In New York, a few days before the September season, James Levine, music director at the Metropolitan Opera for 40 years, declared himself unfit to work. This came as no surprise to anyone outside the Met. Levine has been in failing health for a decade and was unable to hold a baton without shaking, but the Met had no succession strategy and, consequently, began its season headless.

This, however, was no bad thing. La Scala has been maestro-free for six years since Muti quit. The Teatro Real in Madrid has no music director. Both get by very nicely with guest batons, who help diversify the orchestra’s skills. Covent Garden might consider doing the same when Antonio Pappano moves on in 2015 or so. 

Taken together, these unconnected events suggest a seismic shift at both ends of the spectrum — upheavals on the shop floor and alterations in management structure. One further evolution serves to convince me that, 20 years on, the myth is finally smashed. Gustavo Dudamel’s arrival at 28 years old as head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was historic not just for his extreme youth but for his innate iconoclasm.

Raised on tough streets in Venezuela, the Dude was not interested in giving concerts for rich toffs. He gave a free welcome gig in the Hollywood Bowl and got kids from the hoods to sing in Mahler’s Second. While he respects his mentors Rattle, Barenboim and Claudio Abbado, Dudamel goes his own sweet way, unworried by rank.

His resident conductor, effectively his deputy, is Lionel Bringuier, five years his junior, and he regularly thrusts El Sistema graduates like himself on to the world stage. The average podium age has dropped in the last five years faster than in the last 50.

Dudamel, tuned to an alternative demographic, is concerned with projecting classical music beyond the concert hall — in cinemas and online. He is less concerned with the paying public, ageing and waning, than with the potential audience. He and his rising band of followers are a breed that knew not Joseph — Goebbels or Stalin — and owe no debt to history. The very title “maestro” seems misplaced for men so adventurous.

There is still some way to go before history is over. Women have yet to make an impact at the top and the cumbersome music business continues to cultivate vanities. Nevertheless, I am confident that The Maestro as we have known him since 1865 is now defunct. And the terminal date to be carved on the tombstone will be 2011.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"