What makes a conductor and how do they get started?
There are many attributes a good conductor should have: first, musicianship; second a good, clear beat; third, a good rapport with the orchestra; and fourth, a sense of personal magnetism. There are several other requisites but these are the main ones.
Not many conductors have a good stick technique, but it is imperative when conducting opera and ballet. Just raising his/her eyes to Heaven and drooling over a Tchaikowsy symphony in the concert hall doesn’t come off in the opera. This is what separates the wheat from the chaff.
There are contradictions to this. Beecham (amongst many others) had a very poor conducting technique but he could obtain scintillating performances. Sargent, on the other hand, had an almost perfect technique- he was very clear and always gave excellent tempi but the results mainly were very pedestrian.
Nowadays conductors are being turned out by the thousand but only a handful have any success. It is a kind of lottery, and Lady Luck, plus other things plays a big part.
Looking back, Arturo Toscanini, who was a ‘cellist got his chance when the conductor was taken ill and Toscanini had to step in at a moment’s notice. From then on his career was made.
Colin Davis started out as a clarinetist. I remember playing children’s concerts with him. He had an urge to conduct, and somehow succeeded to start an opera programme in Chelsea, London, England.
One day, the conductor who was booked to appear at the Royal Festival Hall, London, was taken ill and Walter Legge, the founder and artistic director of the Philharmonia Orchestra got in touch with Colin who stepped in at the last moment and from then on his career was made.
Shortly afterwards Walter Legge complained about the shortage of young conductors and organized a competition. None of them were very competent. One of the pieces was a Beethoven piano concerto. After a cadenza in the last movement the orchestra has to come in after a run up by the piano. The trick is that the conductor should silently beat through the run up and then bring in the orchestra decisively, but not so with all the aspiring maestri. They all waited until the end of the run and tried to bring the orchestra in as though they were swatting a gigantic fly, which of course didn’t work. I forget who won but I know that Zubin Mehta came second. Legge later remarked that they were the best of a bad bunch.
Another way is to have plenty of money and either form your own orchestra or buy or bribe your way in. Norman del Mar was an example of this. It is said that his father paid Beecham to make him an apprentice conductor of the Royal Philharmonic. He was also engaged as a second conductor of the English Opera Group by Benjamin Britten in the days I was playing with them. We all complained about his ham-handedness, but Britten was adamant, he stayed.
Beecham was fortunate enough to be born into the famous laxative pill company which in those days were advertised as “being worth a guinea a box”. He also formed a liaison with Lady Cunard (of the shipping company) which no doubt helped him, but nobody should lose sight of the fact that he did much for music at no profit to himself.
In England, where the class system still flourishes, the education, station in society and accent plays a big part. There was one excellent young conductor who I thought should go far. Someone remarked to me that he would not succeed because of his Cockney accent. He was right. The conductor dropped out of sight and we never heard of him again.
Some conductors manage to wheedle their way around the old ladies and moneybags on the board. The orchestra is often consulted by giving them a score sheet to fill in. Sometimes the board heeds it but sometimes they do not.
In self-run orchestras they always choose their own conductor, and even that way is not infallible.
One day a little knot of us were gathered around Victor de Sabata, the director and chief conductor of La Scala Opera, Milan, and someone asked him how La Scala chose its young conductors. De Sabata said that after extensive tests the young tyro would sweep up the stage for the first seven years, occasionally assisting established conductors at rehearsals. Then, maybe, he would be allowed to take part of a rehearsal and later on a full rehearsal and a matinée. If all goes well he may be given a performance and if that is successful it could be the start a good career, but nothing is written in stone.
I was asked by a well known violinist who played no.3 first violin in the Royal Philharmonic if I would play for him in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. He was a Canadian from Montreal and had studied under de Sabata. It had taken him years to save up for the concert and the orchestra was hand picked. All the orchestra thought he had done very well particularly in Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra, a notoriously difficult piece to conduct, however, the Press panned him and that ended his conducting career. It may have been politics. I asked him if he would attempt it again, as musically it had been a great success, but he told me he couldn’t afford it and so the world lost what could have been an exceptional talent.
Sometimes a recommendation from an established conductor helps. Lovro von Matačič, a fine conductor who had been a political prisoner in Yugoslavia was recommended to Legge by von Karajan. He conducted some good performances with the Philharmonia and was also able to obtain a lot of work in Europe.
I am glad to have had a very successful and rewarding career as a bassist. I sometimes had a yen to conduct, but on reflection I’m glad I didn’t. Conducting is a dicey profession to choose. If you succeed and, like von Karajan you are also a good business man you may be able to afford a mansion, your own plane and a yacht, but at least, as a successful bassist I was able to live well and bring up two kids and pay a mortgage.
Kunst nach brot!