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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Conductorless Orchestras?

I have an idea, albeit a radical one. Perhaps the glorious age of the symphonic conductor is past. We should fire them all.

It's unclear to me what conductors do. It's a mysterious profession. Once the music has been rehearsed and the hard work is done, why is there a public fixation on the bandleader in the penguin suit? Professional musicians can keep time pretty well on their own. The status of the conductor has risen enormously both in prestige and public visibility in recent decades, and it has gotten to a point where you gotta wonder if they earn their outrageous salaries. A few people are beginning to question if the tuxedo-clad jet-set maestros do little more than wave their arms as they mime carefully choreographed and scripted expressions of pathos and passion. Of course a big name will bring in an audience and sell tickets, but do we really need them, or are they simply dead weight?

There is historical precedent for doing without a conductor. In the post-revolutionary years beginning in 1922 in the USSR, a renowned conductorless symphony orchestra formed by leading musicians from Moscow thrived for a decade. It was called Persimfans (short for Pervïy Simfonicheskiy Ansambl' bez Dirizhyora or "First Conductorless Symphony Ensemble"). The musicians eschewed the dictatorial baton of a leader in favor of music by committee, and all members of the orchestra were considered equal under their Marxist ideology (Except perhaps for the violists?)

Closer to home, the long-established Grammy Award-winning Orpheus Chamber Orchestra of NY seems to do fine without a conductor - even with tricky repertory from the late-Romantic and contemporary periods. A self-governing organization, Orpheus was founded in 1972 by cellist Julian Fifer with the idea that musicians should rotate musical leadership roles for each work. Their innovation has been honored by the organization WorldBlu, Inc. which lists Orpheus among the most "Democratic Workplaces." Orpheus musicians are no stranger to new music either, commissioning works from: Elliott Carter, Jacob Druckman, Mario Davidovsky, Michael Gandolfi, Gunther Schuller, David Rakowski, and Peter Lieberson to name a few.

Other orchestras are following the "conductorless" trend, including the Australian Chamber Orchestra of Sydney and New Century Chamber Orchestra of San Francisco (although it must be said that these groups have prominent artistic directors that play within the orchestra).

There is also the question as to whether some conductors actually have fundamental musical ability. I'm serious! Gilbert Kaplan, the American businessman and self-made millionaire, has conducted the Mahler 2nd Symphony with practically every major symphony orchestra in the world. Yes, he is a Mahler fanatic and very well-healed, but are those all the credentials one needs to become a musical superstar, a maestro extraordinaire? It seems so. Yet, we are beginning to hear a soft and rational voice of protest from the professional music community. I found the following post by fellow blogger David Finlayson very interesting...

(David Finlayson plays trombone for the New York Philharmonic, blogs, and is a photographer).

My recommendation to orchestra's around the world is to exercise good management practices: Cut the fat - Reduce overhead - Streamline operations - Flatten the management hierarchy - Improve efficiency - Balance the budget by cutting Executive compensation - Blah, Blah, Blah.

In short, throw the bums out and get back to your primary mission statement of making music.

Make it a 2009 New Year's resolution.