Ask A Conductor

I’m not a huge hashtag twitterer; even Follow Friday is a little too regimented for me. I prefer to just let the tweets fly as the spirit moves me, although I do appreciate the occasional self-reflexive hashtag punchline (a favorite from occasional NMBx commenter jnarum: Pumpkin pies in the oven. One for me and one for @colinholter. Just kidding. #twoforme). However, I saw a hashtag last week—#askaconductor—that I just couldn’t pass up:

@colinholter #askaconductor Why do so many high-profile conductors of American orchestras come from Europe?

Sure enough, in short order I received an informative response:

@sashamakila: @colinholter #askaconductor The best education is in Europe, also the longest traditions in classical music. that’s a fact.

Wow. Well, I guess that settles it—it has nothing to do with the vestigial prestige of European music and musicians in America; it’s a simple matter of the superiority of European training. And it is, apparently, a fact that Europe has the “longest traditions in classical music.” (Do any ethnomusicologists want to fact-check that one for us? I feel like gagaku and Hindustani classical music are probably competitive, just off the top of my head.)

I’ve had the good fortune to work with a handful of European conductors and a few American ones, and I have to say, I certainly don’t feel that the Europeans have a self-evident edge. In the past year I’ve gotten to collaborate in various contexts with three young American conductors—Eli Wirth, Shanti Nolan, and Bob Whalen—all of whom are extraordinary talents and beneficiaries of first-rate educations obtained in the States. This is not to say that European conductors aren’t also great; I have nothing but respect and gratitude for them, and if any of them wants to commission a piece from me I would be more than happy to oblige. I just don’t think it’s “a fact” that European conductors are better prepared than American ones.

At the big-time orchestra level, though, a European name counts for a lot: Who better to present works written by European composers, mostly dead, some alive, than European conductors? I’m sure that somewhere out there in an administrator’s spreadsheet is a European Conductor Coefficient that models just how much a transatlantic artistic director is worth to an orchestra. I’d be curious to see this number.

9 thoughts on “Ask A Conductor

  1. holbrooke

    Colin, the idea isn’t necessarily that the training aspect of the education is superior (although this too may be true) but that talented young people are more likely to be steered in the classical direction. In the states we have a huge variety of rich traditions to choose from and people from every conceivable background. Talented students might find themselves immersed in any number of amazing musics with access to specialized teachers in those art forms. In the US there is no reason for old European music to occupy some special position in the educational system or society in general.

    It’s allot like soccer. You’ve got to figure that most of the truly talented athletes in the US don’t even considered soccer as a serious option.

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  2. lawrence

    training
    Traditionally, young European conductors are trained in the opera houses. The thinking is that if you can conduct your way through an opera, most other conducting is a piece of cake. Those opportunities are rare for conducting students in America. Just a guess, but I believe that’s the difference in training your tweeter is referring to.

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  3. BGabor

    The European Opera house training is excellent for a conductor because 1. it is gradual, typically beginning as a rehearsal pianist and then rising through conducting ranks, 2. the houses are repertory houses with long seasons, playing a wide variety of music and the orchestras play concerts as well as opera and ballet, 3. opera accompaniment is a great way to learn both precision and spontaneity, precision because you have to work in synch with all the technical and artistic departments and spontaneity because you must be prepared for anything, from a singer missing a cue to the curtain opening onto the wrong set.

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  4. colin holter

    The thinking is that if you can conduct your way through an opera, most other conducting is a piece of cake.

    In the grand scheme of all conducting challenges, this may be true, but for the purposes of new music it seems a little shortsighted unless the opera is like Prometeo or something. Does conducting Cosi qualify someone to conduct the Carter Symphony of Three Orchestras?

    Seriously, does it? I’m not a conductor. I don’t know.

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  5. lawrence

    learning
    let’s rephrase your question, Colin. Do you know of any conducting students in the US who get opportunities to conduct Cosi or Carter Music for Three Orchestras?

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  6. colin holter

    Do you know of any conducting students in the US who get opportunities to conduct Cosi or Carter Music for Three Orchestras?

    Let me put it this way: I suspect that opportunities for American conducting students to conduct Cosi (in school or community productions at least) are more common than opportunities for European conductors to do the Carter. To be honest, I don’t know what kind of things European conducting students are expected to do—I assume Cosi is in there somewhere, but I don’t have a clue whether large 20th C. orchestral pieces by American composers have a place in their curricula. I’m seriously not trying to be nationalistic here, by the way—I just don’t think there’s a 1:1 correspondence between the conducting training one gets in a European conservatory or opera house and one’s preparation to conduct pieces of contemporary music, which on a strictly professional level is what I (and, I imagine, you) need conductors to be willing and able to do.

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  7. lawrence

    I don’t want to pretend to know more than I do know, so let me begin by saying that I am talking about tradition, not current reality – about which I have very little information.

    It makes sense to assume that the best way to learn how to conduct any repertoire is to conduct that repertoire. Having said that, I think most conductors would agree that repeated efforts in an opera pit, regardless of what opera is being staged, exercise the most important muscles – aural, strategic, psychological, physical — a conductor needs.

    I’ve never heard of an American conducting student getting a shot at Cosi, but there are a lot of things I’ve never heard of. I have heard conductors tell me that Mozart operas are more difficult to conduct than Strauss operas, but that’s another story.

    If anyone out there, regardless of age or continent, is getting repeated opportunities to conduct the Carter I’d love to know about it.
    What American conducting students seem to get ample time doing is conducting small-to-medium sized ensembles in contemporary rep. It’s great experience, and obviously it is experience that living composers value. I have no reason to believe that European conducting students don’t get just as many of those types of opportunities.

    Mileage may vary of course, but I’m guessing that an intelligent, gifted conductor who has led a few Verdi operas would do better with a complex contemporary score than an intelligent, gifted conductor who has conducted small contemporary ensembles would do with a Verdi opera. In any case, the conductor who has had both experiences is the best prepared, and that is, traditionally, more the case in Europe than in the States.

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  8. BGabor

    Cosi is not such a challenge, but with Don Giovanni, you do have to control three meters at once. But I think the main advantage for new music that an opera conductor can bring is the ability to work spontaneously and to work with material that is constantly changing texture or tempo or character. Most standard orchestral repertoire doesn’t have this variety within movements.

    Many of the best new music conductors have talent for opera (start with Boulez) and many have had parallel careers in opera and new music (Jonathan Nott or David Robertson).

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  9. philmusic

    “The best education is in Europe, …”

    The above is merely gamesmanship Colin.

    Perhaps a necessity when there is so much competition for the big jobs. The orchestra is an instrument so one must learn how to play it. Of course some are better at playing it than others and of course some are better at certain repertoires.

    The point is the orchestra is perhaps the hardest instrument to learn.

    That said I generally prefer new music performances by by generalists not specialists.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s highly conductive page

    Reply

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