Conductors: Is It Feast Or Famine?

Yesterday’s post about recent events in San Antonio sparked some interesting comments regarding the current supply and demand of quality conductors. In fact, some readers believe that an ensemble like the San Antonio Symphony should favor hiring conductors that have more of a born-and-bred element over bringing in someone from the outside…

The issue sparked a good series of comments but with regard to the current supply and demand status of conductors, I’m not aware of any study that concluded there is any sort of shortage of good conductors. Instead, I make my determination based on numerous conversations I have with professional orchestra musicians and managers, many of which seem to feel that there aren’t enough conductors to fill the number of available slots throughout the U.S.

As such, I want to present the following questions:

  • Are there not enough qualified conductors to go around?
  • If so, are under-qualified conductors being overpaid and making unreasonable demands on smaller budget orchestras?
  • Are orchestra board’s too susceptible to the “maestro mystique”?
  • What do you think?

Even though this issues has been discussed at Adaptistration before (with regard to the issue of music director compensation) this is an absolutely worthwhile topic to return to in the here-and-now. Give the comments from yesterday a read and then send in a comment and share your observations and thoughts.


About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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12 thoughts on “Conductors: Is It Feast Or Famine?”

  1. I believe that before any meaningful discussion can begin on this topic, the term “qualified” must be defined. Musicians, boards members, and audience members differ on this term and those who select music directors often are governed by one side only. The recent news in San Antonio shows how “qualified” is defined by a very small group of non-musicians. In other cases, “qualified” means to not rock the boat or to be an extremely successful fund-raiser or to be middle-of-the-road in music-making, managing, and programming. I don’t believe that any one group (musicians, board, community, etc) can define “qualified” by themselves. A comprehensive definition must be made and the value of each “qualification” must be assigned in order to give appropriate weight to each factor. Otherwise, any opinion will be incomplete and therefore meaningless.

  2. Good points Greg, however, I think good discussion can still exist so long as individuals do an adequate job at defining their opinion of “qualified”.

    I don’t think there will ever be any universally applicable definition so in this case, merely defining the perspective of an opinion should suffice.

  3. I believe that there are enough “qualified” conductors to go around. What seems to be in short supply is the charismatic “A-list” conductor equally skilled with selecting and conducting engaging repertoire as they are with being the figurehead for fund-raising used by unimaginative Boards of Directors. Essa-Pekka Salonen comes to mind as an example of this type of “A-list” conductor. I believe that Boards of Directors are as equally influenced as the general public with regards to the foreign accent phenomenon, much the same as advertisers selling high-end automobiles using British-accent voiceovers. Given two equally qualified conductors, one with a foreign accent and one with a regional American accent, I believe that most smaller budget orchestra boards will opt for what makes them “look” better than what will make them SOUND better.

  4. As far as I’m concerned, any conductor that is technically sound, is reasonably adept at programming, able to run smooth rehearsals, and improve the quality of the orchestra should be considered a “qualified” Conductor.

    In that respect, I’m certain that there are more than enough candidates out to fill all the positions. The problem I see isn’t in a lack of qualified conductors, but rather unqualified board members, orchestra administrators, and marketing departments who are not doing their jobs. When attendance decreases or fund raising stalls out, they think the fix is to find a dynamo for the podium. They put too much on the shoulders of the Music Director.

  5. The answer to all the questions is Yes. Part of it is the dearth of good training programs for young conductors. Part of it is that there are a very, very few Artist Management corporations who exploit both conductors and orchestras alike (remember AT&T?). Part of it is today’s jet-set society (sure, I can do a concert here tonite and another on another continent tomorrow! What the hell – that’s what my management said…..).

    Frankly we need to stop arguing the questions and need to start posing answers.

    We need better training programs in the music schools, and especially with orchestras, to promote young conductors trying to learn their craft.

    Orchestras, Board members, and the public need to stop believing propaganda put out by the huge mega-management companies and actually support performers who make music rather than headlines.

    And we all should really, really, really question the idea that anyone, no matter how talented, has the ability to service three, four, sometimes five different orchestras simultaneously as Music Director.

    God help me, I’ll probably be ostracized from the business for saying it, but it’s the truth. As someone worried about the future of Classical music I’m trying to do my part. We have instituted an Assistant Conductor position at my orchestra. I pay no attention to propaganda (don’t even read my own) and try to hire people simply based on talent and good music making. And no, I do NOT have Platinum Rewards status with NorthWest Airlines.

    Funny enough, I know there are a lot of conductors out there who feel the same way as I do but who are caught up in how the business functions. Maybe in some mythic future we shall get back to the idea of one conductor, one orchestra, who promotes young musicians (and young composers!), and who does it for the music rather than to see their name in lights. Frankly, as much as I enjoy making music with orchestras around the world I enjoy being home with my kids even more. Despite the pressures of the system I’m determined to see them grow up and know me as a Dad first and as a conductor a very, very, very distant second. Of course, now my eldest is taking violin lessons. God help us all!!!

    Bill Eddins,
    Music Director,
    Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

  6. It seems to me that it is specious, if not ridiculous to say there are not enough qualified conductors. Russia alone must produce a dozen or more a year.

    As was stated eloquently, the issue is in the loaded term “qualified.” When you decide based on talent, artistry, musicianship, there are many conductors who are never even considered for these positions, perhaps because they are not represented by the major management firms.

    These firms (CAMI and such) have been poisoning the musical scene in America for decades, and it is time it was stopped.

    I saw several guest conductors here in Philadelphia who were luminous, yet we got stuck with Chrisoph Eschenbach. (Fruhbeck de Burgos, Pretre, Dutoit, Temirkanov, Chailly.) After removing managements from the equation, then you have journalists with sometimes shallow musical backgrounds, who seem to think it is a horse race or ball game, and are busy handicapping presumed favorites, and trying to predict who the next hitter will be.

    The discrimination against older, masterful conductors is a sin and a shame. Franz Welser-Moest, despite his ample charm, conducted one of the most memorable concerts I attended here, because it was so callow, uninformed, lacking in perception and style, all the signs of being far too youthful for such an important position.

    I am hopeful still, that we may get to have the wonderful maestro Fruhbeck de Burgos here, as he is the finest conductor I know of today, and Not Too Old, as one journalist suggested(!). New York has been so lucky to have had Maazel (Maazel Tov).

    I was friends with a gifted Russian conductor who was basically stranded in the U.S. for eight or more years, and could not get a conducting gig to speak of, even drove a limousine for a while, until he was able to return to Russia. Anyone who says there are not enough conductors is truly just not looking hard enough.

    So, laziness is another reason for this situation, narrow-mindedness, relying on other people’s gossip (word-of-mouth/pipeline), and, oddly enough, still a lack of sufficient conducting training programs in our conservatories. Perhaps we will see a change when Curtis hires a new teacher of conducting.

    Another fine conductor:
    Stewart Kershaw of the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

    No, administrators and such are too hung up “career arc” and such concepts. Perhaps we should just leave the choosing up to the musicians and the audiences alone, for who else does it matter more too? Who else is it all done for? Certainly not the administration, the board, the donors. No, they must be giving to support that relationship, not stifle it.
    ( I tried to introduce paragraph breaks, but was not allowed.)

  7. Bill Eddins has hit it right on the money, just as society goes through change and the way we assimilate information, deal with social problems and justice or receive entertainment, education etc.. so must we adapt as music directors to make what we do and what our orchestras provide adequately serve the people in our communities.

    Every orchestra is different, we are not in a global industry, each orchestra is it’s own small business and usually the only one in town which has it’s own unique problems. The role of an orchestra should be as a community service organization with it serving the community not the other way round. While Henry Fogel goes and talks to Curtis students about the future of orchestras, he needs to understand that those students will be in an orchestra if a: they don’t make it as a soloist, b: they don’t make it as a chamber musician and c: if they are lucky enough to get in anyway as there are so few jobs! It is their 3rd choice and Henry would better serve orchestras by meeting with Mayors, City Managers, chamber of commerce presidents and Governors to help determine and guide the future role and relevance of the orchestra.

    The blame for me sits squarely on our music schools and institutions as they have plenty of classes in How (practical), What (informational) but no classes in Why. I doubt there are many if any classes that discussed the recent Knight Foundation report for instance. If by definition a Music Director is a community leader, then conducting when taught (all music for that matter as the aim is to become as relevant as virtuosic is it not?)needs to include significant components that deal with the world around us. When a new cure is discovered in medicine, do medical professors ignore it and not discuss it with their students letting them find out for themselves in 4 years when they graduate? I don’t think so.

    As Music Directors we primarily deal with a broad crossection of people and that element is being ignored in our schools. A conducting student told me last year they spent a whole semester dissecting Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and that was it! So I put it to you that there are and will be many qualified “conductors”, but very few qualified Music Directors. An assistant conductor of a major orchestra programs his children’s concerts primarily with the idea that he needs to practice repertoire! Wait a second, if you are in front of a group of impressionable children, don’t we have a responsibility to help them grow as people? That is how we should program and yet if you spend a whole semester on one work in school then how are you going to learn repertoire? Music education for musicians must significantly change because after all and I have said this in a post before, what we learn right now at school is not how to do a job, playing and conducting are purely skills. Our job is touch people’s lives with music and that is not being taught.

    I have started a class here in Springfield MO at Drury University called Audience Connections which is a class in Why. This blog is required reading for the students for instance. It is a small step but it is my hope that all music students one day take classes that deal with what is actually going on. I know one thing for sure, teaching would surely change if professors were given tenure based partially on the success of their students after they graduate. Suddenly there would be plenty of classes in Why!

    Ron Spigelman

  8. I think there is a flaw in the set-up of this topic as most respondants equate conductors with music directors. They are two separate jobs and I concur with those who feel there are ample conductors of merit out there, in fact far too many to be well served with opportunities.

    Music directors serve a different community-building role and, as such, don’t come from a background in music but from PR. The paring of these skills is a forced marriage and one that I find hard to defend. There are certainly talented superheros and heroines with the capacity to do both, but they are the exception and in that dual role we are well short of a quorum to serve symphony orchestras.

    My question to this has always been, why care? Place the music in the hand of a conductor and leave community building to others. The product is bound to be better. The cult of personality is an affectation not music, and we should shed ourselves of this outdated pop culture concept.

  9. It’s important to distinguish between “qualified” and “well-known.” The conductor “A-list,” just like the film-star “A-list,” is quite small, perhaps by design.

    But there are plenty of actors – and surely plenty of conductors – who are capable of doing great work even if they don’t have big names. The challenge is to identify and engage these people.

    With regard to music directors living in the city where they conduct, while I fully appreciate the rationale of boards who want to have a music director reside in the community and be the orchestra’s public face, I believe this is a poor strategy. Orchestras should be about the musicians who stay, not the conductors who come and go. Great orchestras may engage great conductors, but their reputations can survive the departure of any music director.

    Boards should also realize that a music director who gets too firmly planted in the community and fails to develop an outside career may prove tough to dislodge if the relationship deteriorates, since he/she may be quite powerful in that job, but unable to get hired anywhere else. Be careful what you wish for.

  10. There probably are many great musicians out there conducting. However, there are not many great conductors. Unless you are in the top 15 orchestras you may only see one a year at best. I think that maybe the high level of playing has lulled many mediocre conductors into a false sense of artistic security. It may have paved the way for a new breed of conductor that has only marginial skills on the podium but better skills as an institutional leader. I am less concerned that boards are looking for the perfect person but that they do not look to assemble a team to support the strenghts and make up for weakness of their maestro.

  11. To survive and thrive, a symphony requires money. Money, of course, can come from any of multiple sources:

    1) dead patrons via legacies and other donations to endowment funds

    2) living patrons willing to donate to endowment funds

    3) living individual patrons making annual charitable contributions, either with or without name recognition

    4) federal, state and local government funding sources, through grant and other application processes

    5) private foundations, including those that specialize in music and the arts and those that have broader social interests

    6) corporate foundations that serve as the charitable arms of major corporations with multiple agendas driving their giving programs

    7) businesses and other patrons underwriting specific performances

    8) customers buying their own tickets for themselves

    9) customers buying large blocks of tickets for others (e.g., schools purchasing tickets in bulk for their students

    10) auxiliaries and other volunteer organizations through various fund-raising activities (such as galas and balls)

    11) miscellaneous and other

    Funding sources differ in different communities, based in large part on population, the demographics of the community, and the extent to which community leaders are willing to associate themselves with the symphony by attending and visibly supporting it. The questions and challenges facing a specific orchestra governing body will reflect the unique local mix of conditions. A well-endowed symphony may be able to handle peaks and valleys in the demand for its product, as may a poorly endowed symphony backed by one or more wealthy patrons consistently willing and able to bail it out when times are rough. The San Antonio Symphony is not well endowed and has no such patrons, and none are in sight. I have heard (although I have never been able to verify) that the San Antonio Symphony permanently alienated. former major donors by hastily spending down an endowment they had built up over many years. Why would a symphony spend down an endowment? Because other funding sources may have dried up and potential funding sources may have required the spenddown before increasing or continuing past levels of contribution for a mismanaged and failing venture? There is always a story, and the San Antonio situation will never be understood unless the full story is revealed — warts and all.

    When Larry Rachleff was hired, the Symphony was either in or on the verge of bankruptcy. Everyone knew that increases in both audience attendance and contribution levels from major donors would be necessary, and even that would not restore an endowment spent down in violation of the trust created by earlier donors.

    So what role should be expected of the orchestra’s board, its CEO, its development personnel, its advertising and PR personnel, its conductor, its music director, its assistant conductor, and different funding sources in the community? That is what the current debate is about.

    In San Antonio, the orchestra tried a rather silly “cult of personality” ploy by promoting itself under a cutesy “Rachleff rocks”
    theme built on a less-than-subtle pun (based on the pronunciation of the maestro’s last name — rock-leff). This, coupled with a poster of an attractive young lady wearing a “Get with the band” t-shirt and an anti-snobbery brochure apparently based on the proposition that music that might otherwise be boring and stuff becomes interesting and exciting when played by symphony under Maestro Rachleff’s direction. This was supposed to attract younger, more diverse audiences. Having tried to build on this kind of theme and not having instant success, the Symphony board apparently decided that the fault was with the Maestro because he simply wasn’t spending enough face tine in San Antonio although his face is plastered on billboards in selected locations in the community. Yet, the Board has not revealed the metrics that would relate the Symphony’s performance this year with what the Board envisioned, let alone explained what happened to the grand vision charted by its CEO and PR folks.

    The Maestro and his “rock band” delivered the music and the energy that would bring audiences back for more. No one contests that except, perhaps, people who don’t pay attention to standing ovations or are so snobby as to conclude that anyone who stands for a great performance lacks sufficient critical sophistication to make a judgment.

    Apparently, the Board and Symphony CEO and Staff think that the Maestro should “DO IT ALL” — that is, their jobs as well as his own. Rachleff and the “band” wowed the audiences with great music and excitement, but that was not the role the CEO and Board thought was needed. Perhaps they really wanted needed Eva Longoria or Max Bialystock. Seriously, though, a Board needs to determine what it expects out of all its staff and it should hold its CEO accountable for failures to deliver when, as here, it is beyond question that the Maestro’s performance matched both the Symphony’s own mission statement and its chosen, if unwise, “cult of personality” advertising theme. The problem here was that Rachleff is so good that the Board wanted more of him, even if they had no real plans as to what to do with his time and talent. Does the Board want a “rock star” to bring in teenagers to attend classical concerts? Do they want the symphony to play a concerto based on a theme by Mick Jagger? (Is there one, and if not, have they tried to commission one that is truly worth playing?) Do they want the Music Director to choose music they like, more old war horses? Do the expect him to be a sex symbol? A financier? Or do they want him to do all the roles, so they can dispense with CEOs, development personnel, and advertising personnel to bring in audiences, negotiate leases with appropriate concert venues, and play music that people will listen to no matter how poorly it is played?

    The debate teed up on this website is a valuable discussion and the issues raised should be discussed, debated, and analy0z by people in the know.

    But someone has to produce a product that people want to hear, and if it’s classical music, the maestro is responsible for getting the orchestra in shape and delivering great performances. And that, to my way if thinking, is the main role of the maestro — to make art — with the support of QUALIFIED folks who can assist in bringing in the money and managing the orchestra’s fiscal affairs wisely in view of the demand for the music in their area.

  12. There is some fine writing in the above listed commentary. As a former section player I notice that charm and charisma
    are the public component, a crisp beat and musical aptitude and fortitude are the musical components, and stamina and ego are the personal ones necessary for the job.

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