“I have been doing this job for 50 years. And you know, it is a profession and it is not a profession. It’s very obscure sometimes. What makes a good conductor? What is this thing about charisma? I’m still wondering after all these years.” Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink, 82, who would feature on any list of our greatest living orchestral conductors, is about to go on stage in the concert hall in Lucerne to lead his masterclass in conducting. If he doesn’t know the answer to the essential question, what do you need to make it as a maestro, what hope have his young students got?
And there are bigger questions even than Haitink’s: not just what makes a good conductor, but what do they do in the first place, and why does musical culture need them? Conducting is that strangest of jobs, something central to the vast majority of orchestral performances, and yet the men and women on the podium up there don’t make a sound. On the one hand, they’re mute time-beaters who can’t be part of the notes you hear an orchestra play. On the other, they determine the way the orchestra plays: how the players interpret the notes of the symphony in front of them is entirely down to what the conductor does, to the connection between that person on the podium and the musicians in front of them.
The seductive thing about conducting is that it looks so easy. It’s much simpler to do an impression of somebody waving their arms about and emoting to the music, and imagine you’re Arturo Toscanini or Carlos Kleiber, than it is to do a take-off of Horowitz playing Rachmaninov on the piano. How hard can conducting really be?
Very, very hard, as it turns out in Lucerne. From more than 170 applicants for Haitink’s conducting course, 25 are chosen to attend the masterclass, where a final audition produced a mere seven “active participants,” who get to work with Haitink and a full-size orchestra for three days. The remaining students watch from behind the orchestra, picking up what they can from Haitink’s wisdoms and the successes and failures of their colleagues.
It’s tough enough just to get to the starting block of the masterclass, and what follows is even tougher. The young participants — from Russia, Spain, Venezuela, Denmark, Romania, the US and Hungary — are already experienced conductors in their own right. But the masterclass situation in Lucerne has unique terrors. Imagine how you would feel: an orchestra of seasoned, cynical pros in front of you, analyzing every flick of the baton; an audience behind you (all of the sessions in Lucerne in April were public); and one of the world’s great conductors on your shoulder.
It’s no surprise the first sessions with the orchestra are nerve-racked and tentative. Rafael Payare from Venezuela (you’ll recognize him if you’ve seen the Simon Bolivar Orchestra play — he’s their curly-haired principal horn, as well as an emerging conductor) conducts the tempestuous first movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony with a strange restraint, as if he’s scared to do anything wrong by Brahms or by Haitink. “Try, don’t give up,” Haitink attempts to reassure him; “in the forte music, you are too gentle. Too gentle. You need to be more gutsy.” The players of the expanded Festival Strings Lucerne are underwhelmed but courteous to Payare, and then it’s on to Adam Cser from Hungary. You couldn’t accuse Cser of holding back his enthusiasm for the finale of Brahms’ Symphony: he’s full of big, wild gestures that teeter on the edge of excess. “You remind me of my beginning time,” Haitink subtly chides him. “You do far, far too much. If you do that all the way through the piece, there will be nothing left, and you will get the wrong sound from the orchestra.”