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The Music Conductor at the Grocery Store


by Jerome Weeks 3 Oct 2008

“A little more rallentando from you apples, please. Pears, that’s an eighth note at the start there … “ Just how many weeks Jaap van Sweden will spend in Dallas was a matter of discussion when he was hired to run the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Actually, the 12 (and then, later 15) weeks he’ll spend […]

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“A little more rallentando from you apples, please. Pears, that’s an eighth note at the start there … “

Just how many weeks Jaap van Sweden will spend in Dallas was a matter of discussion when he was hired to run the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Actually, the 12 (and then, later 15) weeks he’ll spend with the DSO are a pretty good run in these days of multiple posts for conductors all over the world. As Scott Cantrell wrote in the Dallas Morning News when van Sweden was appointed:

In addition to the DSO, he’ll continue his appointment with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, and he’s due to become principal conductor of the Royal Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2008.His initial DSO contract calls for him to conduct 12 weeks in the 2008-2009 season, and then 15 weeks in each of the next three seasons. His contract with the Dutch orchestra is for 14 to 17 weeks per season; the Belgian orchestra involves just seven weeks….

Once the norm, truly resident music directors, such as Mr. Litton, have become much rarer in today’s jet-set world. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recently hired Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck to lead a mere 10 weeks per season. Mr. van Zweden’s 15-week commitment to Dallas is virtually unheard of these days.

But in his Artsjournal blog, on the record, Henry Vogel, president of the League of American Orchestras, asks, just how much time should be expected? What about the conductor’s presence in the community? His commitment to it, his ‘feel’ for it?

Sometimes search committee members like to say, “It is important for people to see our conductor at the supermarket.”  Well… I’ve seen no evidence in music director successes or failures that the “supermarket factor” was a critical one. So they’ll shop once a week and run into two or three people who might recognize them. That isn’t where a conductor makes a community impact.

But he also makes this surprising suggestion: Conductors should —

— give half-again, or nearly half-again, as many weeks as they are required to be on the podium. So if a conductor is required to be there for eight conducting weeks, another three or four weeks is a reasonable expectation (and they don’t need to be consecutive seven-day weeks–let’s call them 20 to 30 additional days). It is frankly unfair to expect a conductor to spend much more time than that in town and not conducting. Everyone must remember that conductors conduct. That’s what they do–and unlike instrumentalists, who can take their instrument home and play alone, or get two friends together and make chamber music, conductors can only conduct standing on a podium in front of an orchestra. Doing that is what they need to do. …

But, and this is the important part, it is the quality of that time in the community, both during the conducting and non-conducting weeks, that can make the impact.

Read his post here.

image from outsidetheboxblog.

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  • Willard Spiegelman

    It’s easy, but now pointless, to rhapsodize over the good old days when a conductor was at the helm all the time, day in and day out. Szell in Cleveland, Ormandy in my hometown of Philadelphia, Koussevitzsky in Boston, Reiner in Chicago. The most important thing that cannot be recovered, however, is the distinctive sound of each of these orchestras. Without sufficient time to be “molded” by a conductor, each orchestra will begin to sound pretty much like all the others, although a conductor — whether resident or visiting — might be able to coax some unusual effects from his ensemble on a temporary basis. Tempus fugit; so do tempi . . .

  • While we’re rhapsodizing (easily) here, let’s not forget Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, Toscanini at NBC … or going back more to your day, Willard, Gustav Mahler in New York.

    A joke! I swear, just kidding. I really meant Bruno Walter.

    At any rate, I wonder how much of a conductor’s personal style is imprinted on an orchestra more as a factor of his length of time over the years as an orchestra’s music director, rather than the amount of time he spends with the orchestra each season. Over the long term, for instance, he can affect hiring choices. And commissions for new works. And various fundraising campaigns (to expand the size of the orchestra, for instance).

    In other words, your case for the disappearance of ‘distinctive orchestral sounds’ may have more to do with the butterfly nature of a conducting career nowadays, several appointments at once, each for only a handful of years — and less to do with a conductor moving in to a town and showing up at the hall every day, eager to beat some sense into the wind section.

    I don’t know, just throwing that out. Although now that I’ve watched van Zweden conduct and seen that wrestler’s physique seemingly try to wrench sounds out of the air, I wouldn’t put it past the sheer force of will and personality in some people to have an effect in a comparatively short period of time. A number of writers (the Chicago Tribune reporter and me, mostly) have noted the difference between van Zweden’s glowering public image and the rather affable person he seems to be in real life.

    But I’d sure hate to see him mad. He looks like he could just stare you through a wall.