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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 10/04/2011

Of conductors, youth, and performance

Last week, the tireless Norman Lebrecht posted on his blog that yet another young Venezuelan conductor has gotten a European orchestral post: Christian Vasquez is going to the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra in Norway. Vasquez is another product of the El Sistema training system that spawned Gustavo Dudamel; and El Sistema and Dudamel are among the most hallowed names in the classical music world these days, evoking the ever-popular idea of making the world better through classical music on the one hand, and young star power on the other.

For conductors, is tyranny a thing of the past? In this podcast, Norman Lebrecht, Jesse Rosen, and I discuss autocratic conductors with Naomi Lewin on WQXR.

Dudamel is in a long tradition of charismatic youngsters from around the globe. Leonard Bernstein, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Sergiu Celibidache, Zubin Mehta are just a few of the many artists who began young and went on to big careers -- though not all to the kind of greatness predicted for them. The difficult thing about evaluating even the most gifted young conductors is trying to predict how their particular blends of technical skills and musicianship and charisma may or may not play out as they mature.

The conducting competition at Besançon, France, as presented by Arte.

So what does one look for in a young conductor? I had ample opportunity to ponder this question in September as a member of the jury of the 52nd international young conductors competition in Besançon, France, winnowing down a group of 19 finalists (selected from more than 230 candidates in four preliminary rounds) through five rounds of competition to a single winner. Yuki Kakiuchi, age 30, from Japan, won the prize, which includes 12,000 Euros and conducting engagements with a number of orchestras.

A competition, of course, is an artificial situation. An active conductor is seldom judged on a mere 12 minutes of music (as the first-round finalists were at Besançon), or asked to play a cross-section of the repertory, from Beethoven to opera to the world premiere of a new work, in a few days. This competition was a decathlon rather than a single event; and no one is equally good in all areas. Listening to the same pieces played again and again (in itself a fantastic exercise in focus), the jury members were all faced with the same existential questions. How do you rate the candidate who is exceptional in some repertory but subpar in others against one who is quite good at everything but never stands out? Do you advance a candidate who has a lot to say as an artist but whose technical abilities are shaky, at the expense of one with supreme technical command but little personality? Can you predict, based on a single performance, how someone will emerge in another, longer hearing?

The situation may be artificial, but the questions aren’t artificial at all. In fact, they’re the questions that orchestras are asking themselves all the time. Do you want a music director who offers passion and conviction at the expense of technical finesse (like Christoph Eschenbach)? Is it better to offer outstanding music-making and musicianship (like Yuri Temirkanov) or outstanding communication skills (like Marin Alsop)? Can charisma outweigh technique? Should you listen to the audience’s response, even if they respond to different factors than musicians might? (At Besançon, the audience vote went to the Greek conductor Stamatia Karampini, who at her best was an arresting artistic presence on the podium.)

Artificial or no, the competition did mirror, in microcosm, the grind of a conductor’s life: the constant pressure to be great, even in repertoire outside your comfort zone; the challenges of communicating with the orchestra (including dealing with a player who doesn’t hold much stock in your approach); the vagaries of a rehearsal process that can sometimes, in refining the music, also turn down the flame of inspiration until the performance is an anticlimax.

It also offered the model of overnight success that audiences (and editors) so love: after all the hard work, a single winner is crowned, and a young artist is thrust into the spotlight. The big break of the talented young artist is the stuff of legend: Bernstein jumps in and leads the New York Philharmonic, and a star is born. The winner at Besançon this year, Kakiuchi, won because he rose to the challenge and brought his A game at just the right moment.

But overnight success is a myth even for competition winners: the grind of the competition is a better measure of success than the glowing single performance. Success in the orchestra world is the result of years of work at places like the Stavanger Symphony. Some past Besançon winners have ended up in prominent posts with name recognition, like resident conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Lionel Bringuier); others are working conductors who aren’t established on the big-time international circuit, like the general music director of the Regensburg Opera, Tetsuro Ban.

The other competition myth is that the best musician will make the best conductor -- something that, in today’s orchestral world, is less and less true as leaders are called on to be charismatic communicators not only with their musicians, but with their communities (something Jesse Rosen, Norman Lebrecht, and I discuss in the WQXR podcast linked above). In the end, there’s no better measure than a great performance. What “performance” means, today, remains open to question.

By  |  12:00 AM ET, 10/04/2011

 
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