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by Arthur Butterworth

Solo artists, those who play concertos, perform in chamber ensembles, choose the type of songs they sing, or more especially as conductors, enjoy that unique privilege to decide the repertoire they will or will not conduct. These are the aristocrats, "the officer class", if you like to put it that way, of the music profession. Whereas the "other ranks", the employed orchestral players, the chorus members of opera companies, and such-like underlings, the professional "musical under-class", as it were, have to play or sing what they are told, whether they like the music or not; they are paid to do so. There is no question of them saying: "Oh! I don’t much care for this stuff I’m not going to bother doing it!" unless of course they are quite content to be told by the management that their services are no longer required. On the other hand, they might yearn to perform some music that the boss, in the shape of the conductor or management, will totally ignore. Some free-lance musicians can pick and choose the kind of work they take on, but in a competitive profession it is not generally a good idea to be too fussy about what others engage you to play. You take the engagement, thankful that it will bring in the money and help to assure the management that you can be relied on in the future to jump smartly at their command.

Solo artists, however, as already remarked above, can be more selective of the kind of repertoire they choose to do; not always of course. To some extent, they too are dependent on being offered lucrative and often prestigious engagements which it would be inadvisable to turn their noses up at because the proposed solo work does not appeal to them. It is often more politic to go to the trouble of learning some new and perhaps awkward, unrewarding new work, that might never get another performance, just to establish oneself on the merry-go-round of solo performers. At least then they are likely to be recommended elsewhere if they make a good job of it.

The more celebrated one becomes, the more choosy one can be; turning down a proposal that does not appeal to one’s own musical taste. However, even staff conductors – those in broadcasting organisations in particular – have generally been required to be willing to take on a wide variety of things that probably they themselves would not really want to do. They do the best they can with uncongenial material. In this sense perhaps they can be compared with barristers who, in their earlier days at the bottom of the professional ladder, have to take on briefs which they might not really believe in (and this must happen a lot in some obvious criminal defence cases), and perhaps knowing that they are not likely to win. At least they are getting paid for their expertise. So, some staff conductors are occasionally in this situation. However, there are many situations where a conductor, even in the realms of amateur music-making, has more or less a free choice as to what he or she will consent to perform. It is in this situation that there needs to be some self-examination. Do I really understand this kind of music? Am I sympathetic to this composer’s style and manner? Have I the right temperament to take it on? Many distinguished conductors of earlier times would only do the music of composers they truly liked. Hans Richter was at one-time highly criticised for his addiction to Wagner and his general disdain of French music. This has often been true of others. German conductors at one time were said to believe that there was "no other music than German music" and similarly with the preference of other world-class conductors towards the music of their own national culture. To a large extent this makes sense: It would be thought that French style is best re-captured by a native French conductor; Pierre Monteux being one of the most notable of 20th century French conductors although he had a wide repertoire outside the narrow confines of French music. In Britain we generally think of Elgar and Vaughan Williams as having been done most characteristically by a Barbirolli or Boult, and of course, in more recent times by the rising generation of present-day British conductors. Similarly Sibelius is usually thought of as being best in the hands of young Finns.

With all this in mind, what should conductors – especially those in the realm of amateur music – choose to do? Lots of amateurs have big ideas, yearning to do this and that because they have heard it somewhere, and building castles-in-the-air, think that they too are capable of doing it. But enthusiasm is not enough: one needs not only a genuine admiration for a piece of music, but in order to be able to perform it convincingly and eloquently, be able, like a barrister, to be a convincing advocate for its style and emotional message. This is often sadly lacking. If you are a demure, rather modest and of a retiring, studious disposition maybe you might be able to direct a convincing performance of – say – a delicate piece by Fauré or some other example of quiet and introspective music, but probably a violent, extrovert ballet score is not for you, since perhaps you do not yourself possess the personality to inspire others how to perform it under your baton. The organist or choirmaster who, having spent a life-time in the cloisters, is an expert authority on English cathedral music: Purcell, Blow, Greene, Tomkins or the anthems of John Wesley might not fare very well in the rough and tumble and riotous life of the theatre pit with Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein or Gershwin. Orchestral organisations are aware of the suitability of the conductors they invite; like actors chosen for particular roles, it is a matter of "horses for courses".

Training of conductors could usefully investigate personality, and social aptitudes, and in the widest sense, business management skills, since being a conductor requires just such shrewdness, tact, diplomacy and not least a degree of ruthlessness too. The rostrum is no place for shrinking violets.

Arthur Butterworth




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