What the Best Conductors and Critics Can Teach Us

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There is a well-known joke in the music world, one too long to recount here, about a blind rabbit and a blind snake. The snake does not know what he is and asks the rabbit to help him. The rabbit slides up and down the length of the snake and then gives his opinion. There are two responses the rabbit gives, depending who is telling the joke. The first is, “Let’s see. You are slimy and have no ears. Are you a conductor?” The second is, “Let’s see. You are slimy and have no ears. Are you a music critic?”

When I first heard that joke, I recognized in it certain unsavory behavioral traits that have been ascribed to particular conductors and music reviewers. But I have come to think about the best conductors and critics as having something positive in common—they have a great deal to teach us, whether we are performers or lovers of opera and classical music.

An orchestra conductor, in Italian, is called a maestro. This term connotes the leader of a group of orchestral musicians but it also means "teacher." A good conductor is not only a leader but a teacher. These roles are related but distinct. We find, in a teacher, someone who leads us but also gives us the tools to create and grow on our own. A conductor, a leader and a teacher might show autocratic tendencies, but that is not a given.

Some very fine conductors, such as Thomas Beecham and James Levine, spread and communicate the ideas of, and the love for, music in ways that do not feel like an imposition. This does not mean they are weak-willed. Rather, the people they lead respond to them because they are authoritative rather than authoritarian. In contrast, a Toscanini or van Karajan, who seemed to rule with an iron hand, had plenty to teach and could be very inspiring. The imposition of their wills probably was not the ideal means of being a teacher and not necessarily the best way of being a leader. But they got results!

What can a conductor teach? If he or she conducts opera, a conductor will immerse in the ideas, biography and history of a composer and, above all, the music. This involves study of the scores and then arriving at a vision of each opera. Many young conductors start out as a répétiteur (a woman is a répétiteuse) who will go over (repeat, as the word suggests) parts of a role with a singer. This is how the répétiteur learns the music, the needs and limitations of a singer, and how -- through observation -- a great conductor works. This is how Georg Solti began. 

Once upon a time, the best conductors taught and worked individually with singers all through their careers. It gave them the chance to impart their knowledge but also shape the opera performances they would conduct. Watch the august Karl Böhm work with Leonie Rysanek on Elektra

Nowadays, fewer established conductors do this kind of work with singers on a regular basis and opera is poorer and more generic because of this. An exception to this is James Levine and the results were always evident in the performances he led. It is my fervent hope, as he works at overcoming the medical problems that have prevented him from conducting, that he has been able to teach conductors and singers. It would mean for him an engagement in music, which he lives and breathes, and would represent an unbeatable opportunity for the artists he teaches.

Certainly, the exemplar of maestro as teacher was Leonard Bernstein. It has often been said that, as good as he was as a conductor and composer, he was even better as an educator. A particular strength was that he could inspire, and grow, audiences. He meaningfully spread the knowledge of, and love for, music, to children, adults, scholars and fellow musicians. I was one of those lucky youngsters who got to hang on Bernstein’s every word in the Young People’s Concerts he did with the New York Philharmonic. While I was often in the hall for these events, it is remarkable to think that CBS saw fit to broadcast them on prime-time television. Would any major network do that now? Bernstein was equally brilliant, but also profound, in academic settings, most famously in his series of Norton lectures at Harvard in the 1970s. 

Nowadays, one of the most able conductor/communicators is Michael Tilson Thomas, who leads Young People’s Concerts, is the music director of the New World Symphony composed of young players, and also does speeches for adults as well as participating on the "Master Class" series on HBO.

A Critical Difference

There are two rather distinct definitions of “criticism” and they can lead to confusion if one does not understand the role of the critic who does his or her job well. The primary definition of criticism is “an expression of disapproval.” The secondary definition, but the one that obtains here, is “analysis and judgment of a literary or artistic work.” When I speak of music critics in this article, I refer to the secondary definition.

The best critics can be leaders and teachers as well. Alex Ross (right), who writes for The New Yorker, pulls no punches in his opinions but his ideas are taken seriously because his erudition is obvious but not applied in a heavy-handed manner. Critics who write books such as Ross’s brilliant The Rest is Noise can teach in a longer format that way. Some of them also lecture at music schools or before audiences. Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times has carved out a valuable niche by producing videos in which he teaches, sometimes seated at the piano, about musical topics of interest to him. Brian Kellow, in Opera News, applies “analysis and judgment” of artistic works in his columns, articles and books about musicians, singers, actors, and, for that matter, critics.

Many writers who review performances do not have the cultural preparation necessary to write authoritatively and yet have found a forum in publications and on the Internet. This has the effect of lowering the esteem in which even the best critics are held. But even those writers who do have the preparation might not necessarily have the right circumstances in which to work. They are given limited space, and are expected to do a “money” review — that is, is this performance worth buying a ticket to? — rather than discuss why that performance is meaningful. These types of reviews include coverage of the opening night of an opera production that has six more performances readers might elect to purchase tickets for.

When a critic writes about a one-time event, such as a recital, she is writing for history as someone who witnessed the event and is bringing her critical and writing skills to bear on documenting that event. This can burnish or tarnish a performer’s reputation, but under the best circumstances, it can educate the reader and other performers. How can this be achieved? One approach is to try to explain what the artists aimed to do, whether that was interesting, original or valid according to the critic, and then whether the aims were achieved.

The Critic as Performer

Will Crutchfield, who used to be a critic for The New York Times, moved deliberately and with careful preparation into conducting. His conducting and teaching of the bel canto repertory is one of the highlights of the Caramoor Festival each July. He gets a fair reception in the conducting and critical communities, which is different from what certain illustrious figures faced in the past. Two famous composers/conductors who were also critics were Hector Berlioz and Virgil Thomson. They brought matchless insights to what they wrote about but some of their colleagues — critics as well as musicians — felt that they could not fully be trusted. As such, Berlioz’s and Thomson’s compositions did not receive the acclaim they merited.

Here is a fascinating conversation with Thomson in which he brings his aesthetic, by turns compositorial, conductorial and critical, to the fore:

What do you look for in a critic? Or in a conductor?