Much fuss has been made of the title given to Sir Simon Rattle on arrival at the London Symphony Orchestra. Unlike his LSO predecessors — Valery Gergiev, Colin Davis, Michael Tilson Thomas, Claudio Abbado, André Previn — all of whom were engaged as principal conductor, Rattle has been named music director, a position that bears serious administrative responsibilities. As Rattle put it recently in one of a dozen media interviews: ‘Valery wasn’t interested, nor Claudio. Colin loved them to bits, but he made it very clear that he did not want anything to do with the running or the auditions or the personnel… I will be much more involved with the day to day.’
But will he? Of all the erosions that have affected orchestras in the past generation, among the most significant is the progressive degradation of the music director. Once a towering despot who fired players at will and treated orchestras as personal fiefdoms — think Toscanini, Beecham, Solti — the role evolved first into a chummy primus inter pares and latterly into some way below par.
The passing of tyrants is not altogether unwelcome. Boston players still tell of the oboist who, fired in mid-rehearsal, stalked out yelling, ‘Fuck you, Koussevitzky!’ The Russian maestro, no master of English idiom, replied, ‘Is too late to apologise.’ Despotism of his kind was decidedly unappealing.
Leonard Bernstein, Koussevitzky’s protégé, pioneered a friendlier style, salting his rehearsals with Jewish jokes and, on occasion, dropping both hands to his sides and conducting by expression alone — as if to say that the conductor is a luxury item, to be sparingly used and widely shared.
By the 1980s it was common for the top maestros to be music director on two or three continents, allowing each orchestra a fragment of their golden attention.