Ivan Hewett

In defence of the tyrannical male maestro

A display of egoism and power from a conductor is often necessary for a good performance – hiring female conductors will not change a thing

In defence of the tyrannical male maestro
Tyrannical maestri like Karajan knew that some music requires a show of power – which is why audiences loved them. Image: Sipa / Shutterstock
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Praising the grand old maestri of the podium isn’t a good look, as they say on Twitter. Conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti used to be lauded for the thrilling energy and sumptuous sound of their performances and recordings. These days if anyone mentions their names it’s only to list their crimes: tyrannising long-suffering orchestral players, commanding colossal fees, and in many cases looking on any female musician who comes within groping distance as fair game.

The second of these alleged crimes I’m not so sure about. Earning lots of money is only a sign of moral turpitude if the money was dishonestly obtained. But there was nothing immoral about the sky-high earnings of Karajan. He was the top earner at his record company DG for decades, and certainly warranted his private jet. However those other crimes are indeed crimes. Bullying orchestral players, as Arturo Toscanini famously did, is appalling, and must have caused a lot of suffering. Demanding sexual favours from female musicians is abominable, and the brave calling out of conductors by women who were abused has had a wonderfully cleansing effect on the classical music profession.

But as so often happens with call-out culture, the condemnation has spread way beyond the particular individuals we know to be guilty, creating a general climate of suspicion around the target group. It is being suggested, in all seriousness, that orchestral managers now want to hire women conductors in preference to men because… well, men are men, aren’t they? They have colossal egos, they have roving eyes and hands, they’re such terrible bullies. How much better, and safer, to have a conciliatory woman on the podium.

It’s certainly true that women conductors are on the rise, and not before time. Everywhere you look — Asia, Australia, the United States, Europe — women conductors are being appointed to run orchestras, and also to the number two position of chief guest conductor. To look no further than the UK, there’s Elim Chan, principal guest conductor at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Dalia Stasevska, principal guest conductor at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and, most eye-catching of all, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

One must salute the talent, energy and determination of these women, who’ve succeeded in what is still a male-dominated world. But I’m sceptical of the idea that the arrival of women will lead to a total transformation of the orchestra-conductor relationship. Audience expectations haven’t changed; they still want conductors to put their personal stamp on performances, and that can’t happen entirely through negotiation. Elias Canetti’s observations about the absolute power of a conductor in the moment of performance still hold true, even if it’s a woman on the podium. Because of that, the job will attract women who enjoy the exercise of that power, just as it attracts men who enjoy it. So sparks are bound to fly in rehearsal, as they always have done. To pretend that the banishing of the male maestro will turn orchestral rehearsals into bowers of sweetness and light, presided over by women conductors who are never competitive or domineering and are always models of quiet-voiced tactfulness, is just naive.

In any case, there’s no escaping the fact that with some music any conductor, male or female, has to make a display of egoism if the performance is to succeed. In a performance of a Mahler symphony, one of the jobs of the conductor is to show the audience what to feel. And this showing is absolutely bound up with the exercise of power. A modestly efficient, self-effacing performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony would simply be a bad performance. It must be heaven-storming, and it’s the conductor who must lead the charge, from the front.

Those tyrannical maestri understood that truth very well, which is why audiences loved them — including, I suspect, many of those critics who now castigate them for their bad behaviour. In the privacy of their homes, when they’re sure no one’s looking, do these stern moralists sometimes pull down a CD of Leonard Bernstein or Georg Solti from the shelf, and wallow in that gorgeous, thrilling, testosterone-fuelled sound? I bet they do.