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

Tyrannical maestri like Karajan knew that some music requires a show of power – which is why audiences loved them. Image: Sipa / Shutterstock

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.

With some music any conductor, male or female, has to make a display of egoism if the performance is to succeed

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.

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