Half a century and more ago there used to be a book on British conductors by an orchestral viola player called Bernard Shore. I remember reading it for the witticisms of Beecham, but unless my memory is deceiving me I think it was a fairly superficial treatment of the question that Tom Service poses here `What is it that conductors do up there?' Beecham knew what he did - `They make the notes and I make the music.' You could leave the issue at that; but if you want a serious attempt at defining a conductor's role in greater depth I can recommend this one.
Tom Service selects six contemporary conductors, all still living (so far as I know) as I write this notice in January 2013. In his Introduction he offers one generalised statement `If conducting is about anything, it is about communication.' He keeps his insights at the fully general level only in the first chapter (on Gergiev) and the last (Abbado). Very reasonably, he looks at conducting as practised by the other four maestri from more restricted viewpoints. With all six, he is concerned with the relationship between conductor and orchestra, not conductor and audience, but I can go along with that. He has bitten off quite enough to chew as it is. Both the histrionic Gergiev and even the restrained Abbado obtain the effects they want by force or charm of personality. The age of podium dictators seems to be over (to the chagrin of Ivan Fischer) but leadership is still leadership, and although democracy has advanced among orchestral players, there are realistic limits to what can be done on a strictly consensual basis among 30, 40 or more musicians.
It has to be the same story, basically, when it comes to the other conductors, but Tom Service wisely changes his camera angle each time. I was fascinated by his account of the efforts that Simon Rattle has had to put into reconciling the (very democratised) Berliner Philharmoniker with Sibelius. In the first place I myself am such an aficionado of Sibelius that the German players' discomfort with his music is nearly unintelligible to me. In the second place Karajan (conductor for life prior to Abbado who was Rattle's own predecessor) had played and recorded much of Sibelius with this very orchestra decades ago; and thirdly an increasing proportion of the players are not even German now anyway. However, it seems there is still a hill to be climbed, and we get some glimpses of maestro Rattle climbing it. I hope he persists with the attempt: fine though Karajan's efforts were in some ways, both his general approach and the tone of this orchestra are surely rather too upholstered for Sibelius.
In some ways the most interesting chapter, although certainly the most unsatisfactory one, is the rather dry narration of Mariss Jansons coaxing what was apparently a well-received performance of Dvorak's Requiem out of the Concertgebouw. Tom Service does not choose to tell us what he thinks of the composition, but he drops enough hints that it is not exactly a crowd-puller. That is with good reason, as much of Dvorak's Requiem is in my own opinion tolerable only to the corpse. The scenario is actually rather a fascinating one - `selling' such a composition to the concertgoers of a sophisticated European capital. We do not lack for detail, as much of the players' reactions as of anything the conductor does or says, but I was still left wondering whether the seemingly enthusiastic audience was applauding the attempt as much as the music.
The chapter on Jonathan Nott is in effect just an interview, and the lengthy responses of this talkative maestro are certainly illuminating up to a point if not quite amounting to revelation. More interesting to me were the views of Ivan Fischer, who is out of sympathy with the idea of orchestral democracy and one-player-one-vote. I had not got the impression that this bothered Rattle, but perhaps he just conceals his feelings about it. Fischer thinks, not unreasonably, that anything less than wholehearted unity of purpose between band and conductor will lead to indifferent music-making, and I guess the answer is that the players have to be convinced rather than `led' in the old sense. It is bound to be the case that the playing we hear originates in the minds and hearts of the players to varying degrees and can't all be ascribed to the conductor. In the course of letting us know his philosophy, Fischer gets on to the dangerous concept of `the piece itself', which he contrasts with `interpretations'. He ought to know better. Any performance whatsoever is an interpretation, and `the piece itself' is something that can only be defined via contradictions, such as that such-and-such an interpretation is false to the spirit of the work.
However I have one recent example in mind that proves to me how a great conductor's mind and spirit can dominate a performance. What do you think of the trio of the scherzo from the Great C Major symphony? Tovey called it `one of the greatest and most exhilarating tunes in the world', which struck Arthur Hutchings in his Master Musicians volume as going over the top. Now hear Rattle do it, and you are hearing the barrel-organ from heaven itself - for all his conservatism and fixation with sonata forms and whatnot Tovey was often generations ahead of most of us in sheer musical insight. It took Rattle to show me what this passage amounts to, and you can't tell me that this insight was any joint or collective process. Well done Tom Service for this brave and sensitive effort in sharing insights with us, his own as well as his subjects'.