Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


Sir Colin Davis

THE world of western classical music suffered a huge blow on April 14, following the death of popular conductor Sir Colin Davis. Best known as president and longest-serving principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin was one of the most respected names in contemporary classical music.

Known for his interpretations of composers Mozart, Hector Berlioz and Jean Sibelius, Sir Colin was earlier considered to be a rebel among conductors, often rubbing people the wrong way with his aggressive nature. But after a fair amount of experience, he matured considerably and was hugely admired both by audiences, musicians and even young conductors whom he trained.

Sir Colin was part of a breed called the ‘celebrity conductor’, a section which actually forms a fairly small part of the overall classical music scenario. And when you talk that group, very few names come to mind.

Among the others, one could include Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Leopold Stokovski, Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti, Simon Rattle, Otto Klemperer, Antal Dorati, Kurt Masur, George Szell, Neville Marriner and Mumbai’s very own Zubin Mehta. There are also those who have conducted orchestras but are largely known for their mastery as instrumentalists — people like violinist Yehudi Menuhin, pianist Daniel Barenboim, cellist Msitslav Rostropovich and pianist-composer Andre Previn.

Across the world, there are numerous philharmonic orchestras, and therefore numerous conductors. So what makes some people more famous and respected than the others? After all, in classical music, the orchestra strictly plays whatever is written down by the composer. Unlike other forms of music, there is no scope for improvisation or individualisation.

Whether he is a celebrity or not, a conductor plays a crucial role in the overall picture. And the biggest barometer to gauge his importance lies in the fact that whether one is attending live concerts or listening to recorded music, audiences are normally interested in four names — those of the composer, the composition, the orchestra and the conductor.

Each orchestra also consists of a large set of very talented musicians. But rather unfortunately, their names are normally unknown to the audience, unless they play a concerto, where one instrumentalist gets a lead role, or unless the conductor specially announces their names for playing a known passage, or unless they are celebrities in their own right.

In 20th and 21st century classical music, the conductor has had many roles to play. Let’s look at some of them:

  • He acts as the face of the orchestra, even though in concert, he has his back to the audience.
  • He selects and mentors the musicians, whatever instruments they play.
  • He decides the choice of the orchestra’s repertoire and specific programme. Thus, he has the power to influence the musicians on the way they express themselves, and even learn and play rarer pieces to add variety.
  • He is completely knowledgeable of a large variety of compositions, getting into granular detail about each note played by each instrument and even suggesting ways to make it sound more beautiful to the audience.
  • He is the backbone of each rehearsal session, guiding the musicians over matters such as timing, volume and expression, so that when they actually perform in front of an audience, the show is flawless. One mistake by one musician in a 100-piece orchestra, and the conductor is blamed.
  • In a live set-up, he ensures coordination in timing, especially during the start of a piece. With his sheer presence, he motivates and inspires the musicians, even though most of them don’t look at him, but at their music sheets instead.
  • He is an authority on auditorium acoustics, and knows how to produce the best sound at vastly different venues.
  • He trains younger musicians on the art of conducting, thus acting as a role model.
  • He acts as a team leader, encouraging camaraderie among musicians, and even ensuring that there are no personality clashes that would affect both the performance’s quality and the orchestra’s image.
  • He’s an expert manager, actually playing the role of a chief executive officer.

Despite all this, there are many who believe that the conductor is just a mere figurehead who sways to the music with his baton to attract the audience!

Anyway, that brings us to our main point. What makes some conductors better-known than others? Why do only some of them make it to the celebrity league? And strangely, why haven’t we seen any women in our list of conductors?

The third question doesn’t have any logical answer. Even though women like Marin Alsop and Simone Young have broken the gender barrier, conducting primarily remains a man’s job. The only reason one can think of is that traditionally, men have taken the initiative of managing large orchestras, and that’s something that has just stuck on.

Now, let’s talk of big names as against not-so-big ones. There are a few reasons why some conductors become celebrities. One is their overall personality, right from their looks to their demeanour to their communication skills to their media-friendliness. Take Bernstein, Karajan, Rattle, Mehta or Sir Colin. Both on and off stage, they looked special.

The second is their interpersonal and management skills. The better they were with such qualities, the more likely they stood a chance to stay at the top for long. With the number of years they put in, they came to be identified with their orchestras and even with the music of specific composers whose pieces they often conducted.

Finally, there’s the orchestra’s name and prestige. As mentioned, there are numerous orchestras around the world. Most of them are really talented. But some of them carry a larger weight because of their location or track record.

Anyone conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra or Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and even reputed orchestras like Royal Concertgebouw and Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra would be more visible and more prolific than some of the lesser-known but equally talented orchestras scattered across the globe.

Besides all this, the celebrity conductor would be perfect practitioners of the roles mentioned in bullet points above.

Like the others mentioned, Sir Colin fit all the requirements of a celebrity conductor. The classical world has lost a gem, and one hopes the younger lot of conductors and musicians draws huge inspiration from his achievements.


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