Hitting Some High Notes in Conducting the Classics


In writing the other day about Andre Previn’s frank conversation with bright students after a Philharmonic concert, I probably exposed my musical ignorance and my awe of big-time conductors.

They are the ultimate authoritarians; who else can command the exquisite and simultaneous response of 100 artists merely with a flick of a baton? Who else can decide what novel interpretations to give to Mozart’s music, and then do it?

Previn is a young man; but if he runs true to form, he will still be conducting in his 80s, and will probably live into his 90s. Longevity seems to be a reward of life on the podium. Arturo Toscanini lived to be 90; Leopold Stokowski, 95; Eugene Ormandy, 86; Bruno Walter, 86; Sir Thomas Beecham, 82; Pierre Monteux, 89; Arthur Fiedler, 85.


I don’t know what accounts for this phenomenon. Probably the act of conducting itself, which requires a vigorous exercising of the upper body, promotes good health and, consequently, a long life.

Or it may be that a constant exposure to great music in itself has both an invigorating and a soothing effect on the conductor’s emotional health, producing and relieving stress at the same time. I suppose that most musical illiterates, like me, have wondered whether the orchestra would play just as well if the conductor were not conducting. We all remember that Harry James, Glenn Miller and most of the other big-band maestros used to turn their backs on their bands periodically, producing no noticeable disorder.

On the other hand, an orchestra of 40 or 100 musicians, depending on the piece being played, surely needs a conductor to avoid the anarchy that many individual artists would undoubtedly slide into if left to themselves, and to work them into a cohesive and harmonious whole.

I remember seeing a movie in which the fine British actor Ralph Richardson was an eccentric old gentleman who played classical records constantly and went about his home conducting. He was incredibly inept. None of his motions were at all synchronized with the music. So, obviously, not just anybody can do it.

On the other hand, there is a popular notion that the conductor is unnecessary. Milton Narwitz sends me a clipping from the sports section reporting that when Pittsburgh Steeler Coach Chuck Noll was asked to guest-conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra he sent Steeler business manager Joe Gordon to ask the orchestra members what was expected of him.

Gordon reported back: “I asked them what you’d have to know, and they said, ‘Nothing.’ The musicians don’t pay any attention to the conductor anyway.”


“Sounds like football,” Noll said, and took the job.

“It confirms what I have maintained for 60 of my 80 years,” says Narwitz. “The orchestra before the conductor are all experts and--in following the score--will get the same result.”

That is, of course, an attitude that is easily espoused by us ignoramuses. But anyone who has ever watched Zubin Mehta work an orchestra into a frenzy with his herculean calisthenics has to believe they couldn’t do it without him.

By the way, Duke Russell sends me a clipping from The Tidings, which shows that music has its Casey Stengels. Music critic Henry Roth recalls a number of non sequiturs and syntactical gems collected by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra from the lips of Eugene Ormandy.

The maestro is said to have inquired, “Who is sitting in that empty chair?” Also, “Why do you always insist on playing when I’m trying to conduct?” And this: “If you don’t have it in your part, leave it out, because there is enough missing already.”

It is perhaps irrelevant to this subject, but I’m afraid that if I don’t tell this story now I will never be able to work it in. Recently, condensing the plot of “Tosca,” I noted that in the end the soprano jumps off a parapet to her death, out of sight. I guessed that she jumped into a net.

Oliver McBain recalls a performance of Tosca (he thinks it was Scottish Opera) in which the management had arranged for Tosca to jump down onto a trampoline, instead of into a net. “In an unusual twist to Puccini’s original intentions,” he writes, “Tosca bounced back for one final look at her beloved Caravadossi.”


I’d rather have seen that than to have heard Caruso sing “O Sole Mio.”