They conduct classical, but they love pop and rock too

Ever wonder what longhairs listen to when they let their hair down? Once upon a time, when conductors were regarded as remote intellectual titans, no one would have thought to ask. Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, once described the archetypal image of a conductor as “this inaccessible person with an accent and an ascot.”

All that has changed. At least since the 1960s, when Leonard Bernstein praised the Beatles and other pop groups, budding conductors have taken seriously the popular music of their day. And today’s conductors don’t care who knows it.

One reason for the change in attitude is the Internet, which gives busy conductors easy access to different musical genres. Another is simply that for baby boom conductors such as Alsop and Fabio Luisi, principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, pop and rock was in the air during their formative years. Even much of an earlier generation of conductors was swept up.

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The Times asked 17 conductors, ages 26 to 71, what they listen to off the podium. Most of the responses came via email, with a few done by phone. Some responses were eloquent and quirky, others short and sweet.


Alsop, 56, said she likes the 1960s and ‘70s hard rock band Deep Purple, whose music often fused rock with classical influences. “We’re as valid as anything by Beethoven,” the group’s cofounder Jon Lord, who died in July, declared in 1973.

“The connection between rock and classical is a strong one,” Alsop said. “So many people have used the same tunes — Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue,’ Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5; Holst’s ‘Mars’ from ‘The Planets,’ ‘O Fortuna’ from ‘Carmina Burana’ — as inspiration for new creations.”

Since Bernstein’s day, distinguished conductors have become outright fans of pop stars. When Luisi, 53, learned that Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk was in the audience for his 2010 Met performance of “Lulu,” he was hoping she would accept an invitation to visit him during intermission. But her shyness prevailed.

“My first knowledge of Björk’s music was through iTunes,” said Luisi, who especially admires the songs “Oceania” and “It’s Oh So Quiet.” “I love her approach to new sounds made just with her voice.”

In August, Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel, 31, shared the Hollywood Bowl stage with one of the pop music idols of his youth, Dominican star Juan Luis Guerra.

Dudamel also happens to admire Aerosmith. “I’ve downloaded everything I can by them,” he said, “and I’m amazed at their character and vocal sounds.”

Alan Gilbert, 45, the New York Philharmonic’s music director, said he’s is a huge admirer of Elvis Costello. He also avidly watches YouTube videos of pianist Art Tatum. “I’m blown away by his facility and musicality,” Gilbert said.

Richard Egarr, music director of the Academy of Ancient Music, a period-instrument orchestra based in Cambridge, England, said he’s seen Prince perform many times and has taken his daughter to concerts.

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“Prince is one of the most phenomenal people I’ve ever seen onstage,” said Egarr, 49. The early-music specialist was also blown away by a 1987 Sting concert at Wembley Stadium in London.

“Sting had just come out of Chile and had this massive array of South American percussionists with him,” Egarr, recalled, “and he just let them go.”

For Egarr, “Good musicians recognize other good musicians, whatever kind of music they play.”

Michael Tilson Thomas, 67, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, said he admires Brian Wilson’s work, and he calls Bonnie Raitt’s new album, “Slipstream,” “outstanding.”

Thomas Wilkins, 56, music director of the Omaha Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, said he is “a huge James Taylor fan.... I know the lyrics of everything he’s recorded.”

Nicholas McGegan, music director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, a San Francisco-based period performance ensemble, grew up listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. “I love Ian Dury,” said McGegan, 62, “an English punk-rock singer of great wit, with a peppery sense of humor and fun.”

The music director of the Vancouver Symphony, Bramwell Tovey, 59, said he largely avoids modern pop music, preferring “the rich vein of popular music from the years between the wars... Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Ivor Novello and Noel Coward.”

For some conductors, early pop enthusiasms failed to thrive after classical music came into their lives.

One of the most eloquent responses in this regard came from JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, who said that from age 13, her immersion in classical music became total.

“But the popular music that I heard as a very impressionable preteen will always hold a warm place in my heart and never fails to move me on a strong emotional level,” said Falletta, 58. “The songs of Simon & Garfunkel and Cat Stevens — the innocence and wonder, set against a backdrop of change and turmoil — were a defining element in my young life.”

Los Angeles Opera conductor James Conlon, 62, said he was a young fan of Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Alvin and the Chipmunks.

“Then I fell in love with and became mesmerized by classical music,” he said. “Truly, my real favorite popular songs are Neapolitan songs.”

Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony, still enjoys a band formed in 1953 in Los Angeles.

“When I was a boy, I was crazy about the Platters,” Muti, 71, wrote in an email. “Even now my grandson loves to listen to the Platters, especially ‘Only You.’ I don’t often have time to listen to music off the podium, but I have always been impressed by Céline Dion, Tina Turner and (the late) Whitney Houston for their fiery temperament and beautiful voices.”

Although pop music has become a fond memory for Conlon and Falletta, other conductors have found it useful later.

“The first time I heard James Brown’s music, it knocked me out,” said Tilson Thomas. “The attacks, the syncopation, the empty spaces, the amazing singing. When I work with young conductors, I’ll sometimes ... ask them if they’ve ever listened to Brown’s ‘Cold Sweat.’ That song is my definition of ‘together.’”

Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, who grew up having to hide his Presley and Paul Anka records from his parents, recalled walking a few blocks down Broadway after conducting his orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York to hear his eldest son’s battle metal band, Turisas.

“It was a great moment in my life,” said Vänskä, 59. “We can play loud too, but when I listened to them, my stomach felt the bass drum and bass guitar. I would like to get a similar kind of sound from the symphonists. There are things that should give exactly the same physical feeling in your body, like Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring.’”

Tenor Plácido Domingo, who also conducts and is general director of Los Angeles Opera, said he has fond memories of working with John Denver on “Perhaps Love,” a 1981 album released on CD in 1990 and still in print.

“Even today, whenever I hear his voice, I’m still awestruck by its effortless beauty and emotion,” Domingo said.

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Domingo, 71, also reflected on the road not taken. “If my voice hadn’t been suitable for opera, I would still be a singer of some kind,” he said. “I love all kinds of music, but perhaps because I grew up in my parents’ traveling zarzuela company, I especially love the music of the theater.... Singing popular music makes me feel young.”

The Detroit Symphony’s music director, Leonard Slatkin, 68, described himself as a “jazz nut” who listens to Michel Camilo, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson and Tatum when he’s on the road.

Lionel Bringuier, 26, newly appointed music director of the Zurich Tonhalle and resident conductor of the L.A. Phil, said he likes to unwind after a rehearsal by listening to jazz, particularly Armstrong and French singers, including Jean-Jacques Goldman. “They have a nice lounge-like feeling,” he said.

Stéphane Denève, 41, principal conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony in Germany, said his list of favorite pop stars includes Michael Jackson, “especially the very most groovy songs of the Jackson 5, like ‘Blame it on the Boogie.’”

Doubtless none of this would surprise Alsop. “A great tune or hook transcends genres, doesn’t it?” she said. “I remember ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’ from the disco days. I loved it, but all of my classical music friends thought it was blasphemous!”


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