Waving a stick

9th October 2009 | Concerts, Daily Life, Musings | 0 comments

Philippa Ibbotson’s article in Wednesday’s Guardian about ‘the myth of the maestro’ has stirred up a lot of interest. Last time I looked, there were about 130 comments on the Guardian blog. The article questioned the enormous fees paid to orchestral conductors, especially at a time when those fees represent ‘a large slice of a dwindling cake’.

Although the article made some good points, it glossed over the fact that most of a conductor’s work is done in the rehearsals, rather than in the concert itself. The course of the performance is determined largely beforehand and behind closed doors. The conductors who can radically affect the performance during the concert itself are rare (though they do exist). What the public actually sees (‘someone beating time’) doesn’t supply enough information to make a judgement on the conductor’s musical or human skills. We should remember, too, that behind the scenes those resident conductors have many other duties: programme planning, artistic direction, administrative questions, fundraising responsibilities.

The article seemed to confuse two different points: what effect a conductor can have on a performance, and how much conductors are paid. This recession certainly seems a good moment to debate the latter. There is a vast and, in many musicians’ views, unjustifiable differential between what orchestral players are paid and what the conductor gets. The combined wages of the entire 80-piece orchestra are often considerably less than what a top conductor earns. How have we arrived here? I once read that in the former Yugoslavia it was illegal for the top people in a firm to be paid more than ten times the wages of those at the bottom. Wouldn’t a policy like that be fairer?

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