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The Virtuoso Conductors.

The Virtuoso Conductors. By Raymond Holden. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. [x, 370 p. ISBN0-300-09326-8. $35.] Index, bibliographic citations, photographs.

As the demographic age of those attending orchestral concerts continues to rise in the United States, some critics make the argument that symphony orchestras in this country are like musical museums performing works primarily from the mid- to late-nineteenth-century musical canon and, as such, will eventually just whither away as audiences and financial support dies. Despite these dire predictions of the demise of "classical music," conductors still hold the world stage as the superstars of the orchestral world, flitting from one engagement to another, or acting as the music director of several orchestras at one time. The field is international: a British subject, Simon Rattle, conducts the Berlin Philharmonic; James Levine, an American, holds the baton in Munich and Bayreuth; and Seiji Ozawa regularly conducts the Vienna Philharmonic. Acting as the music director for a major orchestra is no longer dominated, as it was for about 150 years, by conductors rising though the ranks of the small orchestras in Germany, Austria, and the other countries of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.

Raymond Holden in The Virtuoso Conductors describes the "dominant role, homogeneity of approach, their sense of purpose and their unique relationship with the music they performed" (p. 1) of nine conductors from the Central European region whose lives spanned the period from the mid-nineteenth century through the late twentieth century. Their contemporaries, the aficionados of Western music, held these nine in high esteem, and they helped to solidify the musical canon which forms the basis of today's orchestra repertoire. Holden anoints Richard Wagner as the Zukunftdirigent who blazed the trail for these nine to follow: Hans von Bulow, Arthur Nikisch, Gustav Mahler, Felix Wein-gartner, Richard Strauss, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwangler, and Herbert von Karajan. The basics of their biographical details are similar. Each was born into a middle class background, where their parents owned a piano, and they viewed music lessons as part of the appropriate upbringing for a child. Holden mentions that "Although serious music has a relatively broad appeal during the nineteenth century, the cost of music lessons meant that as a rule, only children from the middle class and above could aspire to a career in the arts. Ironically, however, music tended to be considered an undesirable profession by the bourgeoisie and was often shunned as a job by those who benefited from it most" (p. 11).

Hand in hand with the availability of music lessons and the family piano were the multitude of small opera houses and orchestras, some still nominally supported and subsidized by the aristocracy or the state. The plethora of small town venues provided the basis for an education in musical taste and a location where both the young aspiring musician and the ordinary citizen could hear symphonies and see staged operas for a modest price. This network served also as valuable training ground for young conductors. Holden points out that it was this multitude of venues, a hierarchy ranging from small opera houses to large ones in major European cities, rather than the emergence of music conservatories per se, which enabled aspiring conductors to acquire experience. The most talented of these musicians rose to the top as they progressed from small towns to the most prestigious venues in Vienna and Berlin.

Each of the nine conductors described gained enormous acclaim in the Western world as a great interpreter of art music and, with exception of Wagner who only toured within Europe, had engagements both in Europe and the Americas. Fortunately for posterity, these conductors (except for Wagner, von Bulow, and Mahler) reached their zenith at a time when various recording technologies advanced significantly. Today, we can view film footage of their conducting styles and hear recordings of their performances, providing us with a better visual and aural documentation of their technique and musical interpretations. (Although Nikisch's film debut is from the silent era, documentary footage of these conductors, plus a few more can be seen and heard on The Art of Conducting: Great Conductors of the Past [Hamburg: Teldec Video, 1994, 2002].)

The book is divided into chapters for each conductor, but because many of their careers overlapped, Holden weaves the narrative in such a way as to include the connections between them. For instance, von Bulow was a protege of both Wagner and Franz Liszt, and in turn he nurtured the young Strauss. Holden includes information about von Bulow's relationship with both men and briefly describes von Bulow's marriage to Cosima Liszt, the woman who became enchanted by and eventually married Wagner. The chapters cover the details about each conductor's personal trials. For example, he writes about the anti-Semitism that dogged Mahler, Walter, and Klemperer and the Nazi connections that clouded the careers of Furtwangler and Karajan. In general, however, the biographical background is skeletal. Among facts related are the names and occupations of their parents, their early music teachers, the schools and universities they attended, and the instruments they studied. The information about their personal lives is far less chatty or comprehensive than in either Harold C. Schonberg's The Great Conductors (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967) or Norman Lebrecht's The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in the Pursuit of Power (Seacaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1991).

In contrast to those publications, Holden's descriptions focus on the progression of each man's career. He includes detailed information about the opera houses and orchestras that engaged them, and the range of repertoire each of the nine chose or were assigned to perform. Holden lists whether each man conducted cycles of Beethoven's symphonies, how many times each conducted a particular opera, and the contemporary repertoire each chose to program. One gains a clear picture of the career ladder available to the best conductors. The opera houses usually had a hierarchy of two or three conductors. The least among them rehearsed the chorus, and the house management assigned them to performances of the more routine repertory or operettas. The second Kapellmeister might be allowed to conduct new works, but would not have discretion to create new productions or choose the repertoire. The Hofkapellmeister often had the discretion to produce the works as well as choose the repertoire he would rehearse and perform. Sometimes he would also have the authority to hire the set designer and stamp his vision onto a production.

Holden points out that this time period also marked the solidification of the Austro-German canon of music. Audiences and critics respected each of these conductors for their interpretations of Beethoven, Wagner, and, to a lesser extent, Brahms. Their superb performances of these works, the tempi and phrasing they demonstrated set the standard by which other conductors were judged. But none neglected contemporary music, and all programmed premieres of new works. Mahler and Strauss followed Wagner's tradition of being not only virtuoso conductors, but also composers who added works of their own to the canon. Holden points out that Nikisch also composed music and suffered the disappointment of never receiving any acclaim for his efforts in this area.

At the conclusion of the volume Holden laments the passing of this era and the system that nurtured budding conductors. I would venture to argue that the spread of music education has enabled a more international set of conductors to emerge as the new virtuosos, including Ozawa from Japan, Rattle from England, Zubin Mehta from India, and Levine from the United States, thereby allowing for a broadening of the revised canon and for a more diverse array of conducting styles.


Middlebury College
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Author:Pile, Joy
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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