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The Twenty-First Century Maestro:
An Imperative of Versatility and Dedication

by JoAnn Falletta

The following article, an edited version of a speech presented at the Annual Conference of the Conductors Guild in Washington, DC on January 9, 1998, first appeared in the Summer/Fall 1996 issue of the Journal of the Conductors Guild. It struck us as being a fine bridge between centuries and we are grateful to the author and editor of the Journal for permitting us to reprint it here.

JoAnn Falletta

One of the most vivid memories of my days as a young conducting student at Juilliard is an article lauding the mystique of a certain music director of one of the top five orchestras in our country. The maestro, the newspaper maintained, was so important and so private that he was never seen anywhere in the city except on the podium of his orchestra. Even when he left the concert hall after a performance he retreated to a favorite restaurant where a secluded table in the back room was provided for him, away from his throng of fans. The orchestra itself seemed rather proud of this — it meant, of course, that one had to purchase a concert ticket to enjoy even a glimpse of their charismatic conductor.

For my four conducting colleagues and myself, the description of the life of the maestro could not have been more dissimilar than that of our own harried existences — dealing with the scarcely concealed contempt of the Juilliard Conductors Orchestra, the scathing (and uncomfortably accurate) criticism of our teacher, the humiliation of cajoling, pleading, and bribing our classmates into forming reluctant and disorganized groups which we could subject to our incipient baton technique. For myself, fifteen years and four music directorships later, the maestro's enviable situation seems even further from reality than it did then.

I am convinced that no one leaves the conservatory with more than the sketchiest idea of the meaning of the title music director. To be honest, one scarcely knows how to conduct, in the real sense; the deepest musical understanding, analytical aptitude, and psychological skills develop slowly as one studies, works, and matures. But even the most profound grasp of a score, the most elegant physical technique, hardly prepare the young maestro for the duties that descend upon his or her shoulders the moment the Music Director Search Committee reaches its decision. We acknowledge that the choice of a music director is probably one of the most significant decisions any orchestra will make; the thought that the chosen one may have little or no idea about the actual job is cause for some alarm.

We stand at the gateway of a twenty-first century even the wildest visionary could not have accurately described at the beginning of the twentieth. As our thoughts turn, not only to the end of our own century, but also towards the millennium, it seems an appropriate time to acknowledge the amazing changes that the last hundred years have wrought in the arts. It certainly has been a period of extraordinary creative and often pragmatic artistic innovation, mirroring rapid developments in science and technology. Composers have risen to the challenge of expressing our changing world, creating new and complex works that reflect life in this century. The last hundred years have been a time of unprecedented social and political upheaval, from international conflict, through the continual redrawing of the world map to the end of the cold war. Once again, composers have responded with works that mirror the dreams and the terrors of contemporary life. In this time of rapid and unpredictable change in the arts, it is no surprise that the music director entering the twenty-first century bears markedly different responsibilities than did his nineteenth century predecessor.

Across the country, symphony orchestras are facing what appear to be the most difficult times in their collective history. Often the very survival of the institution will hinge on the skill of the maestro — not only his musical talent, but his leadership ability, interpersonal communication and management acumen in planning, scheduling, interacting with staff and musicians, dealing with conflict, and fostering feelings of solidarity, community, and common purpose. Added requirements are a broad artistic vision, a clear understanding of the musical objectives of the organization, and the courage to explore new possibilities and options coupled with the wisdom to preserve the best of tradition. Some of you may recall candidate Eugene McCarthy's response to a 1968 query as to whether he was qualified to be President of the United States. He replied that when you got right down to it, probably nobody was qualified. The same might be said for the music director at the end of the twentieth century. Probably no one has the complete set of skills the job demands. But a solid understanding of the responsibilities of the position can and should help music directors develop their personal resources within the framework of each one's unique personality and charisma.

Musical talent remains the most mysterious and least quantifiable commodity possessed by a conductor. Certainly, even an unsophisticated audience can surmise that the violin soloist has poor intonation or that the pianist is having difficulty with the technical demands of a concerto. Can most audience members assess the skill of the maestro? Does a flamboyant podium presence equate to a prodigious talent? Does conducting from memory ensure deep musical understanding? Do exaggerated tempos and dynamic changes imply a unique and revelatory interpretation? The true assessment of a maestro's musical skill often rests with the musicians over whom he or she presides. Can they play comfortably and expressively, feeling neither confined nor abandoned? Perhaps the ideal performance situation is one in which each musician can feel free to play as if on his own, yet enjoy all the while the comfort of the framework of an interpretation that makes complete musical sense. In such an ideal performance the audience senses (rather than defines) a "rightness" about the experience — a subconscious structure, a pacing, a unified artistic conception, an inevitability that creates a depth and excitement that goes beyond the surface level. Certainly, that "ideal situation" is far from commonplace. The musical understanding — and indeed, the life understanding that it presupposes — are the goals to which conductors should aspire throughout their musical lives. The deeper and broader an individual's background, the richer and more profoundly evident are both the specific, unique qualities of his work and its greater significance. Leonard Bernstein once stated that "any composer's writing is the sum of himself, all his roots, and all his influences." The same is true of the work of any conductor. The value of his music grows out of the very life of the artist himself, his own particular set of cultural and social values, the community in which he lives, the nation to which he now belongs or those that previously exerted strong life influences. The conductor must make his art an expression of his inner and outer world, and dedicate his life to the enrichment of both. Any conductor who does not fully devote himself to the constant development of his musical understanding is failing to recognize the single most significant requirement of his profession.

Secondary to the depth of one's musical aptitude is the communication of that knowledge — to the orchestra, the audience, and the community. The technical and personal communication skills required on the podium are enormous — and completely individual. The often mentioned but little understood concepts of "charisma" and "chemistry" enter into the equation — and it is acknowledged that not every conductor works equally well with every ensemble. Hopefully, the music director establishes a productive working relationship with his own orchestra — a relationship based on mutual respect, trust, and a desire to foster what is best in the organization. He or she is called upon to make dauntingly difficult personnel decisions, to inspire one hundred diverse personalities, and to conduct Bach and Stockhausen with equal aplomb! The only hope for success, I am certain, is for the conductor to be completely himself on the podium-whether humorous, dignified, intense, energetic, tranquil, or otherwise. Integrity seems to be the one characteristic that no orchestral ensemble is willing to overlook. Style — as long as it is based on sincerity — can and should be as different as each maestro is from the next.

One of the most telling reflections of the music director's vision and personality lies in the choice of repertoire for the orchestra. Other factors may influence the final shape of the symphony's programming, but the music director ultimately bears the overall responsibility for the complexion and fabric of the season's offerings. Are the choices simply the pieces the conductor would like to perform? Or do they truly reflect a certain character, mission, or vision? As much as they might be somewhat constrained by financial limitations, choices should, at the core, be artistically motivated. What repertoire will help the orchestra develop, grow, challenge itself, stretch stylistically? It need not be the repertoire with the largest demands: a good performance of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, for example, is much harder to achieve than one of Orff's Carmina Burana. A balance should be struck in presenting repertoire from all periods, and a sense of overall logic and motivation that unify the repertoire choices is critical. Selections should support and complement the expressed objectives of the orchestra and, in the long run, contribute to the vitality and vibrancy of the organization. In addition, music directors must seek the reintegration of the living composer into society at large. The orchestra exists not only as a beautiful reflection of a musical past but as an unerring mirror of current society. A living, breathing, dynamic institution, the symphony is constantly developing exciting repertoire. If we succumb to the suggestion that we should only perform music written between 1750 and 1900, are we not invalidating ourselves as an institution and an entire contemporary culture? Certainly music directors should not embrace new music indiscriminately. The half-hearted performance of a new work can drastically weaken the case for an ongoing repertoire. But would it not be possible for each music director to find a handful of living composers whose work speaks to him or her personally, — and to champion these voices? Aaron Copland told us that our country will only achieve a true artistic maturity when the composer feels himself affirmed and buoyed by his community, when living music means something, in the deepest sense, to everyone. The music director can help the orchestra and its community celebrate the privilege of experiencing and appreciating music of all times — through thoughtful selection, inclusive presentation and, most of all, a committed, vital and revelatory performance.

Often the conductor becomes the fulcrum around which swirls the conflict of balancing artistic goals with monetary considerations. I am convinced that in times of financial challenge, the artistic integrity and vision must be even more clearly defined and upheld. The goal of any orchestra is to serve the needs of its community. To accomplish this, the music director must strive to forge a strong community within the orchestra family, fostering the concept of artistic integrity as a shared vision. No music director, whether he spends eight or forty-eight weeks with his orchestra, can abdicate his responsibility to uphold the highest musical standards. Rarely can we create an ideal situation. But through creativity and plain hard work, we can create an environment in which artistic achievement can flourish. Does artistic achievement necessarily equate to expense? I don't believe so. But it does equate to hours and weeks and months of planning, of prioritizing, of refining and polishing a vision for the organization. Artistic integrity is not about playing the largest pieces in the repertoire. It is not about featuring the most expensive soloist; it is not about having the greatest number of string players. To have artistic integrity as a music director, one must help release the vibrant energy within each player, enabling each musician to achieve his or her musical best. Artistic integrity is recognizing that orchestras do not develop through the excitement and splashy applause of concert nights. Rather, orchestras develop slowly — through every valuable minute of rehearsal, through every score we tackle, through every audition we hold. The music director must build artistic integrity into all the little bits and pieces of the orchestra's activity. That attitude, that search for excellence does not necessarily bear a higher financial cost, but it does extract cost in time, work, commitment, dedication, cooperation, and communication. The return, both individually and collectively, is beyond any price.

It is the rare conductor who has significant marketing or development experience when he accepts his position with the orchestra. Even rarer is the music director who will not spend, over the course of his tenure, countless hours with his experts in those fields, analyzing, fund-raising, reaching out to his community constituency. The details of this commitment are myriad: from the creation of special programs or festivals, pre- or post-concert discussions, personal appearances at countless civic groups, design and implementation of educational activities, media visibility and cooperation, to active involvement in grant writing and corporate and individual fundraising. It is only through a vital artistic partnership with the community that the maestro can hope to make the symphony a vibrant thread in the tapestry of life there.

The conductor must have the courage to rethink widely held assumptions. We may not know what the concert hall of 2050 will be like. But all of us have faith in the serious investigation of our art, of musical sound. As our organizations undergo striking metamorphoses, they will look to the music director for leadership-for artistic ability, honesty, vision, creativity, communication, energy, sense of mission, collaboration, and total involvement. In extraordinary times, it is extraordinary action which makes the difference. The coming century will not be a time to maintain the status quo, but rather the time to make a decisive and focused commitment to the values which are at the core of our art. To do any less would be to leave our orchestral world defenseless to those who perceive the arts as trivial and non-essential. The music director of the twenty-first century must be a teacher in the purest sense — a teacher who has internalized his art so completely that its manifestation becomes the persona of the artist. As a leader and a communicator, the conductor must present an artistic endeavor with an energy that is as inspiring and compelling as the art form itself.

As an artist in a pluralistic, competitive society, the music director cannot afford to remain aloof from his audience. He or she must be involved, not only in raising dollars, but in raising consciousness. As performing artists we share a fundamental supposition that there exists a significant community with an appetite for our art, a discriminating, renewable public. The fearful reality is that this audience of expectant, appreciative listeners is at risk. If we are not careful, we will find that we have been diligently trained and scrupulously prepared to accept and fulfill a challenge that has been reduced to public and societal apathy.

In times of financial and social challenge for our orchestras, is there truly a viable place for the enigmatic maestro of my Juilliard memory? Is it not imperative for the music director to communicate through every possible means the belief that music is an integral part of our lives and of our community? We stand on the threshold of a new millennium, a temporal landmark holding tremendous metaphorical and spiritual significance. As we move forward, the most exciting development for the twenty-first century seems not to be technological advancement, but rather an expanding concept and consciousness of what it means to be a human being. The music director and his orchestra can eloquently and passionately articulate the conviction that music is at the core of the continual reinvigoration of the human spirit.

JoAnn Falletta is music director of the Virginia Symphony, the Long Beach Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and pursues an active schedule of recording and guest conducting in the United States and abroad.

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