Music: The Next Generation

Rossen Guergov, 20, is struggling with the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Baton in hand, he gestures stiffly to a piano quintet assembled inside a rustic rehearsal room at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's outdoor venue in western Massachusetts. "Tadada-DAAH!... Tadada-DAAH!" The musicians sound oddly hesitant and out of sync. "Why is this not working?" asks Seiji Ozawa, music director of the BSO, who is paying an impromptu visit to the workshop. "It should come from a man's power, from here," he says, pointing to his gut. He then steps, shoeless, to the front of the room and conducts the passage himself. Leaning close to the musicians, arms stretched forward and brows furrowed, he takes a short, loud breath to signal the upbeat and... it's as if five new musicians have entered the room. They play the famous passage with newfound strength and drama. "With me, the musicians sounded a little surprised," says Guergov, a conducting fellow. "But when [Ozawa] came in, it was just natural, and with power."

Ozawa makes conducting look easy. But in truth his tux tails are harder than ever to fill--not because there is a shortage of aspiring conductors but because they're facing increasingly complex challenges. For starters, the popularity of classical music is on the decline. As entertainment options continue to multiply, orchestras are searching for new ways to stay relevant and raise revenue. Meanwhile, the classical repertoire continues to grow exponentially, overwhelming the typical student. "We're in a transition period," says National Symphony Orchestra director Leonard Slatkin, 57. "But I think we'll find our way out of it."

For now, it remains a tough field to break into. Over the last two years, five vacancies among top orchestras have gone mostly to established conductors. Ozawa, 66, will move to the Vienna State Opera next year; Lorin Maazel, 71, is taking over the New York Philharmonic; Simon Rattle, 46, will replace Claudio Abbado at the Berlin Philharmonic; Christoph Eschenbach, 61, is taking up the baton in Philadelphia, and the Austrian Franz Welser-Most, 41, will replace Christoph von Dohnanyi as head of the Cleveland Orchestra. Boston has not yet filled its post, but is in negotiations with Metropolitan Opera director James Levine, 58. Considering that Leonard Bernstein, Ozawa and Levine were in their 30s when they ascended the podiums of the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and the Met, respectively, the new round of appointments has underscored what some say is a crisis in conducting: a shortage of young people with the stature of the previous generation. Others say there's plenty of young talent--it's the unwillingness of major orchestras to engage it that's to blame.

Why does it even matter? Few today understand what a conductor does. A famous New Yorker cartoon shows a maestro following a score filled with diagrams of arm movements instead of notes. The conductor's task looks deceptively simple: cuing seasoned musicians who, let's face it, have played the piece dozens of times.

Nonetheless, the profession is filled with complexities that aren't immediately apparent. "A music director's job," says Tom Morris, executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra, "is not just to conduct but to train. To develop with the orchestra a style, some consistency of approach to making music." Apart from the technical aspects of the job (keeping the orchestra together, maintaining tempo, balancing the volume of different sections), great conductors have an almost mystical ability to inspire players. This requires not only a profound passion for the work, but also an ability to communicate complex emotions and ideas through gestures and expressions. "The main attraction for me to conducting is that it's impossible," says Robert Spano, 40, director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and of Tanglewood's conducting program.

There is no set career path for a conductor. All start out as instrumentalists and gradually build their expertise. Eventually, they will need to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of each instrument in a symphony orchestra. Some go on to attend graduate school in conducting; New York's Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Music in London are among the most prestigious. Other musicians, like pianist Eschenbach and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, build careers as soloists before making a segue to the podium. Many, like Leonard Bernstein, are also composers.

Winning a conducting competition used to be the main road to prominence. But Joeske van Walsum, head of the Van Walsum Management agency in London, says competitions have fallen out of favor because they expose young talent to the limelight too quickly. Van Walsum recommends that his clients seek assistantships, where they serve as an apprentice to the director of a major orchestra.

Maazel has begun combining a competition with an apprenticeship. In his new Maazel/Vilar Conductors' Competition, up to six finalists will receive a cash award of $45,000, train with Maazel at regular intervals over three years and eventually earn engagements with major orchestras. Maazel hopes his program will build a young person's experience "step by step" through workshops that teach everything from foreign languages to orchestral administration.

The challenges don't end once a conductor gets a job. With orchestras working to attract a younger, broader audience, conductors need to be good managers. "[Fund-raising and marketing] are things you didn't have to address 40 or 50 years ago," says Slatkin, "but now you do." He and the National Symphony Orchestra have launched an annual three-week workshop aimed at teaching young conductors some of these skills.

Despite the career obstacles, the new generation is starting to make its mark on the profession. "There's a different relationship between conductors and orchestras today," says Neil Thomson, head of the conducting department at London's Royal College of Music. The days when maestros could verbally abuse musicians from the podium are over. Many have even stopped insisting they be called "maestro." Michael Tilson Thomas goes by "Michael," Simon Rattle is just "Simon," Cleveland's Welser-Most is "Franz."

Young conductors are also increasingly concerned with what van Walsum calls "quality of life." Once, music directors jetted around the world to boost record sales, spurred on by generous recording contracts. Today, with classical-music sales at a low, few companies are extending recording contracts, and music directors seem content to stay home. Young conductors like Welser-Most are spending upwards of 18 weeks per year with their orchestras, compared with many conductors of the previous generation, like Ozawa, who would spend only 10 to 12. "There's an amazing degree of devotion to their primary job," says Morris. "And that's an incredibly healthy development."

The more open-minded approach has encouraged more women to enter the field, which has traditionally been slow to drop sexual stereotypes. The prestigious Vienna Philharmonic didn't allow a woman into the orchestra until 1997. Colorado Symphony director Marin Alsop, one of the more prominent female conductors, says that at her master classes about half the students are now women. Maazel, too, noticed a significant number of females among the applicants to his competition.

Despite the career obstacles, young conductors' passion for their craft remains undiminished. "No single instrument, like violin or piano, can give you the sound, the power and just the many colors of a symphony orchestra," says Guergov. "When I conducted for the first time, it was so extreme and overwhelming that I just stood there, and the orchestra nearly fell apart." Thanks to Seiji Ozawa, that doesn't happen anymore.

Music: The Next Generation | News