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Classical 101

Who Cares Who Conducts?

In the ongoing discussion of what information should be included when introducing classical music on the radio, there are multiple opinions...everywhere from barebones to exhaustive.  Some believe giving keys for pieces of music are important, while others say it's unnecessary.  Opus numbers?  Not unless there is some significance.  The problem is, who decides what's significant and what isn't?  To whom?

I will grant that much of the cataloging information clutters up a radio break, while not really adding much to the information.  So much is available on our website that those who wish to pursue a recording can find details in a few clicks.

What about conductors?  Does it matter who is on the podium?  I believe it does.  There was a school of thought for a while which eliminated conductors from radio introductions.  When I did that, however, I began to get calls and e-mails asking why I was doing that.  When people came up at concerts and asked that question, it was time to reassess.  

When I first began in this business, I was astounded that one of my coworkers could identify orchestra AND conductor as he walked past my office.  The first time it happened, I was auditioning recordings and John McGrody stuck his head in my door.  "French National Orchestra, Georges Pretre," he said before walking away.  I went to his office.  "How could you tell?" I asked.  "They were playing with a French accent," was his reply.  He had, over the years, picked up on the subtleties of the sounds certain conductors tended to shape with an orchestra.

In a New York Times story earlier this year, David Allen, a freelance music critic for the Times, wrote an article called Brahms from Different Batons.  He compared performances of various works by Brahms, Beethoven, and others conducted by two of classical music's finest...Ricardo Chailly and Christian Thielemann.  According to Allen, Chailly seemed to be trying to use some of the "historically informed performance" practices and adapting them to the larger forces of a modern symphony, while Thielemann harkened back more to the style of Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm.

A colleague once addressed a group of classical radio programmers and said he saw no reason to buy new recordings because everything he needed to put on the air was already in his library.  What?  Imagine never hearing an orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, who seems to will his energy and excitement onto an orchestra.  Some would say cellists might as well not bother with the Bach Cello Suites because we have recordings by Casals and Rostropovich.  Yo Yo Ma has recorded them twice.  Zuill Bailey's approach is his own, informed by those who came before, but infused with his own interpretation.  Josh Roman has yet another feel for them.

I hope then that, when I mention conductors, or other information which may seem unnecessary, you might be intrigued, rather than annoyed.  Try taking a performance of something you particularly enjoy and listening to another version, just to see if you notice any difference.  If nothing else, you'll be listening to the music in a way you might not have, otherwise, which might uncover something you've never noticed.

Riccardo Chailly conducts Brahms


Christiane Thielemann conducts Bruckner's 7th Symphony