Alban's Blog

Only a dead (or old) conductor is a good conductor ?

My father is an orchestra musician, plays since 41 years in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Their principal conductors have always been among the best in the world – he experienced Karajan, Abbado, Rattle. But also the guest conductors are normally the crème de la crème, especially since the orchestra hand-picks them; and still, I grew up with listening to his complaints about conductors which probably made me decide against wanting to become one, even though I think this would have been my destiny; already as a little boy I went to orchestra concerts and operas – with the score in my hands.

 I played the piano and the cello, but unlike most other young musicians I sat in the basement, sight-reading opera-scores, accompanying the entire violin class of my father, working with my mother (who was a singer), and being just fascinated by the psychology of what makes an orchestra tick. But since I felt so much anger of my father towards these unloved conductors (especially Karajan) it never came to my mind that I could actually become one of them. In general one can say that conductors, as much as they are being loved and admired by audiences, are seen as a necessary evil by orchestra musicians. Latest after three years most orchestra musicians begin to hate their chief conductor. Why?

It is easy to understand with really bad conductors, who have no clue what they are doing. But what is a bad conductor? Somebody who commits mistakes? Somebody who is a bad musician? Or somebody who is only musician but doesn’t know how to transmit his musicianship to an orchestra? There are obviously many levels of conductors and even more opinions about them – because they don’t actually produce the sound themselves. They have to make the orchestra play well for them, for the music, for the audience. And that is the difficult part, almost schizophrenic: musicians are individualists, we spent most of our childhood learning these very difficult instruments. We go through the grueling process of competitions and auditions before we are “professionals”. The better the orchestra, the better the musicians in it. 

But like with a soccer team, you need somebody who makes them play together, and not just the specific pieces, but especially a principal conductor has the duty to form an orchestra – after his taste, his “gusto”, thus highly subjective. How does he do it? By praising the group how wonderful they are? Hardly… He has to criticise, and the farther he wants to carry the orchestra, the more he has to go where it hurts. And since we are all such wonderful musicians, we don’t want to be told about our deficiencies, especially not from a man who quite clearly isn’t perfect himself – because after all he is also just human.

A propos just human: Why is it that in many musician’s opinion Carlos Kleiber was the only great conductor, and now that he is dead there aren’t any like him? What did he do different? He never came too often, he made himself rare, and the orchestras were so scared that he could leave the stage he pulled themselves together and played better for him than for anybody else. Besides this he was a very charismatic and wonderful musician, well-trained conductor, and with his small repertoire he knew exactly what he wanted to do and what he was doing. But now? Only dead conductors are good conductors? 

In the past month I had the pleasure to play the same piece (Schumann) with four different conductors, and I must say, with one exception I felt incredibly lucky having worked with very special people, wonderful musicians, who brought something new to each performance – each of them I would consider a great conductor. But do you know Carlos Kalmar (Portland), Peter Oundjian (Toronto) or Gianandrea Noseda (Manchester BBC)?  Each of them a wonderful musician and very accomplished conductor, they all know how to work with an orchestra and make it better, but they don’t care much about the fame and the glory, but very much about their orchestras and music which might be the reason that they aren’t much more famous than one should think. 

With Noseda I played the Brahms Double last week in Manchester (together with French violinist Olivier Charlier), and “his” Schumann First Symphony was as good as it gets – passionate while see-through, free but with a great pulse, none of the “traditionals” rubatos most listeners, who “know” their repertoire solely from recordings, expect – just heaven for me to listen and enjoy! Actually, this performance proved all critics wrong who say that Schumann isn’t a great composer for orchestra. 

So to answer my question in the title: No, there are many excellent conductors out there, some of them very special, and I personally believe that many of the great old conductors would have a hard time succeeding nowadays, because orchestras are much better trained but also much more demanding and less forgiving. A conductor must not make a single mistake, otherwise the orchestra will label him as not so good, thus the respect disappears and the musician’s effort will be much smaller. And by God, the old conductors made plenty of mistakes! 

But it was their aura which made them great, and often in our very fast-paced time the young conductors don’t get the chance to work their problems out and develop into charismatic leaders because they are getting scrutinized on the big stages of this music business by orchestras, critics, managers, recording labels – all of them demand too much too quickly – and all of them expect every conductor to have the biggest repertoire, the perfect technique, the biggest heart, the greatest intellect and besides that a degree in psychology to actually manage to deal with the psyche of an orchestra. Good luck finding this guy!


  • Josh Rappaport from Harrisburg Pennsylvania

    Who’s your favorite out of the three:Karajan, Abbado, or Rattle?

  • Alban

    Well, my least favorite of the three would be Karajan. Rattle and Abbado are two of the great conductors of all times, and for me it is impossible to decide who would be better. Both have their strength, and both have almost no weaknesses…

  • Lucy Michaud-Dufour

    Thank you so much for last night’s concert in Lausanne! You made us feel so good and happy and these moments are so rare!!! It was quite surprising to see you playing with the orchestra after the”entracte”is it an habit of your’s????
    MERCI. lmd

  • Alban

    Yes, I love doing that (playing in the second half in the cello section), it’s the orchestra player I am at heart 🙂
    I am glad you liked the concert, which I was very nervous about, since the Lalo is one of the most dangerous pieces I know – in such dry hall…
    Best wishes from Berlin,

  • Thomas

    Why is the Lalo concerto dangerous to play? for a good cellist it isn’t difficult i guess…?

  • Alban

    Oh yes, the Lalo is for any cellist very difficult, but especially if you have to play it with orchestra in a hall. I heard the piece twice in my life, and each time the rather famous cellist either got lost (twice) or didn’t have the stamina to finish it well. And I even had to jump in with this piece once, because the hired cellist had underestimated the piece. This person had never played it and didn’t realize, how difficult it was…
    Why is it so difficult? It is very intense, in a bad register (lots of notes on the G and D string), many quick passages (first movement), hardly any rest and dangerous jumps. Both arms tend to get very, very tired very soon, and musically it is just not the easiest piece to bring out as well. I am always very happy when I survive it!

  • Inga Nye

    Hi Alban,

    After having read a couple of your blogs, I cannot begin to tell you what joy, excitement, and happiness it brings to me to know how well you played in school (and how excited the teachers would get) and where you have gone from there.

    School concerts in Wilmersdorf were always a whole lot more exciting and better attended when Alban played. 🙂 You would always blush at the laudatio but you deserved it. – I used to sing in the choir from 82-88. There was one concert in particular my parents and I remember well which one that was I would like to share with you at one of the concerts in the Konzerthaus in Berlin this month. My sister was almost two years old then and has heard the story a number of times, eagerly inquiring later on who Alban is, and now finally asking if we could go and visit one of your concerts. Having lived in the USA for over a decade, I happily agreed and will get tickets because I, too, would like to hear you play again after all those years.

    My parents also have some sheet music (Partituren from what I understand) that they would like to donate to your and Dr. Bork´s “commitment to schools”. I never learnt to read music (even with Mr. Hinz´s help) so we would like to hand them over to you or an associate to put them to good use.

    What amazes me is that you have skillfully mastered the most difficult pieces that seem an impossibility to others. What a gift!

    So, with a few great names (Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, etc.) out there in the classical music business, I would like to know: what would be your dream concert like? Who would you play it with? What would you play? And where?

    Based on your experience with your own children: when is a good age to teach a child to play an instrument and how?

    (And last but not least: What ever happened to your cello? Did you get ever it back? Was it found? We never heard the rest of the story.)

    GO ALBAN GO! We love you and your family, man!

    Best, Inga 🙂

  • Inga Nye

    Footnote: I am so glad you did not become a conductor although I am sure that that would also be a great experience.

    Personally, a good conductor is one that can bring out the best even from a really bad orchestra or choir. I had that experience years ago when I sang with the Nashville Symphony Chorus, Nashville/TN. We weren´t thought off much at the time, compared to the Orchestra under Conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn. Then Dr. George Mabry came. To everyone´s amazement, we were better than the orchestra in Verdi´s “Requiem”. Dr. Mabry was very clear, concise, and articulate how he wanted us to sing a particular part, and it most certainly showed. What a joyful experience to practice those six months. Some people can articulate and explain because they feel the music instinctively. Others simply don´t because they don´t feel the music although they try really hard. So, if a solo artist, conductor, orchestra puts heart and soul into it, and has that instinct, feeling: That is the greatest ever!

  • Alban

    Dear Inga,
    thanks for these comments – how nice to hear from a former student of the same school (Goethe-Gymnasium in Berlin-Wilmersdorf – we had to learn Latin and Greek)! Oh yes, I remember the school concerts, I was always sooooo nervous. Was a good training, since I didn’t play any professional concerts at that time.

    My cello, which was stolen 4 years ago now, has never been found, which is rather painful since I really loved that instrument. But from the practical point of view, it didn’t belong to me anymore anyway, the insurance paid me out…

    You mention some names in classical music – I would rather put the attribute of “famous” instead of great, since it is also their main reason of playing: to become really famous (at least the later one).

    My favourite concert? Good question, never thought of it… Where, with who, what to play? I have no idea, really, I am in general looking forward to every concert, some a bit more, some a bit less, but a favourite? I really love to play music, and I feel so incredibly lucky to make a living with it, but where and what – love the Proms in London, will go there next year again to play a piece written for me by a friend. It’s always a pleasure to play with the great orchestras with great conductors, but it’s also much more pressure… Sorry, no clear answer here, since there isn’t any.
    See you hopefully end of the month, stop by to say Hi, please!

  • Inga Nye

    Hi Alban,
    we have tickets for tomorrow´s performanence, Fri, 29 Jun 07. Frankly, I can´t wait to hear you play again. I am excited and nervous but I know it´s going to be soooooooo good. We would to meet with you afterwards, and yes, thank you for your kind invitation. Is there a way to get in contact with you, so you´ll know we´re there? Maybe you have a second to leave me an email, we would appreciate that. Well, I am sure we´ll find a way. Hope, everything went well for you tonight, and that the audience, the conductor, orchestra and you loved it. See you tomorrow. Best wishes, Inga


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