Hearing such vitriol, I asked myself a question I was afraid to pose aloud to my classical-savvy friends, for fear of sounding like a total moron. I wondered: What does a conductor do for a symphony, anyway? In his 1991 book The Maestro Myth, British critic Norman Lebrecht writes, “The ‘great conductor’ is a mythical hero … artificially created for a nonmusical purpose and sustained by commercial necessity.” Lebrecht goes on to quote the late Hungarian violinist Carl Flesch (“There is no profession which an impostor could enter more easily”) before proceeding with his attack on the average conductor: “He plays no instrument, produces no noise, yet conveys an image of music-making that is credible enough to let him take the rewards of applause away from those who actually created the sound.”
So couldn’t the musicians just press on without some megalomaniac writhing away at the podium?
The answer, I learned, is yes. New York’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, for instance, has been playing without a conductor since 1972. The ensemble, which includes up to 42 players at any one time, makes music that’s known for its jazzy vitality by trading signals and glances—and also by engaging in a democratic process. Rather than submit to the will of the maestro, musicians work in small cohorts of 4 or 10 to reach consensus on the ensemble’s approach to a given piece of music. Then they communicate that approach to the larger group.
But Orpheus is an exception. And for every musician bent on ending the cruel hegemony of the conductor, there is a hard-thinking classical music critic who believes that a good conductor can make magic happen. In the United States, the most glorified maestro is probably Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990), whose shadow hangs a bit heavily over Carlos Kalmar.
Although Kalmar is considered to be one of the most kinetic conductors on the podium today, Bernstein remains classical music’s uncontested champion for connecting physical and musical flourishes. Once, in 1982, while performing Tchai-kovsky’s Francesca da Rimini overture, which is inspired by Dante’s Inferno, Bernstein leapt into the air during a passage meant to depict the two lovers burning in the fires of hell. “He suddenly disappeared into the bowels of the earth,” says Yaacov Mishori, who was playing French horn that night. “He landed among the cellists, who were so startled they stopped playing. The violinists and other sections did not know what to do. But then Lenny’s voice was heard, first in Hebrew and then in English, saying, ‘Go ahead, go ahead!’ The players continued on as instructed.”