Strops, curses and Stravinsky – what is the life of a leading conductor really like

Titans of the Podium: Cate Blanchett as Conductor in Tar - Florian Hoffmeister / Focus Features

Titans of the Podium: Cate Blanchett as Conductor in Tar – Florian Hoffmeister / Focus Features

Orchestral conducting is the strangest profession. To the skeptical observer, this may seem complete charlatanism, hand-waving and extravagant emotion in front of orchestras that would probably do the job without help. With a benevolent gaze, a conductor who must be aware of every detail of a complex musical structure while maintaining a sense of wholeness can seem almost superhuman.

Not surprisingly, conductors have gone to great lengths to sharpen the skeptics’ weapons and bolster their artistic credentials through that minor literary subgenre of maestro memoirs. Starting with Wagner, through such great “titans of the podium” as Hermann Scherchen and Daniel Barenboim, they tried to convince us that conductors are clairvoyants who divine the inner mystery of musical works. As the fiery genius Wilhelm Furtwängler declared in his Notebooks: “I want to reach the ‘soul’ of modern man.”

No wonder, given their almost sacred calling, that conductors liked to annihilate their poor, hapless musicians with tantrums. Conductors these days are less great and more concerned with achieving a collegiate tone during rehearsals by persuading and cajoling instead of shouting and shouting. Ten years ago Faber published a collection of interviews with conductors in which a more modest attitude emerges under the title Music as Alchemy. It’s engaging, but it has a glaring flaw that no one noticed in 2012 but now seems seriously embarrassing: none of the conductors involved were female, although female conductors left their mark everywhere.

Now the same publisher has tried to restore balance with In Good Hands, which examines the art of conducting from the point of view of a female conductor. The title is apt as Alice Farnham comes across as literally a safe pair of hands, a hard-working, well-organized, and basically humble person who slowly worked her way up the career ladder rather than making a name for herself by winning competitions.

The subtitle of the book is The Making of a Modern Conductor, and at least half of its nearly 300 pages are devoted to explaining how a shy but talented girl who always thought she was too nervous to perform in public ended up on podium. It was a strikingly traditional path recognized by many conductors of the 20th and even 19th centuries: singing in choirs, learning to play the organ, getting a job as a church organist, which led to choir conducting; performing as a pianist at rehearsals for opera companies, which resulted in a proposal to actually conduct the performance.

Incredibly determined: Alice Farnham moved to Russia to study conducting - Kate Mount

Incredibly determined: Alice Farnham moved to Russia to study conducting – Kate Mount

It soon becomes clear that the shy girl was extremely determined. She went to St. Petersburg to study with the most famous conducting teacher in the world, Ilya Musin, facing Russian winters, overly attentive Russians and bedbugs. When she landed her first decent job in Sweden, she started learning Swedish and has since mastered at least two other languages.

The story of her life is interspersed with treatises on the art of conducting, from which we learn that seemingly simple things, such as getting everyone to start together, are in fact very complicated. Her own views on how to handle a rehearsal, master a huge score, and so on, are thoughts gleaned from interviews with other conductors, some men, some women.

It’s an interesting read, though the prose doesn’t quite win. It has the somewhat diffuse, clumsy nature of a book spoken into a dictaphone on long train journeys and then transcribed later. And it can be very PC. Already in the first sentence the author “tests her privilege” and later declares – as every conductor feels obliged nowadays – that “humility and self-awareness are the basis of a good conductor”.

But her description of overcoming the problem with the Eastern European orchestra tells a different story. “I had a disastrous first few days of rehearsals and then I tried to lose my temper and yelled at them – just once. It seemed like they were waiting for me to show that I was strong enough, and from then on everything was fine. It seems that in order to be successful, even the most modest conductor sometimes has to find her inner master.

In Good Hands is published by Faber for £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph books

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