The labourer is worthy of his hire

Some people think Bramwell Tovey’s protest against letting someone else pretend to conduct music he pre-recorded with the VSO is a blow for artistic integrity and an attack on the Olympics as an institution. Some people think it is a selfish attempt to gain the spotlight, albeit for work that he and the whole of the VSO will actually have done in the studio. I think Maestro Tovey’s motives are irrelevant in the face of a patent fraud, and I am happy to applaud him for all of the foregoing reasons, including the selfish one.

But there is an in-between reason, one that is being overlooked in the coverage but that I would guess is on Tovey’s mind all the same.

Of all the incredibly difficult occupations in the world, conducting an orchestra is the one that looks the easiest. Everybody whose work has a creative component knows the frustration of having their work misunderstood; the book editor who is thought to be “sitting around all day reading”, the abstract expressionist painter who has to hear “My kid could do that.”

But imagine being an orchestra conductor. You have the responsibility for understanding a composer’s intentions in the proper context—learning his biography, his philosophy, the constraints and compromises he was up against, the arranging and performing conventions of his time. You have to communicate that information, as an integrated whole, to a group of expert musicians—while being capable of understanding, in detail, the capabilities of dozens of modern instruments. You have to be a persuader and inspirer, but also a first-class musician yourself. You have to know the score backwards and forwards, and master, or at least know your way around, the recording apparatus. And when you are done, you stand there beating time in a penguin getup, which is about all the public ever sees you doing.

The visible part of the job is something a ten-year-old could do, and sometimes conductors will even diminish their collective public image by letting a ten-year-old come up on the dais and do it. It is an untenable state of affairs. Today’s metropolitan symphony conductor receives an exaggerated personal deference from the local arts crowd that contrasts more sharply every year with his actual job security and welfare; he must live, I think, with the constant suspicion that he is turning into a mere civic mascot. The deal conductors accept today, on this continent, is that they will be cooed at and fawned over as tokens of Old World creative genius, but actually be treated—this, anyway, is how VANOC proposed to treat Tovey—as an interchangeable part. If he’s just plain fed up with the whole game, more power to him.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.