Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical

Comparing guest conductors’ rehearsal styles: how to endear yourself to an orchestra — or not

To cajole or to castigate? Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and Christoph von Dohnányi (photo credits below)

“The art of conducting lies, in my opinion, in the power of suggestion that a conductor exerts – on the audience as well as on the orchestra,” the conductor Otto Klemperer once observed. “A conductor must know how to hold attention. He must be able to lead the players with his eyes and the movements of his hands or baton. By this power of suggestion the level of a mediocre orchestra can be raised considerably. Vice versa, the playing art of a great orchestra can be lowered by a mediocre conductor.”  (Timothy Mangan, “The art of the electric baton,” The Orange County Register,  October 30, 2005)

As much as the Los Angeles Philharmonic is known for entrusting their podium to up and coming (often unproven) younger conductors, they also have a long history of balancing out that youth with old-school conductors double their age equipped with impeccable credentials:  Erich Leinsdorf led some memorable direct-to-disc recordings with the orchestra, including a Prokofiev Romeo and Juliette featuring an amazing high C played in a single take by former Principal Trumpet Robert DiVall; Kurt Sanderling began guest conducting the LA Phil in 1984, took them on a European tour after Andre Previn resigned as Music Director, and appeared as a beloved guest well into the tenure of Esa-Pekka Salonen; Pierre Boulez made frequent visits to Los Angeles through the turn of the new millenium.

Since Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in 2003, five guest conductors seem to have served most often in the role of regularly returning éminence grise (in alphabetical order):   Herbert Blomstedt, Christoph von Dohnányi, Charles Dutoit, Christoph Eschenbach, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.  Most musicians and classical music fans would regard all of them as being premiere conductors with the experience and resume worthy of respect in front of any orchestra.  Of course, what works for one conductor might not work with another, and similarly, a conductor that is beloved in one city could be unwelcome in another.  Resumes and reputations can only take you so far when standing on stage in front of 70+ world-class musicians, and like any relationship, the chemistry between a given conductor and a given orchestra — or lack thereof — is often hard to predict until the first downbeat is given in a rehearsal.  And rehearsal is where the sparks or the barbs will begin to fly.  I’ve seen it myself during years in various student and pick-up ensembles; at this high up the professional ladder, where the musician holding the baton and each of the ones sitting in chairs in front of him (or increasingly, her) have extensive skill, training, and ego to spare, it certainly becomes much more pointed.

In anticipation of this week’s appearances by Mr. Frühbeck at the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Times published a profile of him and his relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  The report was undeniably glowing, full of mutual love expressed in quotes from the conductor as well as musicians from the orchestra.  A major factor in this strong relationship comes from well-run rehearsals.  The profile’s author, David Mermelstein, describes Mr. Frühbeck as having a “benign yet authoritative hand,” and many of the comments he elicits revolve around the maestro’s rehearsal style:

  • “The chemistry works very well.  Our concerts have been among the highlights of my last two seasons in America. Musicians don’t like to waste time, but they also like to do well. So I try to do the best I can as quickly as I can. A conductor should know what he wants.”  (Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos)
  • “Efficiency is a priority for this conductor, who speaks warmly of the work ethic of American musicians. ‘I think they are the most professional of all,’ he said. ‘You have to do things quickly here.’ In Europe, orchestras are state-funded and money is not that much an issue; they can give more time for rehearsal. But here, in summer, you have at most two rehearsals, usually only one.” (David Mermelstein and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos)
  • “He’s an old-fashioned gentleman and just lovely to work with.  And he gets what he needs to out of the orchestra in a very short amount of time.”  (Sarah Jackson, Los Angeles Philharmonic flute & solo piccolo player)

Yet while some conductors like Mr. Frühbeck cajole, others castigate.  The era of dictatorial conductors terrorizing orchestras into submsission through public humiliation and fear of instantaneous job loss — George Szell in Cleveland being one of the quintessential examples — has largely ended:  the rise of stronger musicians’ unions led to the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements limiting rehearsal time and controlling the way orchestral players are hired and fired.  Still, this doesn’t prevent conductors from being dictatorial, and the style may still produce amazing results in the end.

Take for example Christoph von Dohnányi.  His many years as Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra have been lauded as an excellent era by musicians, audiences, and critics alike, and his international reputation is very strong.  This makes it all the more interesting to read the comments made by Michael Hovnanian, blogger and bass player in “an orchestra located in a large midwestern city” (hint:  it starts with a “C” and ends with a “hicago”).  Two years ago, he posted about potential good vs. bad effects a conductor can have on an orchestra during rehearsal, and he used Mr. Dohnányi as a foil (post reprinted in its entirety):

Saturday, November 21, 2009
Marathon Man
November 19-22
BARTÓK Divertimento for String Orchestra
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 12
SCHUMANN Symphony No. 2
Christoph von Dohnányi, Conductor
Paul Lewis, Piano

A visit to the dentist sometimes turns into a painful ordeal. Acknowledgment that this is for our own good mollifies us enough to submit to the uncomfortable procedure. Perhaps just as crucial in overcoming the natural reluctance to place ourselves at the mercy of a potentially pain-wielding professional is the belief our dentist is doing his best to minimize our suffering, and that furthermore, he derives no secret sadistic pleasure from all the painful picking, prodding and poking.

A conductor actually has a few ways to positively affect an orchestra in rehearsals, although more often than not the opportunities to employ them are bungled or misused. In brief, one of those is didactic, embodied in the maestro who comes to town with a number of interesting musical ideas which, if not presented in an insufferable manner, are available for the entertainment and maybe even enlightenment of all whose ears are not yet permanently calloused over. Another approach is the corrective – the maestro who performs the necessary and laudable services of scraping away at the orchestral tartar, filling the musical cavities, reigning in the rhythmical overbite, and maybe even addressing chronic institutional halitosis. This conductor has the chance of leaving the orchestra in better shape than when he found it.

Obviously, the lure of sadism sometimes proves too much, and what begins as constructive turns cruel and capricious. Cleaning the gums turns into a relentless pricking an poking, looking for blood, then gleefully pointing it out, holding a mirror up before the hapless, chair-bound orchestra. “You see! We have a problem here, such a pity. Let me get another pick. Nurse! No, the longer, more cruelly formed one please…”

To stipulate a need for the old-school type Great Maestro, one might argue that the ends justify the means (in our modern era, so long as they conform to the union contract). However, the end aimed at by barking “Watch it!” a split second before someone makes an entrance remains obscure to me, among a number of other things. Sadly, the performances this week had a somewhat flabby, dull, and uncomfortable aspect to them, a kind of Middle-European precision goosestep performed in stocking feet.


A few weeks ago, he once again posted about a recent set of rehearsals and concerts with the famed German/Hungarian conductor.  Again, I reprint his post in its entirety:

Friday, July 22, 2011
Endless Summer
Last week, we played two programs at Ravinia.
A) Brahms, Piano Concerto no.1; Symphony no.2
B) Brahms, Symphony no. 3; Piano Concerto no.2
Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor

Emanuel Ax, piano

(There were six two-and-a-half hour rehearsals for these two concerts.)

In preparation for the two programs of familiar pieces, we managed to squeeze the work of three rehearsals into only six – any efficiency expert who happened to look in on the proceedings, including listening to the final result, would have gone away seriously scratching their head. If the point of rehearsals is the preparation for a concert, I can’t say the majority of the time was well spent. However, if it is to indulge the urge, latent in many who fancy themselves ‘leaders’ of one sort or another, namely sadism, then the week must be chalked up as a roaring success. The Marquis, peering down from heaven (or wherever he ended up), must have looked at the fifteen (15!) hours of rehearsal time with a horrific kind of glee.

Arriving at certain rehearsals is akin to stepping into the doctor’s office, hearing the snap of the gloves going on at the same moment one realizes the jar of Vaseline is long ago empty. Any positive reasoning about what is about to happen in the next two-and-a-half hours might understandably be replaced with a kind of dread. And after fifteen hours of probing, merciless, relentless, and ultimately pointless – “You were here for a headache? Terribly sorry!” – if the patient, when asked to sashay down the hall, proves a bit unsteady on his feet, it should surprise no one.


The subsequent comments made in response to the post are equally telling.   (To see the original post and all 15 subsequent comments, click HERE).  Granted, this is just one musician’s point of view and the review from the performance was completely positive.  At the same time, you can find similarly themed comments  and stories — though less acerbic, not to mention much less metaphorically clinical — from musicians in other Mid-West and East Coast orchestras.

As for his time in Southern California, Mr. Dohnányi made his debut conducting the LA Phil during the inaugural season in Walt Disney Concert Hall.  For the next few seasons, he was typically given two weeks of subscription concerts (an increasingly rare occurrence with guest conductors at WDCH).  While he had never worked with the orchestra, he was not a totally unknown commodity:  Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour had worked under him in Cleveland while Mr. Chalifour was Acting Concertmaster and Associate Concertmaster of that orchestra, and Principal Bass Chris Hanulik took a year’s leave from LA to play in the same position in Cleveland.

Over the years, the WDCH concerts themselves were generally well received.  I particularly remember a program consisting of a newer Birtwistle work, the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 with Yefim Bronfman, and the complete “Firebird.”  The orchestra’s sound was quite different than was typical under Esa-Pekka Salonen.  It was fascinating to hear the transformation, and the result was a rounder and warmer tone with waves of sound instead of the sharpness, brightness, and crystalline transparency that I had come to expect from the orchestra under Mr. Salonen and most other guest conductors.  I thought his presence made for an interesting and welcome contrast during the season.

In 2007, Mr. Dohnányi conducted a cycle of Brahms symphonies over two weeks of concerts that were mostly well received.  At the time, some of the comments made by critics and insiders alike made mention of rehearsals with the maestro.

  • “Apparently, [Mr. Dohnányi] spent a great deal of time in rehearsals for this program working on the tuning and voicing of chords and sonorities . . .”  (Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, Feb 17, 2007, review of a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert of Brahms 1st and 3rd Symphonies).
  • “Although the Philharmonic players are said to find working with Dohnanyi inspiring, he does not always bring out the best in them. He forces them to play against character, and the effort shows.”  (Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, Feb 24, 2007, review of a concert of Brahms 2nd and 4th Symphonies)
  • “The program consisted of Brahms’s First and Third Symphonies, under the direction of Christoph von Dohnányi, who was visiting for two weeks. “We’ll sell some tickets,” [LA Phil President Deborah Borda] said of this concert in advance. “Plus, it will be good for the orchestra. Christoph will pick everything to pieces, rehearse in great detail, go back to basics.” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker, April 30, 2007, “The Anti-Maestro”)

Those Brahms concerts turned out to be the last he would conduct with the Philharmonic.  The reasons why the budding relationship stalled is unclear:  perhaps the chemistry was good, but other things got in the way (e.g. scheduling, compensation, challenges in traveling all the way to California, just to name a few); perhaps the experience of LA Phil musicians was similar to the one described by Mr. Hovnanian, and it was time for both parties to go in a different direction;  perhaps the relationship is merely “on a break” like Ross and Rachel, and will resume when the time is right.

In contrast, the winter seasons since 2007 have included Messers. Blomstedt, Dutoit, Eschenbach, and Frühbeck, and they are all on the schedule once again for 2011/2012.  Both Mr. Dutoit and Mr. Eschenbach have had their own sets of controversies over their rehearsal style:  Mr. Dutoit famously left his long tenure at the head of the Montreal Symphony after clashes with the musicians over alleged mistreatment; Mr. Eschenbach never gelled with the Philadelphia Orchestra and left very soon after joining them.  Despite those reputations, the Philharmonic seems to have found solid partnerships with both men.  Mr. Dutoit brings a welcome dose of Stravinsky, Debussy, and Prokofiev in a concentrated program reminiscent of the type in which the LA Phil excelled under Mr. Salonen; his appearances in Los Angeles have been among my favorites.  Mr. Eschenbach returns in both recital and orchestral performances, a combination that has produced some memorable concerts in previous years.

Will any/all of these relationships continue beyond this coming season?  Only the artists, their managers, and the LA Phil artistic administration know for sure.  At least where Mr. Frühbeck is concerned, LA Phil cellist Barry Gold said,  “I think I represent the majority of the orchestra in saying that he’s one of our favorites.  We look forward to having him back as often as possible.”


Photo credits:

  • Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos:  Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times
  • Christoph von Dohnányi:  Axel Koester for The New York Times

9 thoughts on “Comparing guest conductors’ rehearsal styles: how to endear yourself to an orchestra — or not

  1. Fine post with some probing thoughts. It was interesting that you mentioned Kurt Sanderling because he’s really the last conductor with which the Phil has established any sort of long-term conducting relationship (i.e., more than two weeks a season and, as you noted, two weeks is a rarity). It was also sharp to note that Sanderling overlapped the Previn and Salonen years; the three-year gap between those two conductors (1990-1992) was the last significant span when the orchestra didn’t have a music director, so there’s been no need to fill an entire season with guest conductors. I don’t think having a long string of one-week and two-week conductors is healthy for an ensemble but the Phil does seems to be able to maintain a very high level of quality even with such guest-conductor turnover. Moreover, there is probably something to say for the concept that short stretches makes it harder for conductors to wear out their welcome with the musicians.


    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mr. Thomas. Very glad that you liked the post.

      I have especially fond memories of a concert Mr. Sanderling conducted of the Beethoven 6th Symphony and Murray Perahia playing one of the Brahms concertos. Nothing was extreme, but everything was in its place. I don’t think Mr. Perahia has played a concerto with the orchestra since then.

      Ever since E-PS was Music Director, I keep thinking that a new “Principal Guest Conductor” should be named that would provide a different, yet complementary approach and style with the orchestra. Now with GD at the helm, I think the idea would be even more valuable. With Maestro Dutoit’s formal responsibilities in Philly coming to an end, perhaps the LA Phil can sign him up to a title and 2-3 weeks a year.


      • I’m not sure Dutoit would be my first choice for the position but he’s not a bad one from this listener’s perspective. Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta and Bramwell Tovey would three names I would toss into the proverbial hat. I also hope the Phil will find a way to make Lionel Bringuier something more than a glorified “cover conductor.”. Whoever it is, I would hope that the job would be at least a couple of three-week blocks each season — otherwise, he or she is just another guest conductor.


            • There is one other thing that the four names suggested by Robert Thomas have in common: all of them make me very happy that he is not the person who is responsible for making artistic decisions at the LA Phil. Just a reminder: the last two conductors who were the principal guests with this orchestra were MTT and Simon Rattle.


  2. Pingback: RIP Kurt Sanderling « All is Yar

  3. I had not caught this article when first posted. Thanks for rerunning it.

    Where does Herbert Blomstedt land in your evaluation of recent elder statesmen? I notice he’s not on the list for next season, although he will be in SF.


    • My general take on Mr. Blomstedt has been that he is solid, reliable, and thoughtful, with interpretations that are middle-of-the-road, but unexciting.

      That said, I didn’t see him conduct the Beethoven “Missa Solemnis” this season which, by most accounts, was a very exciting and well-received set of performances.

      Of the conductors not appearing in 2012/2013, James Conlon and Mr. Blomstedt were the ones whose absence I was most surprised by.

      BTW: I did see Eschenbach conduct Schubert, but haven’t posted about it.

      Anyways, I wouldn’t want Eschenbach as MD locally for a few reasons, but his annual visits are usually quite compelling, and there seems to be good chemistry between the orchestra and him. He wouldn’t be my first choice for a Principal Guest Conductor spot (that would be Dutoit), if but someone decided to give him the job and, say, 3 weeks a year, that would be interesting and I’d welcome it.


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