MUSIC / Under the baton: Anthony Payne on how television sees the conductor's art

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The Independent Culture
Castigated with wicked glee by Hans Keller as belonging to his notorious list of 'phoney professions', yet apostrophised in Westrup's New Grove article as 'one of the most difficult and most rewarding of all musical activities', conducting is an activity that increasingly divides musical opinion, and it is no surprise that two recent television surveys have been able to take opposing viewpoints with justifiable conviction.

Admittedly, Omnibus's expose in November of many a conductor's questionable competence and power mania was not helped by a rather tacky approach - the use of popular broadcasters (another of Keller's phoney professions) did not add intellectual credibility, but the statements of better qualified commentators revealed the disdain that orchestras feel for all but a handful of the figures who are the subjects of today's media hype.

On the one hand, many conductors only get in the way of an orchestra expressing its full potential, while on the other, glamorous personalities have been found to be very marketable by promoters regardless of their lack of musical quality. The programme became a dispiriting catalogue of charlatanism, greed and overpayment, and although one sympathised with some of its basic tenets, it was ultimately very one-sided.

The Art of Conducting, a big two- part study of great conductors past and present, which was broadcast on BBC 2 earlier in the week, sought to redress the balance. For while all musicians acknowledge that the gifts of too many conductors lie in self-advancement and careerism rather than musical perception, there is still palpable evidence that a limited number of them possess the well-nigh magical gift of eliciting something quite special from their players, and consistently shaping interpretations of original inspiration.

If Omnibus ignored this fact, The Art of Conducting made an excellent stab at pinning it down in terms that the ordinary music lover could understand. What is more, it drew on a marvellous array of clips of great conductors of the century to illustrate the point and allowed us to hear long enough takes to catch something of their flavour and intellectual scope. Rarely have I been so exhilarated by televised music-making, for instance, as when Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony to a climax of electrifying power in Beethoven's Egmont during a Tanglewood performance.

Ultimately, what emerged from the two programmes was that interpretations such as Koussevitzky's arise for quite logical and analysable reasons. The great conductors knew their scores inside out: students of Georg Szell tell of him stopping a run-through and asking them to continue singing from memory the most obscure inner part - nothing less than total knowledge was acceptable. Even more importantly, they had the gift of communicating their perceptions to large bodies of players by hands, eyes, body language, or even, as Jack Brymer attested, telepathy (perhaps the one mysterious process in the whole business).

For the rest, their methods are of astonishing diversity, from Beecham's habit of playing a piece through twice, then rehearsing difficult corners, to Koussevitsky's intense shots in the dark at achieving a partly perceived end product; from Szell's iron discipline to Walter's stubborn cajoling.

Conducting is an art that matures slowly and depends on an established relationship with an orchestra, so it is no surprise that in this jet-setting age of quick guest appearances and limited residential seasons we rarely hear the kind of intense and individual performances evidenced on this film. In a commercially dominated era, which favours the young competition winner and the quick financial return, conductors just don't fit the mould.