Review: Fearsome Lucifers in white tie and tails

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The Independent Culture
'WANTED: a leader of men (plus the odd woman); unkempt hair preferable, but use of gel acceptable; omniscience invaluable; proof of training in crowd psychology required; should not be prone to self-doubt; ego the size of one of Holst's planets an absolute sine qua non; ability to sing not necessary. Under-75s need not apply. Owing to underfunding, please supply your own baton.'

You'd be within you rights to assume that at least two people in BBC Music and Arts aren't talking to each other. How else could two apparently definitive programmes on conductors have slipped through the net within weeks? Surely there's only so much you can say about a bunch of stick-wavers without repeating yourself?

In fact Arena's recent study was a quite different kettle of drums to the two-part The Art of Conducting (BBC 2), which finished last night. It was the difference between the tongue-wagging tut-tutting of the National Enquirer and the lapidary loftiness of a fat encyclopaedia, between tabloid journalism and laborious scholarship. It turns out that there was room for both.

At the risk of being sued for gross oversimplification, Arena's main thesis was that modern conductors are paid too much. The longer programme looked not into their wallets but through the eyes and down into the souls of the century's greatest baton-waggers. There might have been pretty sounds aplenty, but it was not a pretty sight.

Someone said, apropos of Toscanini, that a conductor needed to be less of an autocrat, more of a dictator. This is one of those infinitely subtle distinctions that are lost on most of us but would doubtless mean everything to any member of your average world-beating orchestra. An autocrat, wracked by insecurity, would rebuke an errant bassoonist by, say, shouting him down into a hole under the floorboards; a dictator, as sure of himself as any living deity, would simply stare at the miscreant and leave the rest to suggestion. Fritz Reiner was good at that: his eyes wore the hooded glare of an eagle that seemed to say, 'Do that again, mein freund, and you're sauerkraut.'

There was a copiously informative side to this study of technique and method, but to the layman the more enjoyable passages portayed the conductors not as musicians but as humans. With the help of reams of collated footage, maestros long dead came back to lordly life. Sir Thomas Beecham talked and eccentrically twisted his mouth in the manner that seems to be every conductor's inheritance; Richard Strauss refused to perspire on the job because it might put him off his supper; Leopold Stokowski, born in London and welcome in Hollywood, adopted an accent that placed him in the tradition of der prilliant mittel-European with white hair sponsored by whoever it is that manufactures electric chairs.

You have to pity these men, though, because you can't learn to conduct an orchestra until you're up in front of one. As overwhelming ordeals go, this is roughly akin to taking your first driving lesson on the grid at Brands Hatch. No wonder you need an unshakeable belief in your own faultlessness. John Eliot Gardiner, on Herbert von Karajan, said there was 'something almost evil in the way he exerted the power'. A Lucifer in white tie and tails: come to think of it, Nicolae Ceausescu could easily have passed for a conductor.

Tartan Shorts (BBC 2 in association with the Scottish Film Production fund) showed a trio of new film-making talents. The strangest was written and directed by Peter Capaldi, who already has a full- length feature to his credit, and starred a typically febrile Richard E Grant. 'Franz Kafka's It's A Wonderful Life' hid a lively idea under a grating title. Mr K was looking for a word to end the sentence, 'Gregor Samsa woke up one morning and found he's been transformed in his bed into a giant . . .' Here you found out why he didn't plump for 'banana' or 'kangaroo'. Or, for that matter, 'conductor'.

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