"Any asino can conduct," the autocratic Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini once said, comparing routine conductors to dunces. "But to make music, eh? Is difficile!" Now, try conducting a major orchestra without a rehearsal, as 23-year-old Lionel Bringuier, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's associate conductor, did in May. Or consider Leonard Slatkin's predicament last season when a reputed lack of familiarity with Verdi's "La Traviata" resulted in an ill-fated performance at the Metropolitan Opera. Now that's difficult.
In the old days, the conductor was king. He could ridicule musicians in front of their colleagues with impunity. And celebrated music directors such as Fritz Reiner, George Szell and Toscanini often did. No orchestra or opera company could drum these maestros out of the pit. But that's essentially what happened to Slatkin. When his artistic contribution to the Met's "Traviata" rubbed the company the wrong way, he was compelled to withdraw from the production, which was a cost-cutting replacement for the work he was originally hired to lead, John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles."
Bringuier faced a different challenge last spring when Gustavo Dudamel pulled a neck muscle during a Los Angeles Philharmonic performance and could not conduct Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony. The associate conductor rushed home during intermission to change clothes, then dashed back to Walt Disney Concert Hall and took the podium, prompting questions from music lovers at a Disney Hall reception held after the concert: What does a conductor actually do? Are subtle musical cues really communicated to an orchestra by a leader's baton or hands or is it just showmanship? How important is charisma to the conductor's art?
As it happens, Slatkin, the music director of the Detroit Symphony, is writing a book on the subject titled "Conducting Business."
"Most of what a conductor does is not done in front of the general public," he said by phone from Santa Fe, where he was preparing the well-received premiere of Lewis Spratlan's "Life Is a Dream" for the Santa Fe Opera. "By the time you get to the actual concert, you've worked out pretty much what you want to do. It's really a matter of getting 100 musicians to think like one person."
According to Colin Davis, whose esteemed career includes directorships of the London Symphony and Royal Opera, many people, including musicians, think that conducting is "too easy."
"I can assure them it isn't," he said. "You can't hope to get anywhere near it unless you take it seriously from the point of view of technique, musicality and psychology."
The orchestra that succeeded Toscanini's NBC Symphony, named the Symphony of the Air, attempted to put on a conductorless season after the maestro's death. "They tried one or two concerts," Slatkin said, "and of course it didn't work, because somebody has to say, 'This is how it's going to go.'"
Vladimir Ashkenazy, the distinguished pianist and principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony, said he has directed Beethoven concertos from the keyboard. "After that, it's too dangerous. It might fall apart. Brahms, Beethoven [his symphonies] or Tchaikovsky would be difficult without a conductor. Rachmaninoff? Forget about it. That's impossible. So many changes of tempo, rubatos — things like that."
He describes the conductor's role as shaping the music in an individual way. "No performance is the same as another one. Sometimes you are inspired to do phrasing this and that way, and the orchestra reacts. I've seen great orchestras playing without a conductor the pieces they knew. They played it well, but there was no particular direction. Somehow it was mechanical — without substance, without an interpretation."
Ashkenazy recalled a Berlin Philharmonic performance of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony at Herbert von Karajan's memorial service. "Everything was fine," he said. "But even members of the Berlin Philharmonic said it would have been better with a conductor."
Davis considers conducting as much a human problem as a musical one. "Conductors must never forget that they are relying on all these wonderful musicians to play the music for them," Davis said. "If anybody gets in the way, it wrecks the whole show. You've got to have somebody to concentrate the forces, and give players confidence to release their own energy and musicality. If a conductor can put his ego aside, then you've really got something."
But what happens when a conductor is given no time to communicate his ideas to an orchestra? Bringuier attended Dudamel's rehearsals of the Tchaikovsky and had once conducted excerpts from the symphony — important steps toward forming a personal interpretation, but just a beginning.
In his review, Times music critic Mark Swed wrote: "Bringuier played with colors, created sharp contrasts, conducted with tremendous — and convincing — propulsion. He soaked up no more emotion than necessary."