The labourer is worthy of his hire -

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.


The labourer is worthy of his hire

  1. Bromwell Torvey, in your second link, likens this controversy to 'Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson's "faux gold medal" at the 1988 Summer Olympics. Mr. Johnson was stripped of his medal when he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.'

    I think the more apt comparison is to the opening ceremony controversy at the Beijing Olympics:

    A 7-year-old Chinese girl was not good-looking enough for the Olympics opening ceremony, so another little girl with a pixie smile lip-synched "Ode to the Motherland," a ceremony official said – the latest example of the lengths Beijing took for a perfect start to the Summer Games.

    Now, if they replaced him with , say, Maxine Bernier, I suppose I could better see his point.

    And c'mon, if it was simply recorded music playing in the background while some other activity occured during the opening ceremonies, sans miming musicians, there would be no controversy. You don't see an orchestra pit at the figure skating arenas, and who ever mentions who performed the music in their numbers?

    Still, good for him – a snub is a snub. Now, if the opening ceremonies were choreographed such that the conductor was required to arrive on the podium wearing stilts, or in a Haida canoe, and Bromwell felt this was beneath his dignity and hence boycotted, would his support be the same, you know – artistic freedom of the choreographer sacrosanct?

  2. There's actually a pretty consistent worry among musicians that their work will be replaced by recordings or machines. It's been a constant battle on Broadway to keep pit bands, which for most performances really do seem like anachronisms (do any of the teenage girls watching Wicked give a rat's ass whether a human bassist plays the bottom line and gets paid scale for it?).

    Tovey, whom I haven't met or yet seen conduct, is widely considered to be one of the real class acts among Canadian-ish conductors (he's an import from Britain with 20 years' residence in Winnipeg and then Vancouver). Here's a student thesis that shows Tovey is far and away the conductor who most consistently programs work by Canadian composers:

    ….and while looking for it, I found this piece in the Harvard Business Review in which Henry Mintzberg follows Tovey around to glean tips on managing complex organizations (.pdf):

    I do think there's a better public understanding of the importance of conductors in the past few years than in, say, the decade after Leonard Bernstein died. Montreal went through a truly weird trauma when Charles Dutoit left in a huff, and the public celebrations around the arrival of Kent Nagano made him that city's unlikeliest celebrity. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is probably the second-hottest young conductor in the world after Gustavo Dudamel, who rings all the pop-culture bells (60 Minutes profile and…um…60 Minutes profile). So VANOC is a bit behind the times. But then, little of what's leaking out about the opening and closing ceremonies encourages anyone to think they'll be particularly memorable.

    • What's your impression of VANOC's press release dated Dec 19th, and the specific words highlighted:

      VANCOUVER, Dec. 19 /CNW/ – The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) will play a prominent role at the 2010 Winter Games and will showcase its musicians' talent to the world both through the Cultural Olympiad, and the playing of over 90 national anthems. VANOC regrets that the complex technical requirements of the Opening Ceremonies have put the VSO in a difficult position and both parties wish to move forward in the spirit of preparing for the great Games ahead.

      Legit or politics (I have no informed opinion either way)?

      • Let's just say there's reason to worry:

        VANOC is doing the right thing by not telling us much about their plans for opening and closing. Surprise will be part of the magic, if there's any magic. But there's a really robust tradition in Canadian public events of surrounding pop stars with the most anonymous crap (Avril Lavigne comes as a positive relief here after the astonishingly awful techno-Celt soundtrack to the ice-fishing whatever-that-was).

        • Well, at least they didn't fit her out with polar co-ordinates.

          This press release dated April 7, 2009 suggests it is a complex production. The fact that the controversy came to the fore recently suggests to me that rehearsals must be now underway, or close, hence this detail has leaked out (faux orchestra).

    • I've seen Tovey a number of times at the New York Philharmonic (he hosts their summer series) and he is a true class act. He is full of knowledge and wit and I wish more conductors were like him. If they were, there's a pretty decent chance the whole profession would be treated with more respect rather than as an interchangeable part.

    • Many years ago, when I had occasion to go looking for a Canadian-based conductor who was stubborn about programming serialist/atonal/nontraditionally-tonal/"difficult" music, Tovey (then in Winnipeg) was the name absolutely everybody mentioned. He obviously has a very keen awareness of being entrusted with a mission.

  3. Why not have Britney Spears conduct? If it's so easy, and they want a mascot, why not one whose penguin suit falls off at the climax?

    I don't know if it's really easy. You've heard the one about the musician who threatened to follow the conductor's passes.

  4. I'd suggest that even the 'visible' part of a conductor's job is vital to the performance – his very presence grounds and focusses the orchestra. There's an ethereal (almost subconscious) dimension to playing live that has a lot to do with shared presence.

    • Even as part of a sideshow (if that is what it will be) at GM Place, or wherever it will be seen?

      How about CPO's Mozart in the Mountains or Beethoven in the Badlands? I suspect the shared presence might be of a different dimension.

      • Not that I'm one for lip-syncing, but if something of mine were going to be performed against a pre-taped version of my playing and singing – I'd likely insist on doing it myself. On the other hand, I suppose I wouldn't have a problem with recording something for someone else to pretend with on stage, if that was the deal offered.

        I don't get the need to have someone else pretend to conduct – they should either play the piece as a recording or let the orchestra act it out.

        I'll have to search out a video of the CPO outdoor stuff – I've heard of it but that's about it.

        But I can tell you that the difference between sharing a stage with musicians and taking turns laying down tracks in the studio is vast. The chemistry of facial expressions, body language, adjusting to each other, and the whole human quality to playing live is exactly what makes performance worthwhile (versus the world of IPod consumption).

  5. "The visible part of the job is something a ten-year-old could do…" Right! And when the kid is finished "doing" Mahler's 9th she can take over for Colby Cash at the word processor. Certainly anyone can beat time to pop songs, but just try letting an orchestra attempt to perform any standard work of "classical" proportions without the firm hand of a trained conductor on deck and watch what happens: bloody chaos. Mr. Cash should confine his aesthetic apercus to the football and hockey venues he hails from where a little chaos always offers a welcome bit of divertimenti.

    • Snooty smack downs are more compelling when you properly spell the subject of your derision.

      • It also helps if their main point is neither obviously wrong nor hilariously dumb.

        • I'm just jealous that you have an aesthetic apercus. I'm adding that to my Christmas wish list.

          • Is that anything like an abacus?

        • Anytime you're ready Mr. Cosh, just step up up onto the podium, and then we'll really see something really hilarious. (Don't forget your hockey stick!)

          • I'm not quite sure you get it.

          • But I'm not sure GJTryon is entirely out to lunch, astonishingly poor manners notwithstanding. A symphony conductor at the podium does a hell of a lot more than just beat time, and the work is not all done in advance. Here's a good survey of what all it entails:


          • Oh, I concur heartily — will enjoy the article tomorrow — I just meant that Mr. Cosh wasn't implying otherwise, merely that philistines might think that everybody can conduct a symphony, steal second base, dance, etc. Everything beautiful seems easy.

          • The implication is that an orchestra could never be conducted from the chair of the first violinist (i.e., the way it was done for much of the history of symphonic music), and certainly never from the bench of a piano. Has anyone informed Messrs. Perahia and Barenboim and Ashkenazy?

          • Excellent piece – thanks for the link, PW.

            Not to equate the two in any serious way, but I was active in my school band (heck, I was in band from grade 7 on – back when school boards had decent funding for such things). For many of our performances, we'd often have a piece planned for an audience member to conduct. It was always of the 'wind-up' variety (consistent dynamics and tempo), and one the band could play on autopilot.

  6. OT and profuse apologies to all, I don't like going off-topic on a thread especially when it's about music, but this is important and I wouldn't do it otherwise.

    Fox news will have a news special tonight about Climategate and will be interviewing Steve McInyre as part of the special. The same Steve McIntyre who was the subject of a recent article in Macleans.

    A true Canadian hero. Tonight 9 p.m. eastern.

    • Thanks Jarrid. Melt in peace. Amen

    • You too are a true Canadian hero. I hope you one day get the Fox news treatment you deserve.

    • Why apologize if you're going to do it anyway?

  7. Well put, and an interesting choice of subject, Colby.

    I normally breeze by your stuff, not anymore. Bravo.

  8. Allow me to continue to be the ignorant cynic on this issue. Irrespective of whether or not Bramwell Tovey is a brilliant conductor, the job of recording music for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics would go to the VSO, and whomever was the conductor at that time.

    As it turns out, he was at the right place at the right time.

    The audience for the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics will be huge. A chance of a lifetime. He went for it.

    • You call that cynical? In the context of the Olympics? You ain't seen cynical.

      • True, they could have the orchestra made up of Olympic denied female ski jumpers.

        • Or just declared classical music to be a winter sport.

  9. Sincere mediocrity is almost touching.

  10. And of course the same orchestra with the same conductor will sound different from one performance to another even when they set out to sound the same every time. Moreover, the physical presence of the conductor and the orchestra are as integral to the experience as the musical score and its performance. This is why we still cherish live performance.

    At any event, I'm with Cosh on this – regardless of Tovey's motives, the idea of a conductor baton-synching an orchestra is just horrible.

    • Could he do the lead for Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes? For all we know, this could be the job description.

  11. "We could ask Barenboim about that if we like, but I've got a hunch about what he'd say, since he's a piano soloist who lets other men do the conducting when he plays with orchestras." Sure, except when he doesn't (he doesn't, always). We started out arguing the "bloody chaos" hypothesis, whereby the percussionist's severed head ends up in the tuba or something if there's no baton being waved. I didn't mean to mount some sort of attack on the conducting convention of the present day, though it is most definitely a convention.

  12. Speaking as a victim of popular culture, symphony orhcestras need to do more to pull back the curtains and help people raised on pop music understand what's behind those performances. I'm a fan of the Winnipeg New Music Festival because it does this by inviting composers to discuss their works with the conductor and critics, on stage with the orchestra demonstrating from the score.

    Started by composer in residence Glen Buhr during Bramwell Tovey's tenure as conductor, by the way.

    I think other communities have similar festivals — I'm not connected to the scene — but this approach has made symphony music much more accessible for me, and as a result I respect the conductor for a lot more than sprrited baton waving.

  13. I am speaking from the podium.

    Fullscreen your monitor.

    Set the volume on 'Ring Christmas Bells' to 95%. Set the volume on 'Stairway to Heaven' to 100%.

    Hit the play button on 'Ring Christmas Bells'. At exactly the moment when the timer shows that 6 seconds have elapsed, press play on 'Stairway to Heaven'.

    Listen and watch. At position 2:33 on 'Ring Christmas Bells' the carrollineur will seem to be conducting the bell choir, after which time you should notice the conductor's hand in 'Stairway to Heaven' and it will appear to be moving exactly like the carrolineur's hands at his keyboard.

    For an encore that will complete your experience play Magic Box below. As you watch, allow your thoughts to remember that all of the classical music repetoire of the VSO has been digitized and owes it's existence to vinyl and live performance of this ossified art form could take the form of a mime and be quite exciting.
    [youtube 4NphYaPZlvY youtube]