Funny how schools teach conductors, but no one can accurately describe exactly what it takes to be a great one
Watching and hearing Vasily Petrenko, music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, at work with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last night was a treat. Here was another one of those young conductors who added a layer of magic to the music. His leadership wasn't about flash or panache. The word that came to mind over and over again was vibrancy, as if the orchestra had a colour-saturation control that the maestro had somehow turned up a few notches.
The orchestra also played particularly well, meaning that they were with Petrenko physically as well as emotionally.
It made me think again about what it is, exactly, that makes a great conductor. Everyone agrees on a certain set of basic attributes, which are part of teaching at any music school: of being prepared and knowing how to communicate one's musical ideas to each section of an orchestra.
Of course, it's not so simple.
I had a chance to sit down with Lorin Maazel a couple of weeks ago, in connection with the BlackCreek Music Festival launching in Toronto this summer.
A half-century ago, he was a hotshot conductor like Petrenko. Now he's a legend. (I have to admit I was intimidated at the prospect of an interview, and Maazel turned out to be far gentler than I feared.)
I asked Maazel what it is that makes a great conductor -- what is that special extra something.
He paused for a second.
"It's a good question, and I have no idea what it is. No one knows what it is that makes a conductor special, except that you know it when you hear it."
Petrenko has it. This is his first Toronto gig -- catch it if you can tonight. Hearing André Laplante play the Liszt First Piano Concerto is double-extra-creamy icing on the evening's cake.
Here is a link to Petrenko's blog.
Here is a 5-minute fragment of a BBC interview with Petrenko from 2008, filled with interesting, current issues:
This is a BBC clip of Petrenko leading the Liverpool orchestra in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6