Guardian Writer Says Conductors Are Overpaid And Not Needed

Several People Not Pleased

by: Ian

A recent article by Phillippa Ibbotson of the Guardian (UK) about the growing salaries of classical conductors has been catching significant buzz. The topic, which has been discussed since before Normal Lebrecht published “The Maestro Myth,” (a book chronicling the shady practices sometimes taken by conductors and their agents to perpetuate ever-increasing salaries), Ibbotson attempts to tackle the issue with what can only be explained as naivety and a lack of facts.

AUTHOR’S DISCLAIMER: In general, I try to avoid sounding upset displeased pissed off angry in my writing. However, after speaking with many of my colleagues, and taking several cool off breaks, I decided to give this article what I feel is a proper response. If you would like to read the original article then hit the link after the jump. Big thanks to the extensive comment thread at the Guardian for some good laughs!

While attempting to compare the conductor to the instrumentalists of an ensemble, Ibbotson’s argument rapidly turns into an attack on the maestro’s importance in a symphony orchestra. What started as the simple question “are conductors overpaid?” quickly turned into “are they even needed?” She even goes as far as to cite Bruce Forsyth’s recent acceptance of a pay-cut as an example for conductors to follow. Yes, that’s the same Forsyth that hosted The Price Is Right and Strictly Come Dancing, the comparison is beyond me. Let’s get right to some of the finer points of Ibbotson’s article:

“The truth is that almost the last place you look as a musician is towards the conductor. There simply isn’t time. The notes fly past and the brain is in overdrive, busy processing vast amounts of information on the page.”

Come again? This sounds like a deeply confused comment from an apparent non-musician. Sure there are situations in which we are forced to focus most of our attention towards the notes on the page, but to imply that the conductor is the last place we look is nonsense! And furthermore, if you find yourself nodding your head at that statement and play in a top orchestra, I would like to buy you lunch because you will be jobless very soon.

“Nor might you be surprised to learn that Margaret Thatcher was a notorious devotee of Herbert von Karajan.”

This I just don’t get. Maybe she is referring to “star-power” and the conductors’ ability to attract big names, I don’t know. Tweet me.

“To assume that the conductor is largely responsible for the music is a bit like believing an air-traffic controller should take most of the credit for a Red Arrows display.”

This is about as true as saying Phillippa Ibbotson did significant research before writing this article. A better comparison would be, “is a football coach being paid to wave his arms in the air for 90 minutes?” If I have to explain this… sigh.

I can’t help but think of the irony—a music journalist trying focus peoples’ minds on the question “what is the point of this person?” Does she not realize how few jobs there are in our profession? If the mission was to create a stronger pro-conductor movement in the comment thread following the article, then congratulations on succeeding. If not, then I would request that she please explain herself.

Article on Guardian

Update: Pulled some of the jokes that could get me in trouble… sorry folks.. but I’m happily sending out copies to those who enjoyed the original and have been emailing me
Update 2: Paid close attention in rehearsal tonight.. people still watching conductor.. let you know if this changes

3 Responses to “Guardian Writer Says Conductors Are Overpaid And Not Needed”

  1. An orchestra is like an army and a conductor is like a general – both forces essentially perform for their leader. Without the leader, there would be absolute mayhem. As for being over compensated, sure they are, but so is Anne-Sophie Mutter.

  2. Andrew says:

    I agree with Kev Kev… this is a horribly ignorant article on the part of Ms. Ibbotson.

    I also agree that the issue of conductors being overpaid is another issue that is actually worthy of being debated.

  3. Kev Kev says:

    Well said, Ian. I went over and read the complete article and I’m fairly sure that Ms. Ibbotson really has no idea what she’s talking about. That are just so many different variables in music that to make a generalization that conductors are irrelevant is simply absurd. Sure, a lot of music from the Baroque and Classical periods could be performed by an orchestra without a conductor, as was originally done. However, the further you move ahead in music history, the more you find that orchestral music was written with the knowledge that there would be a conductor at the helm. I couldn’t imagine even a top-tier orchestra being able to pull off a stirring performance of a Mahler symphony without someone taking serious lead of the orchestra. There are even philosophical arguments that a conductor enhances the performance by acting as the focal point for the music, so that all of the efforts of the orchstra are focus and maximized by the conductor. The great maestri are conduits for the music .

    As far as conducotrs being overpaid, that’s a different thing, of which I can’t say I feel strongly either way. Just like great sports players, I think conductors will be paid as much as we are willing to pay for the entertainment of hearing great music.



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