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Reviewed by:
  • The Virtuoso Conductors
  • Joy Pile
The Virtuoso Conductors. By Raymond Holden. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. [x, 370 p. ISBN0-300-09326-8. $35.] Index, bibliographic citations, photographs.

As the demographic age of those attending orchestral concerts continues to rise in the United States, some critics make the argument that symphony orchestras in this country are like musical museums performing works primarily from the mid- to late-nineteenth-century musical canon and, as such, will eventually just whither away as audiences and financial support dies. Despite these dire predictions of the demise of "classical music," conductors still hold the world stage as the superstars of the orchestral world, flitting from one engagement to another, or acting as the music director of several orchestras at one time. The field is international: a British subject, Simon Rattle, conducts the Berlin Philharmonic; James Levine, an American, holds the baton in Munich and Bayreuth; and Seiji Ozawa regularly conducts the Vienna Philharmonic. Acting as the music director for a major orchestra is no longer dominated, as it was for about 150 years, by conductors rising though the ranks of the small orchestras in Germany, Austria, and the other countries of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.

Raymond Holden in The Virtuoso Conductors describes the "dominant role, homogeneity of approach, their sense of purpose and their unique relationship with the music they performed" (p. 1) of nine conductors from the Central European region whose lives spanned the period from the mid-nineteenth century through the late twentieth century. Their contemporaries, the aficionados of Western music, held these nine in high esteem, and they helped to solidify the musical canon which forms the basis of today's orchestra repertoire. Holden anoints Richard Wagner as the Zukunftdirigent who blazed the trail for these nine to follow: Hans von Bülow, Arthur Nikisch, Gustav Mahler, Felix Weingartner, Richard Strauss, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Herbert von Karajan. The basics of their biographical details are similar. Each was born into a middle class background, where their parents owned a piano, and they viewed music lessons as part of the appropriate upbringing for a child. Holden mentions that "Although serious music has a relatively broad appeal during the nineteenth century, the cost of music lessons meant that as a rule, only children from the middle class and above could aspire to a career in the arts. Ironically, however, music tended to be considered an undesirable profession by the bourgeoisie and was often shunned as a job by those who benefited from it most" (p. 11).

Hand in hand with the availability of music lessons and the family piano were the multitude of small opera houses and orchestras, some still nominally supported and subsidized by the aristocracy or the state. The plethora of small town venues provided the basis for an education in musical taste and a location where both the young aspiring musician and the ordinary citizen could hear symphonies and see staged operas for a modest price. This network served also as valuable training ground for young conductors. Holden points out that it was this multitude of venues, a hierarchy ranging from small opera houses to large ones in major European cities, rather than the emergence of music conservatories per se, which enabled aspiring conductors to acquire experience. The most talented of these musicians rose to the top as they progressed from small towns to the most prestigious venues in Vienna and Berlin.

Each of the nine conductors described gained enormous acclaim in the Western world as a great interpreter of art music and, with exception of Wagner who only toured within Europe, had engagements both in Europe and the Americas. Fortunately for posterity, these conductors (except for Wagner, von Bülow, and Mahler) reached their zenith at a time when various recording technologies advanced significantly. Today, we can view film footage of their conducting styles and hear recordings of their performances, providing us with a better visual and aural documentation of their technique and musical interpretations. (Although Nikisch's film debut is from the silent era, documentary footage of these conductors, plus a few more can be seen and heard on The Art...


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