The moment I saw the BBC list of history’s top 20 conductors on Kenneth Woods’s blog, I knew I had to make a list of my own. I know this blog has become extremely conductor-centric since I gave up trying to make Voices of Washington (my former chorus) a reality, but we all need our fixes somehow.
The BBC list was apparently made by conductors. No doubt there are conductors among them whom I like and dislike. So I can't be surprised that they came up with what was, in my view, a very conventional list. The only real surprise is that Nikolaus Harnoncourt was so high up (not that I'd complain).
For me, the only question in building a list of my own is, what are the true criteria by which one judges a conductor: The orchestras they’ve built? The pieces they’ve premiered? The quality of their Beethoven or Mahler? Then I realized, there is only one way to rank musicians that’s fair. And that is based purely on how much more one thinks music a joyful, fascinating, enriched artform because of their contributions. This list is based purely around the conductors whom I think have made music a better artform for everyone whose lives they’ve touched. There will be no Toscanini or Karajan, because for all the greatness I find in Toscanini’s Verdi and Karajan’s Beethoven, I can’t think of two conductors who did more to place classical music in a constricting straightjacket of standardized repertoire and interpretations. Theirs is the airbrushed ‘cult of perfection’ from which classical music has yet to emerge. There will be no Furtwangler or Mravinsky, because for all the greatness of Furtwangler’s Bruckner and Mravinsky’s Shostakovich, I think they have contributed terribly to a musical culture that is far too unrelenting in its seriousness. The maestros you see below will be based purely on their musical curiosity, the pathos of their performances, the excitement they generate, their dissatisfaction with tradition, and their willingness to take the kind of foolhardy risks on interpretation and repertoire that less brave maestros would never countenance. So...without further ado....
1. Rafael Kubelik (1994-1996 Czech) - No conductor ever brought greater joy to musicmaking.The unaffected musicality and humanity he brought to every bar of his music making is without parallel in the entire history of the podium. In terms of repertoire he was fearless, taking on everything from pre-Bach to the latest commissions, and brought the same unerring musical sense to it all. His performances had all the rhythmic flexibility (and excitement) of a great gymnast, and yet he seems to be one of the only musicians in history to get away with every risk he takes -- a feat which must take great discipline. On top of it all, it helped that he was a profoundly wonderful human being who was apparently loved by everyone who worked with him. Would his results have been possible otherwise?
2. Leonard Bernstein (American, 1918-1990) - Even his mistakes seem right. Yes, Lenny was incredibly over-the-top in everything he did, yet (to me at least) it was never in the service of self-aggrandizement. His seemingly perverse mannerisms were entirely in the service of enhancing the music he played. And frankly, they often sound superior to what’s written on the page. Whatever Bernstein was, he was firstly musicmad. He loved and played music of every stripe, and he wanted others to love it too. There was nothing he would not do in pursuit of that goal.
3. Dimitri Mitropoulos (Greek, 1896-1961) - For risktaking, there was no braver conductor. There was no conductor willing to take on repertoire further afield and none with less dogmatic discrimination in what he chose. There was no conductor more willing to take risks with impossibly fast tempos, no conductor more willing to push dynamic extremes to the limits, no conductor with less vanity about encouraging ugly sounds. He can draw absolutely beautiful sounds as well, and that combined with his great willingness to bend phrases (never too much), means that the results are invariably both musical and individualized. The result is, in my opinion, the most viscerally exciting musician to ever pick up a baton.
4. Neeme Jarvi (yeah, that’s right, Neeme Jarvi, Estonian, 1937-) - Let’s get real here. Among living conductors, we can all say that we admire Pierre Boulez’s ear for detail, or Bernard Haitink unerring sense of structure, or Claudio Abbado’s impeccable elegance or Daniel Barenboim’s Furtwanglerian sense of elastic phrase. But whom among living conductors gives the most joyful, most vital and uplifting, most educational concerts? For me, the answer is simple. Neeme Jarvi is the living the conductor with the most curiosity, the most elan, the most excitement and the most musicality. There’s nothing he won’t try, either in repertoire or interpretation. If it doesn’t always work, who cares? At least he’s willing to take the risks and try all those things other conductors wouldn’t dare touch. For Jarvi, every performance is a new experiment, with new discoveries to be made. If there were any justice in the world, he’d be the most famous, powerful conductor in the world and not just the guy you call when Maazel or Muti gets sick.
5. Charles Munch (French, 1886-1967) - Admit it, you’d take the seat-of-the-pants excitement of Charles Munch’s recordings over the military precision of Reiner and Szell any day of the week. Munch’s musicmaking is everything there is to love about music personified: ardor, intelligence, pathos and above all else, fun. He championed plenty of new and under-rated music in his day and he began his career as Furtwangler’s concertmaster in Leipzig. He learned everything about how to wring maximum expression from a piece from Furtwangler without retaining Furtwangler’s staid seriousness. Other conductors inspire admiration, Munch inspires love. Eventually, every music lover is a Munchkin.
6-10 will probably be before the end of the weekend.