The many different types of conductors, from style icons to dancers... which ones have you spotted?

Studying great maestros past and present, Jeremy Pound gives a spotters’ guide to character types regularly seen on the podium

An illustration showing he many different types of conductors
Published: July 22, 2022 at 6:58 pm
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What is the point of a conductor ?’ is a question that is often asked. And a daft question it is too. While it’s true that most half-decent orchestras and choirs can get comfortably from one end of a piece to the other without someone waving their arms in front of them, the huge range of interpretations that have emerged over the years tells us exactly what a conductor is there for.

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And think just how dull the musical world would be if conductors didn’t exist. From the showy to the shy, the fierce to the friendly, the manic to the mundane, all help to bring their own bit of colour to the concert hall. Here, in our brief guide, we present 15 varieties of this fascinating beast…

Which is your favourite type of conductor to watch?

Tyrants

In the early decades of the 20th century – often referred to as the ‘golden age’ of conducting – so revered were the top maestros that they could act pretty much how they pleased. And many did just that. Demanding and stubborn, they were often dictatorial with their players, instilling reigns of terror and hiring and firing at will. The Hungarians George Szell and Fritz Reiner and Dutchman Willem Mengelberg were notorious in this respect, while so ferocious was Artur Rodzinski, a Pole, that it was widely rumoured that he conducted with a loaded revolver in his pocket. Those rumours may well, in fact, have been true. Some said it was just his good luck charm; others weren’t so sure.

Firebrands

Hell hath no fury like a maestro miffed. Victor de Sabata and Georg Solti (‘The Screaming Skull’) regularly exploded with rage as, infamously, did Arturo Toscanini. Audio footage exists of the Italian losing his rag with his players in rehearsal, but he could be just as irascible in concert. ‘Toscanini got furious,’ remembered Palestine Symphony Orchestra violinist Felix Galimir about one occasion in 1936; ‘while he conducted, he cursed, he threw dagger-glances at the poor trumpeter, who was dying with fear; he continued to curse all the time while we played the rest of the symphony. Then he rushed out, kicking over the music stands… and didn’t come back on stage again. The interval lasted an hour and a half.’

Wits and wags

Thomas Beecham had a rapier wit, which he sometimes directed at his own players. Anyone was a potential target, though. ‘A musicologist is a man who can read music but can’t hear it,’ he declared, while ‘Brass bands are all very well in their place – outdoors and several miles away.’ Nadia Boulanger’s sense of humour was gentler. Quizzed about the unusualness of being a female conductor, she replied: ‘I have been a woman for a little over 50 years, and have got over my astonishment.’

Godfathers

Not all conductors are acid-tongued, fire-breathing monsters. Some even get on well with their players. The warm-hearted Pierre Monteux (one of the best conductors ever) was always adored, as was ‘glorious’ John Barbirolli, whose 27 years at the Hallé are fondly remembered not just for his performances on the stage but also for his genial company – cigarette in one hand, Scotch in the other – off it.

Singers

Barbirolli didn’t just conduct. He often liked to sing along as well – listen carefully to some of his recordings and you’ll hear his own dulcet tones added to the rich orchestral texture. He was not alone. With contributions varying from occasional grunts to full-blown melodies, other conductor-crooners include Toscanini, Colin Davis and Benjamin Britten.

Dancers

Some conductors sing, others like to dance, using every inch of the podium and every part of their body to express their feel for the rhythm. Leonard Bernstein knew how to move his feet, ditto the hip-swivelling Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel. And CBSO audiences will by now be familiar with the terpsichorean tendencies of Mirga Grazynite-Tyla. In fact, when conducting Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto early in 2019, the Lithuanian even took off her shoes to aid her on-stage shuffling.

Non-movers

In contrast to the dancers are conductors who move scarcely a muscle – Richard Strauss, for instance, was almost a study in stillness in his later years. Fritz Reiner also kept things to a minimum, as one player made a joke about to his cost – on tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1938, double bassist Gerald Greenberg decided it would be amusing to buy a telescope and, mid-rehearsal, pull it out and focus on the maestro. Big mistake. Greenberg was sacked soon after.

Baton wielders

One way to avoid having to move much yet still give a clear beat is to use a very long baton. Arthur Nikisch knew this, as did his pupil Adrian Boult, wielder of a 21-inch weapon. ‘I watched Nikisch very carefully,’ recalled Boult on TV in 1971, ‘and I realised that he was inherently a very lazy man, as I am. But I saw that he was doing far more with his fingers than most conductors, with the result that the stick was a much more expressive thing. It was said at the time that if you shut Nikisch up in a glass box and asked him to conduct anything, you’d be able to tell at the end of ten bars what he was conducting.’

Handy types

And some use no baton at all. Leopold Stokowski and Pierre Boulez never felt the need to wave a stick, while Otto Klemperer started with one before going baton-free for 30 years, only picking it up again at the age of 82. Countless choral conductors also like to let their hands do the work, shaping the sound with all manner of weird and wonderful – and, frankly, sometimes unfollowable – gestures.

Style icons

Malcolm ‘Flash Harry’ Sargent loved looking smart in tie and tails. As did Herbert von Karajan – the German was music’s most photogenic maestro, and didn’t he just know it. Whether on the podium, in the studio or at the controls of his plane, Karajan was always happy to pose for a snap or several , so just imagine his delight when he was officially named Vienna’s Best Dressed Man in the 1970s. All the more strange, then, that he requested to be buried not in his concert-hall best, but in his tracksuit.

Hair bears

If you can’t look sleek and stylish, wild and woolly is often the next best option. Willem Mengelberg’s occasionally maverick approach to the score was matched by hair of much the same mindset, and Simon Rattle’s fuzzy barnet brought him instant recognisability from the outset. Spare a thought, meanwhile, for Brussels Philharmonic maestro Stéphane Denève, who must spend a fortune on hair gel trying to get his unruly ginger locks under control before stepping out on stage… only for them inevitably to escape and be roaming free within but a few bars.

Communicators

Once upon a time, conductors were largely regarded as lofty and imperious, to be kept out of reach of the hoi polloi. Leonard Bernstein was having none of that. Through his educational broadcasts from the 1950s, he introduced the art of the maestro, and classical music in general, to millions of TV viewers in the US. André Previn then carried on the good work on this side of the Pond, and today the conducting world is choc-a-bloc with those who are as comfortable speaking to an audience as they are wielding the baton in front of one. While some confine themselves to musical matters, others – not least Bernstein’s own protégée Marin Alsop – have proved powerful commentators on far wider issues.

Control freaks

Carlos Kleiber was an infrequent performer. Or, as Karajan put it: ‘Carlos tells me, “I conduct only when I’m hungry”. And it’s true. He has a deep-freeze. He fills it up and cooks for himself, and when it gets down to a certain level, then he thinks “Now I might do a concert”.’ When Kleiber did conduct, however, nothing was left to chance. With an intimate knowledge of the score, he would require hours of rehearsal, polishing every semi-quaver. And his musicians utterly adored him for it.

Youngsters

With top positions at orchestras and opera houses today regularly filled by those still in their 20s, the familiar quip about bus drivers looking younger than they used to could apply to conductors too. Youthful maestros are not an entirely new phenomenon, though. Many years before he turned scary (see No. 1), George Szell was impressing the great and good as a teenager of formidable talents, conducting the Berlin Phil at 17 and taking part in the first ever recording of Strauss’s Don Juan a year later. Mind you, Szell was ancient compared to Lorin Maazel, who conducted Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony for the first time at just eight years old.

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Veterans

Many are the maestros who have carried on well into their 80s and 90s, bringing years of insight and experience to the podium. A special mention must be made here, however, for Stanisław Skrowaczewski. In 2010, Skrowaczewski was due to travel from his home in Poland for a concert with the Hallé in Manchester, but the recent eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland had grounded all flights. Most conductors would have seen this as a reasonable excuse to cancel. Not Stan. Instead, he hired cars to drive him the 800 miles (plus Channel crossing) to his destination, arriving just in time for a quick rehearsal before show time. He was 86 at the time.

Authors

Jeremy PoundDeputy Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.

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