Music Director Teddy Abrams leads the Louisville Orchestra at a July 4, 2015, concert at Louisville’s Waterfront Park. Photo by Scott Utterback.

In Brief | Thoughts on the evolving role of conductors and music directors.

As we emerge into some semblance of normality after the pandemic, it feels like a ripe moment to challenge our assumptions about the roles of our artistic leaders. Specifically, what are the qualities we look for in conductors, what more do we ask of them as they become music directors, and how can the music director’s role in advancing their orchestra’s mission be most fully realized?

In 1986, when I was a post-graduate conducting student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, we had a visit from Leonard Bernstein. I was picked to participate in a conducting masterclass with him and the Guildhall Orchestra. My contribution can best be described as mediocre, but what happened after the masterclass was a lesson I have never forgotten. With all three student conductors finished, some time was left on the clock. Lenny asked the librarian to pull out the parts for Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, and he launched into the last movement, scoreless of course, with utter focus on the young musicians in front of him. Many of them may never have played this symphony before, let alone the tricky last movement, but sparks flew, and 80 young people had an experience they will never forget. Perhaps someone reading this was in the orchestra that day?

A great conductor enables an orchestra to play at a far higher level than it ever knew it was capable of. In Lenny’s case, it was about sheer galvanizing personality but also about an inexorable rhythmic momentum within him that you just had to submit to, as well as a rich palette of gestures that made what he was looking for impossible to misunderstand, even for a relatively green group of young musicians.

Even a great conductor who catches our ears with transcendent music-making needs a different set of skills to be a music director today.

The point of the story is that conducting is about so much more than craft. It’s about leadership, about imagination, and about breathing humanity and meaning into the notes on a printed page. As they say about teaching, it’s about who you are more than what you know. I have been fortunate to spend more than 30 years watching conductors at very close hand and in many cases knowing them personally, including some giants like Bernard Haitink, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Simon Rattle, and Gustavo Dudamel. I have also watched many younger conductors make their way through their careers, often progressing to outstanding success and sometimes not—and I keep returning to the conviction that to be successful, conductors ultimately have one job above all others that they must fulfill, which is to have something distinctive to say about the music in front of them.

Why have Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and Klaus Mäkelä made such deep impressions recently everywhere they go? Because they are risk-takers, who treat the music with a joyous spirit of discovery. Every performance is a revelation. I worry that our system of assistant conductors, with its emphasis on efficiency, clarity, and professionalism, is not well suited to the development of distinctiveness. At this time in particular we need many reasons for audiences to make the trip to concert halls, and one of those is music-making that’s individual enough to stick in your mind. If the assistant conductor role were configured more toward supporting emerging artistry than satisfying the organization’s daily needs, this might create the space and the opportunities for the next generation of conductors to more fully develop as artists, ready to take over the mantle as leaders in our field. It’s noticeable that American orchestras continue to turn to Europe for their music directors. Building more intentional talent development pathways in this country is our best shot at addressing that—and a discussion for another day.

Conductor Klaus Mäkelä. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

Conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Photo by Frans Jansen.

When the talented conductor becomes a music director of an orchestra, they quickly find that a new and maybe foreign responsibility rests on their shoulders, which is about being a strategic leader in a complex organization during a time of change. Even a great conductor who catches our ears with transcendent music-making needs a different set of skills to be a music director. Ten years ago, I think I would have known how to define what was needed. I would have said that they should come with distinct ideas about repertoire and programming, be willing to take artistic risks, inspire audiences with their musicianship, stand up for artistic integrity and the highest standards, demonstrate impeccable craft, and show up in a human way with the many constituencies that a music director must interact with. Even that was hard to find in one person, but at least we knew what we were looking for.

Today, as we try to find our way in a society that has dramatically evolved in the last few years around expectations of community, inclusion, and audience building, it’s clear that we need music directors who embrace and support orchestras’ full missions, not just the artistic parts of them. At the time of writing, I don’t know of an executive director or board chair of an American orchestra who is not deeply anxious about the future of their audiences. This is not just the normal handwringing about the difficulties of growing audiences that we have discussed for decades; this is something different. The current ticket-sales experience across the field tells the story of an audience that may drift away unless it is renewed. Every orchestra doing a music director search has an opportunity to consider the role of their artistic leader in tackling this challenge.

Music directors can be vital agents of change, with a commitment to diverse stages and repertoire, authentic engagement with young people, and the building of an artistic profile that reflects the orchestra’s particular community and people.

Conservative critics will scoff, claiming that it is precisely a diminishing focus on musicianship and high artistic standards that is creating the problems we face. This is a bad misreading of where we are. American orchestras have probably never played at a higher level, and if those artistic standards—as well as our continuing fascination with a Euro-centric canon—were enough, we would have different results to show. Thankfully, orchestras in this country are now embracing the notion that their missions have to reach beyond just the impacts of the art made on stage. Every time an orchestra reveals a new strategic plan, we see signs of mission adaptation and broader thinking.

I particularly love the mission of the Tulsa Symphony, which has reframed itself as “a vital community service organization that entertains, educates, heals, and inspires through musical excellence, innovation, and collaboration.” This is so much nearer to what cities in America need. But as our institutions evolve, our conception of the work of the music director risks being left behind, severed from these new identities that stake out a deeper commitment to broader public meaning and relevance. Too often, the music director works within a hermetically sealed container of artistic priorities that are at best abstracted from the organization’s strategic imperatives and sometimes in direct opposition to them. But music directors can be vital agents of change, with a commitment to diverse stages and repertoire, authentic engagement with young people, and the building of an artistic profile that reflects the orchestra’s particular community and people.

Sarah Hicks, the Minnesota Orchestra’s Principal Conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall. Photo by Nate Ryan.

Gustavo Dudamel is music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Photo by Ryan Hunter.

There are many orchestras across the country that have music directors who see their role in this integrated way. David Alan Miller at the Albany Symphony and Teddy Abrams at the Louisville Orchestra are two that spring to mind. Both of these leaders have evolved into leadership roles in their organizations that are anything but generic, rooting themselves specifically in local identity. Meanwhile, for orchestras where this kind of place-specific leadership is a work in progress, there might be a number of routes worth considering. The starting point might be to crack the door open to new and bold conversations with music directors, insisting on their consistent inclusion in all mission-focused discussions with board and staff, and enrolling them as partners in change. The new language of cultural relevance may not always be familiar, but the worst that can happen in these conversations is much less bad than the worst that can happen if you don’t start them.

The second thought is that for orchestras currently in a music director search, it feels urgent to take a fresh look at the job description. Is it aligned with your mission and goals and what you want to achieve in the coming years? What should be included to position an incoming music director as a true civic leader? What responsibilities might be let go to allow them the space to flourish as citizen musicians? I don’t know what Jonathon Heyward’s job description looks like at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but from the outside, one observes that he is not only a conductor of exquisite finesse and skill but also has an unusual opportunity to create new conversations and relationships with a majority Black community that will finally see themselves represented on stage.

David Alan Miller, music director of the Albany Symphony in New York. Photo courtesy of the Albany Symphony.

Jonathon Heyward is music director designate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and will begin his five-year contract in the 2023-24 season. Photo by Laura Thiesbrummel.

Another idea is to reconsider a variation of the “war room” approach made most famous by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Esa-Pekka Salonen introduced a variant of this at the San Francisco Symphony with his diverse collective of Collaborative Partners, each one of whom brings a different perspective and lived experience to the table. I can imagine a scenario of a music director working alongside an Artistic Catalyst (like Daniel Bernard Roumain at the New Jersey Symphony) and an inventive popular programming conductor (like Sarah Hicks at the Minnesota Orchestra). That would be an indomitable trifecta that would excitingly erase boundaries between artistic planning, audience development, and community engagement (as I discussed in my June Symphony article Forward Together)—but only if creative control and leadership was willing to be genuinely shared (see my recent Symphony interview with Oskar Eustis).

Being a music director is hard. It takes courage to stand up every week in front of a large group of brilliant musicians and then lay yourself artistically bare with hundreds of audience members behind your back. Conductors suffer the slings and arrows of public criticism on a regular basis, and almost none of us knows what it feels like. We need our organizations to be led by courageous artists who bring intellectual capital, new ideas, and deep musical insight. But it’s critical that they also envision their role as lying in service to orchestras’ broader strategic needs.

We need our organizations to be led by courageous artists who bring intellectual capital, new ideas, and deep musical insight. But it’s critical that they also envision their role as in service to orchestras’ broader strategic needs.

A recent article about the New Haven Symphony Orchestra featured Music Director Alasdair Neale talking about his stimulating and diverse programming. Memorably, the article quotes Neale as saying that in making programming choices, a music director is beholden to themselves, to the audience, and to the orchestra—“with my own desires being lowest on that list.” That’s refreshing. I wish he had included community in that list, but the sentiment is nonetheless remarkable.

Personally, I’m always going to love watching videos of conductors on YouTube (a late-night addiction I willingly admit to), but it’s a sobering reality that few of the great artists of the past would be well equipped for the role of a music director working in America today. The door is open for us to redefine our understanding of the artistic leadership we need today.