A Conductor’s Practical Book On Making A Life Of Waving One’s Arms

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Carl Topilow conducting the Cleveland Pops Orchestra at Severance Hall.

The Orchestral Conductor’s Career Handbook. Carl Topilow. Rowan & Littlefield. Lanham, 2021.

BOOK REVIEW – As long as there have been conductors waving their arms in front of orchestras, people have tried to figure out what these musicians are doing, what makes one conductor better than another, or in some instances why they are needed at all. And then there is the question of whether this strange art — if that is indeed what it is — can be taught. And if it can be taught, how is it done?

Every conservatory and college music department offers conducting classes, and one can put together a sizable shelf of books on conducting published over the years. The latest to come my way is The Orchestra Conductor’s Career Handbook by Carl Topilow. It is an excellent book, based on the author’s many years of experience leading orchestras, and it offers a slightly different perspective than other books on conducting. It is full of useful advice about what to do on the podium, but it also offers aspiring young maestros valuable insights into how to make one’s way to a viable career off the podium.

In my formative years, the conducting book that first attracted my attention was Hermann Scherchen’s Handbook of Conducting. Scherchen (1891-1966) was one of the leading conductors of his day and certainly knew what he was talking about. His goal in the book was to finally put to rest the professional conductor’s conventional wisdom: “Conducting cannot be learnt; either one is born a conductor or one never becomes one.” On the contrary, he argued, the would-be conductor must have a formidable number of musical skills including a good ear, a highly developed sense of rhythm, and a profound knowledge of all the instruments of the orchestra. Then he went on to the technique of beating time — baton technique, as it is often called — and finally he showed how this technique is applied in works by Beethoven and Stravinsky. The book remains a classic of its kind.

But there are other books that are invaluable for the young conductor. Erich Leinsdorf’s The Composer’s Advocate is an eye-opener for any aspiring maestro. Leinsdorf shows that learning a score is not about memorizing but about understanding what the composer meant. He offers in-depth analysis of one standard work after another and invariably comes up with revelatory insights. For example, he points out that there is a passage near the end of the Beethoven Ninth that has been misinterpreted — more correctly, misunderstood — by most of the so-called great conductors. Leinsdorf gets it right.

One of my favorite books on conducting is Gunther Schuller’s The Compleat Conductor. Schuller takes eight standard symphonic works and compares recordings by many of the most celebrated conductors past and present. In painstaking detail — the book is over 500 pages long, with dozens of musical examples — he shows how many of them, time and again, ignore what the composer actually wrote. It is an amazing tour de force.

More recently, in 2017, John Mauceri, a protegée of Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski, offered the wisdom of a lifetime on the podium in Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting. It is a book full of good advice for conductors, and Mauceri doesn’t hesitate to name names of conductors who should have known better, and more importantly, should have done better.

Topilow is more circumspect about criticizing illustrious colleagues, but more than the author-conductors I have cited, he offers advice that is often more practical in the world of community or student orchestras. One of the paths sometimes taken by young conductors frustrated by not having an instrument to practice on, i.e., one’s own orchestra, is to form an orchestra. Topilow did just that in creating the Cleveland Pops Orchestra. He and his wife began by studying the Cleveland market. Was there an audience for concerts devoted to classical pops repertoire? Perhaps surprisingly, there was interest and demand. While the Cleveland Orchestra was obviously the big boy on the block, it had no interest in this repertoire. Topilow explains in detail how he and his wife developed the business side of the new orchestra, putting together a board, raising the money, and finding sponsors. And what does this have to do with conducting? Again, if a new orchestra is going to be successful, its creators must have skills that go well beyond standing on the podium and waving one’s arms.

Topilow also has a lot to say about preparing for auditions, rehearsing, and programming. Old-school conducting gurus like Scherchen and Leinsdorf don’t have much to say about these matters, but in today’s classical music world, they cannot be ignored. By definition, conductors are leaders; they are the ones standing on a box and giving orders to fifty or a hundred people. But being a leader doesn’t mean being an egomaniac. Topilow constantly reminds young conductors that they are merely human beings trying to make music with other human beings. In other words, leadership is necessary, but treat people decently; do unto others, etc. Richard Strauss famously offered a set of dictums for conductors: “Never look encouragingly at the brass” was among the most memorable. Topilow offers a set of his own, often even more basic: “If you’re not willing to move chairs and stands, don’t become a conductor.” He even emphasizes the importance of having rain dates for outdoor concerts.

No young person is going to “learn how to conduct” by reading Topilow’s book. Students will need to look elsewhere for the acquisition of musical skills. But they will find this book useful as a preparation for starting a conducting career, or at least for considering such a career path.

Carl Topilow with members of the National Repertory Orchestra, which he led for more than four decades and now serves as music advisor.

But even within Topilow’s circumscribed agenda for young conductors, there are some items that deserve more attention. For example, at a time when women are finally being given a chance to conduct orchestras, Topilow might have devoted some space to how difficult it is for them to enter the profession and to stay there. One of the most prominent female conductors on the international scene today is Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. She is in great demand and will conclude her tenure as the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the end of the 2021-2022 season, when she becomes principal guest conductor. She decided to make the change because she found it almost impossible to raise a family and be a music director. She has had three children in quick succession and with pregnancies and child-rearing finds it very challenging to maintain a full-time conducting career.

It also continues to be a matter of urgency to appoint qualified African-American men and women to conducting positions. How do African-Americans make their way in the conducting profession? Is Topilow’s book just for young white men?

As far as rehearsing is concerned, while Topilow offers very useful advice to young conductors, he might have recommended that they watch the many videos of great conductors now available. Attending rehearsals is all very well — if one can even get into the hall when famous conductors are rehearsing — but even in that situation, it is often impossible to hear what the conductors are saying to the orchestra. But one can now see every gesture and hear every word as Karl Böhm rehearses Strauss’ Don Juan, Mariss Jansons rehearses Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, or Carlos Kleiber rehearses Weber’s Der Freischütz. These examples and more show the young conductor what level of musical knowledge is required and what level of energy and force of personality is an absolute necessity.

Finally, while Topilow discusses programming and rehearsal technique in some detail, he doesn’t place enough emphasis on the preparation of scores and parts. It is a fact that most printed scores and parts are full of errors and they often don’t match. The young conductor needs to make sure his or her own score is the most accurate available and that the parts are in good order, too. In many cases, there may not be a librarian available and the conductor will need to put bowings, dynamics, etc., in the parts him- or herself. As an indication of what can go wrong, take a look at a book like Norman Del Mar’s Orchestral Variations: Confusion and Error in the Orchestral Repertoire. Over many years, the International Conductors Guild has published the Journal of the Conductors Guild, with articles devoted to correcting errors in works from the standard repertoire. The late Jonathan Sternberg did valuable work in this area, and others have since carried it on. Topilow’s book would have benefited from directing young conductors to resources such as these.