Friday, 3 September 2010

Mr, Not Maestro

I recently filmed a conducting master class at the Royal Academy of Music in London. It was being taken by the English born conductor Benjamin Zander who over several days coaxed and cajoled his young apprentices through the finer aspects of this multi-faceted skill.

Sometimes Zander would break off from conducting and make the students dance or sing in an attempt to acquire some unique insights into a particular work, and to make them less intimidated by the experience.

The classes were done in a spirit of fun quite at odds with the severe, almost intimidating image conductors have in the popular imagination. While there are plenty of authoritarian figures out there (no names mentioned) it’s certainly not a recognisable stereotype for many younger conductors coming through.

And yet it’s a myth that shows little sign of diminishing. Take the BBC’s recent programme on conducting. It was called ‘Maestro’, an Italian word meaning ‘master’ or ‘teacher’ but has these days become universal shorthand for someone (usually a conductor) with an almost unworldly musical prowess, surely the very opposite of what the BBC was trying to convey. Indeed as far as the media is concerned, anyone who has had a modicum of success on the podium is now branded a maestro no matter how well deserved. This only strengthens the old refrain that classical music is elitist because it suggests it has to be passed down to an audience by an Italian speaking grandee.

Nor is maestro an accurate description of what most conductors do, or should do. As Ben Zander kept saying at his master class, the best conductors aren’t there to stamp their authority on players but to engage with them, many of whom share as much, if not more, musical expertise, and to harness their talents for the greater good.

Yes, there are some great conductors out there with brilliant artistic vision that are fully deserving of praise. But doesn’t the word ‘maestro’ take things a little too far? Conductors are conductors – some good, some not so good – who already have big enough egos not to have this extra ounce of flattery imparted by this word.

So next time you have the urge to call someone maestro remember what it means in English. Would you really call someone ‘master’? Of course you wouldn’t, unless you wanted to sound like a complete fool.


The Proms season has reignited the debate about clapping in between the movements of a symphony or concerto, a trend very much on the increase. It’s hard to tell whether this is a consequence of the way classical music is presented in bite size chucks on radio stations like Classic FM, or a wider example of audience power, happy to cast aside outdated conventions.
Some say it breaks the music’s spell while others, including performers like violinist Daniel Hope, positively welcome it. It’s not something that keeps me awake at night but an easy way to settle the matter would be for the conductor or soloist to ask the audience to refrain from applauding until the end of the work. Otherwise those who want to clap should feel perfectly entitled to do so.


Staying with the Proms, it’s great to see the number of child-friendly events on offer from the hugely popular Dr Who Prom to the Family Music events at the Royal College of Music. So why not go the extra mile and have children’s concerts at RAH every Saturday morning during the Proms season? It would be a very welcome throw back to the Robert Mayer Concerts of my youth, a music series founded by the German born philanthropist whose Saturday morning concerts filled the Festival Hall week in week out for many years.

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