At first blush, an orchestra is a group of artists whose playing as a group can sweep the audience away to other planes of being. As pathos-laden as that may sound, it’s true. And those who experienced, say, the performances of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies by St. Petersburg’s Mariinksy Theatre Orchestra this season … they know what this means: active thought ceases and you sink into the melodies without noticing as your imagination drifts off—and suddenly you’re in another world where you can feel the composer’s tension, despair, and passion, a feeling so intense that you go home happy and close to physical exhaustion following the final applause.
A good orchestra is capable of accomplishing all this, and one would hardly think that it’s a place of work that, in truth, is strictly hierarchical. Where everything is subject to rules. Seating order, entrances, authority. And the fact that all musicians are subordinate to one single person: the conductor. He or she is in a position of power, and it’s no coincidence that, to this day, the figure of the conductor is symbolic of the authoritarian, narcissistic, egocentric artist who has no qualms about crushing all others.
But happily, the concept of the tyrant at the rostrum is looking a bit long in the tooth. Just recently, members of a major German orchestra openly rebelled against their “star conductor”, publicly denouncing the climate of fear he’d created. This touched off a longoverdue debate on just how, in 2019, people want to and should treat each other and work with each other in an orchestra. A nice example here was provided by scenes from a film about the young Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra, who doesn’t hesitate to kid around with orchestra members and also praises and works with the ideas that come to her musicians in rehearsals; the musicians, for their part, express great appreciation for her collegiality. It does one good to see that times are indeed changing—and that the twilight of the tyrants is near.