By Barbara Bogatin
Eliciting evaluations of guest conductors took a new approach—and a little culinary bribery
When she was six years old, my daughter’s favorite activity was baking brownies. She relished every part of the process: collecting all the ingredients and lining them up on the kitchen table, carefully measuring two cups of flour and one teaspoon of vanilla extract, cracking the eggs without letting any of the hated shell infiltrate the bright orange yolk, and—the best part—mixing everything by hand (actually two hands, but they were thoroughly washed).
After the celebratory licking of the bowl and obligatory bath, she set the timer and placed her prized dessert into the oven. As our apartment filled with the luscious aroma of warm chocolate, I noticed a marked improvement in her behavior.
Could her brother borrow some of her Legos? “Help yourself!” How about putting away your toys? “Right away Mommy!”
Hmmm . . . I tested my new theory with an especially odious request, “Before the timer rings, how about finishing your math problems?” A moment of contemplation, then “How many brownies will I get?”
This was my “aha” moment.
That was 14 years ago, right around the time I was working with the musicians’ Musical Advisory Committee of my orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), in a renewed effort to establish a procedure for reviewing our guest conductors. In addition to the weeks spent playing under the music director, most orchestras have a large roster of guest conductors throughout the year. In a typical season at the SFS we might play with 15 different conductors on subscription weeks, and another dozen or so for children’s concerts, Pops, holiday celebrations, and special events.
The issue of how to determine which of these conductors should be rehired was often contentious between the musicians and our administrators who made these decisions. Musicians didn’t see the point in filling out conductor surveys because the prevailing belief was that no one paid any attention to our opinions, and the administration felt that since so few musicians filled out the surveys, they couldn’t make decisions based on a handful of people.
I agreed to take on the task of getting the players to take it seriously, since I’ve always felt that orchestra musicians are best qualified to understand the true nature of a conductor’s contributions and should have a big say in who wields the baton. My approach was two-fold: First, I devised a short, user-friendly survey. Rather than using the standard, multi-question, “fill in the bubbles” conductor questionnaire, I consolidated it to two main issues for consideration—artistic inspiration and technical ability, adding a yes or no query whether the musician wanted to work with this person again.
And then—this is where the brownies came in—to provide some incentive for my skeptical colleagues, on survey day I brought in a freshly baked batch of chocolaty squares, each one exchanged for a completed questionnaire. It worked like a charm. Three quarters of the orchestra enjoyed a tasty treat, leaving me a chocolate-stained sheaf of papers. My daughter was quite happy to do her part to ensure this triumph.
To compile the results, I became friendly with Excel spreadsheets. It took several hours to manually enter the data, but a mere millisecond for the computer to tell me what percentage of the respondents wanted to see each conductor back again.
I also asked for comments, and my colleagues articulately described how thrilling it was to make music with a particular person, or exactly why they couldn’t follow someone’s beat, plus all manner of interpretive and technical strengths and weaknesses. The process was so successful, I’ve been doing it ever since.
People who have never played in an orchestra often wonder what exactly a conductor does. They see a person standing on a box waving a stick, and the orchestra plays beautifully. What kind of alchemy creates this magic?
The best kept secret in the symphonic world is that today’s professional orchestras work at such a high level of excellence that they can play much of the standard repertoire (which we have collectively performed hundreds of times) just fine without a conductor. A simple nod from the concertmaster can start a piece, and barring any sudden tempo changes, the music will unfold just as it should until the final chord. We accomplish this by our deep knowledge of the composer and the piece, listening to each other, and following whichever instrument has the main (or the loudest) part. Just as a chamber ensemble functions without a conductor, a good orchestra can act as a larger “leaderless” organism.
So what then does the maestro add to the mix?
With a brilliant musician and great leader, we are indeed creating something magical together. The musicians are compelled by the conductor’s gestures, musical ideas, and force of personality to transcend the written notes, transporting the audience on a cathartic journey into the depths of human emotional experience. Some of the highlights of my professional life have occurred playing under the baton of my all-time favorite, the great maestro Leonard Bernstein. His tremendous understanding of all aspects of music, from the microscopic details of the score to the cosmic universality of feeling that connects us all, brought everyone in his orbit into a shared aesthetic and common musical purpose. The entire orchestra fell under the spell of his great humanity, communicative energy, and organic interpretation of the meaning underneath the notes.
However, a mediocre maestro can turn a concert into an “emperor’s new clothes” scenario, with orchestra members trying their best to play well in spite of muddled beat patterns—hoping their listeners won’t catch on. Often a member of the audience or music critic is exhilarated by a performance, but doesn’t truly know when their emotional response to the music is due to inspiring direction or a hundred musicians playing their hearts out no matter what they see on the podium.
Make no mistake, musicians can be brutal in their critiques when they find their conductor lacking in essential skills. After all, no matter your line of work, it’s natural to be resentful when your boss gives detailed instruction about how you should do your job, fraught with ill-conceived or useless advice.
And in orchestras around the globe, professional protocol dictates that we silently accept these commands whether we agree or not. In sifting through our surveys, I include many musician comments in the official results, but erring on discretion, save the most “colorful” remarks for our year-end “blooper” page (see sidebar).
Ever since that first year, the artistic administrators in the SFS have welcomed the musicians’ input. The players know that their opinions and comments will be heard, but because our guest conductors are often hired several years in advance, the implementation of our suggestions can sometimes be a frustratingly slow process.
Occasionally someone will suggest we dispense with the physical paper and send out a Survey Monkey link, more in keeping with the current mode of communication. People could even fill them out on their smart phones. I guess we could do it that way, as soon as someone makes an app that can bake brownies.
A Sampling of Uncensored Comments about Guest Conductors
- He has delusions of adequacy.
- His conducting is a little like lifting weights during breakdancing.
- Floor to ceiling beat all the time.
- Uncanny ability to give an upbeat and a downbeat simultaneously.
- He is getting worse and worse every day, and right now he’s conducting like it’s the middle of next month.
- Why, oh why, can we not see more musical humans like this on the box?
- Happiest two weeks of my life!
- We need to save some fingernail clippings to develop the serum.
- If he ever learned some baton technique, he could be great instead of very good.
- His strokes feel very aggressive, like we’re being stabbed.
- His fake expressions out of the “actor’s workshop” do not inspire us to play.
- Can barely keep his head above water and the rest of us are drowning.
- His hairdo is the most interesting thing about him.
- Very nice and charming man. Re-engage only for drinks.
- We plumb his depths all too quickly.
- Like a fine wine, gets better with age.
- One of the better younger conductors, which is rather sad.
- Like a new wine from a fancy vineyard—you’re tired of it after the first half-glass, and wonder why you spent so much money on it.