Monthly Archives: December 2011

Great, now I’m a cult member

Every once in a while you find an article like this; they pop up like purslane between patio bricks, only less useful and nourishing.

And they really, really annoy me.

“The Cult of the Conductor” by Peter Philips of the Tallis Scholars is one of these offerings, and although it’s not new by any stretch, I hadn’t read it before.  It’s one of those screeds about how all conductors wrongly want to impose their own uncompromising (and often wrong) interpretations onto an ensemble’s music-making and how the musicians would do better to just not have a conductor there at all. Best of all, he takes on Robert Shaw, patron saint of large ensemble choral clarity in the U.S., as the exemplar of this outmoded, unhealthy, overly controlling method. (Why he feels the need to start the article saying he knows very little about Shaw’s methods, and then to continue by eviscerating them, I have no idea. Nor do I know why he would say Shaw didn’t write much about his methods–the man couldn’t shut up on paper or in rehearsal, from what I can tell. And the Robert Shaw Reader had been in publication for two years before this article was written.)

He then waxes eloquent about how polyphony demands that every member of the ensemble know his or her own line well enough, and listen well enough, that no conductor would be necessary or helpful in performances at least of Renaissance music.  And how the very term and concept of “choir” simply “will not do” for those who wish to perform Renaissance music, and that choral organizations are “disinclined to give their choirs the necessary responsibility for their lines.”

To which I can only reply, succintly and with hopefully solid imagery and clarity of expression:  Bullshit.

Any conductor who can find an ensemble made up of people willing to take responsibility, or willing to be shaped into people willing to take responsibility, for their own parts and their interaction with every single other member of the group, would think she’d died and gone to heaven. Most conductors I know, if a piece of music is going well enough that he’s not needed, will get the hell out of the way and let the music happen, and will spend every other moment of their professional careers trying to get their groups to that very point.

Yes, it’s a bit of a vicious circle, a system where the expectation is that the conductor will lead and the choir will follow, and thus no one feels invited to the responsibility of mutual ownership of the music.

Mr. Philips also doesn’t like long rehearsals. He is a crack reader, and of course knowing his own line well enough and knowing polyphony means it’s a big old waste of time to do anything in rehearsals other than make sure all the notes are right.

This sounds supremely boring.

In any case, he should learn a little more about his subject before devoting a whole article to dissing St. Robert.