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Phillipa Ibbotson, conductors and career suicide

October 7, 2009

Philipa Ibbotson may – if her admission on Radio 4’s PM programme this afternoon (it’s 37 minutes in) that friends of hers have said ‘she’ll never work again’ – seems defiant responding to criticism about her recent Guardian blog post.

If you’ve not read it, here’s a brief (and I hope) reasonably accurate summary.

Orchestral players get a raw deal because they’re not paid enough for their obvious talents. Conductors in the UK sometimes get as much as £25,000 per concert. She questions whether conductors really represent true value for money. And if they don’t represent value for money, couldn’t they take a pay cut like Bruce Forsyth has done over Strictly Come Dancing?

It’s an interesting point. It’s a reasonably interesting idea. But there’s something in her tone during this broadcast which leaves me cold.

She says that she’s paying far too close attention to the music she’s playing to pay due deference to the conductor whose paid so very much to stand up and beat time with his baton.

A surprising admission. I have heard enough badly performed works to appreciate finely nuanced performances both in the concert hall and on CD. The performances which are memorable aren’t those who have been arrived at because of a democratically agreed artistic interpretation amongst the players, but ultimately because of the artistic vision of the man who beats time (and in some cases during the live TV broadcasts during the Proms) sweats buckets. Sure, the orchestra could problably perform without the conductor, but it is the conductor who drives the machine. And an orchestra without a conductor would mean us bloggers wouldn’t have anyone to blame when it does go wrong. Singling out one player for shoddy intonation seems like bad form. (If you disagree, please let me know.)

There are plenty of conductors who perhaps don’t make the grade. If you can’t play professionally, then conduct. If you can’t conduct, then compose. If you can’t compose (or play professionally), you may want to consider teaching. But still, those conductors have their place. They’re vital to the machine. They’re also vital (sadly) to ticket sales. That concert-going public loves a big name. Audiences love celebrity. It is a fact of life. That’s why people flocked to see Yehudi Menuhin conduct concerts. The orchestral players felt differently – but still, there was a kick playing to a capacity audience.

Maybe there’s good reason for a conductor to take a pay cut. I can live with that idea. But don’t, whatever you do, think for a moment that a conductor taking a pay cut means the orchestral musicians will see their salaries rise. It doesn’t work like that. That would unstitch the very fabric of time.

That’s not to say orchestral musicians are not deserving of more money – and whilst we’re on the subject, you might want to stop and consider their working conditions. For some it’s playing gigs every night. For those single types that kind of schedule plays havoc with your social life making romantic liaisons almost entirely centred on the workplace (what a hideous prospect that could be if the eye-candy is poor?).

All I’m saying is, there are probably better ways to improve the situation. Nobody likes a whinger. And whilst I’m more than happy to accept that I’m not showing due gratitude for Ms Ibbotson’s efforts or those of my friends for their playing abilities, I just think there’s a better way of taking action.

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