In defense of “Maestro”

It’s fashionable among conductors these days to spurn the use of the title Maestro. They think it fusty and formal, and claim that it’s an uncollegial honorific. They often feign humility and ascribe true maestroness to the great conductors of the past, insisting that they have not ascended the great cliffs of music-making and earned the title themselves. They encourage orchestral musicians to address them by their first names.

What a bunch of hooey! Truth be told, Maestro is the perfect solution for a dicey problem, because the real nature of the relationship between a conductor and the musicians who play under his or her baton is complicated. Is the conductor a colleague? Yes, sort of. Is he or she the boss? Also yes, sort of.

If the conductor were truly just another colleague, s/he wouldn’t be necessary. Someone’s got to make the decisions about musical interpretation and keep the ship headed in one direction. But, especially if we’re dealing with a guest conductor, the maestro isn’t really the ‘boss’, he or she is sort of a Guest Manager of the Week. But still in charge nonetheless.

But it’s true that orchestras are casual work environments. (Musicians, let me assure you, do NOT dress up to go to work, and they are pretty fraternal in their own relationships.) So calling the conductor “Mr.” or “Ms.” doesn’t really fit (unless it’s a youth orchestra, in which case it most certainly does!) But using the conductor’s first name doesn’t capture the deferential attitude that an orchestral musician need have toward their leader.

Maestro is a beautiful middle ground. And thanks to Seinfeld I think it’s lost a lot of its overt formality. Even though that episode was poking fun at a thin-skinned conductor who had to be called ‘maestro’ even in casual situations, the overall effect was to lend ‘maestro’ the ring of a friendly nickname, which, in my own personal life, has very much stuck.

Then there’s the fact that Maestro has the benefit of tradition and unconventionality – it conforms to the international norm of using Italian for musical terminology, adding a special dash of gusto to the world of classical music.

Practically, it also relinquishes the active working orchestral musician of memorizing a bunch of names. An orchestra may see as many as 3 or 4 conductors in the course of  a week, and some of those may just fly in for a single rehearsal/concert set. In this situation, expecting the musicians to remember your name is something of a burden.

So Maestro ends up being a beautifully calibrated set of contradictions: casual and formal, anonymous and honorific, jocular and respectful. The one nagging question is: should women use ‘Maestro’ or ‘Maestra’.

Here I suggest that ‘Maestro’ become a sort of internationalized standard for both men and women (and others), divorced from correct Italian usage – very unlike me, I know. Outside of the Italian-speaking world, the term has a neutral connotation, and inside the Italian-speaking world “Maestra” has a school-marmish association.

So please, conductors, let us embrace this special bit of lingo as yet another charming quirk of our professional lives, and what’s more, let us give our quasi-colleagues a break from having to remember our given names!

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