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!


My friend Zach has gotten a lot of play recently from this article in which he and one of his critic colleagues discuss Danny B’s recent Bruckner cycle at Carnegie Hall.

And since this kind of thing is catnip for me, I weighed in on twitter:

and of course that awakened the sleeping giant, the Bruckner People themselves:

(In case it isn’t clear, “this guy” is me.)

The first thing to note is that this Bruckner Person (who turned out to be a convivial fellow after all) tacitly agrees with my assertion – he’s not offering a counterclaim that Bruckner’s music in fact has wit. Rather he’s making a tangential argument: that a lack of wit in a composer’s music doesn’t make that that music unworthy. (And before we go on, let the record show that I never said anything about Bruckner’s music being ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’ or anything in between, and frankly, I don’t know what that would even mean. You do you, Bruckner People!!)

To buttress his claim, the BP cited works which, according to him, are just as bereft of wit as are Bruckner’s, and I’m so glad he did, because in fact, I agree with him – I don’t think either of these pieces are witty either! Yet they are both works in which I absolutely delight, meaning that they are the perfect counterexamples to further investigate my thoughts and feelings about Bruckner’s music.

Here’s where we arrive at an important point, which is that I don’t hate Bruckner’s music, not by a long shot. Every one of his symphonies contains music that stirs my soul or pumps me up, and yet I find listening to them from start to finish a punishing experience.

I’ve written about this before, and the conclusion I came to back then was that, among the many modes of Bruckner’s music, the holiness, the loveliness, the drive, and the intensity, the element that’s totally lacking is wit (or, one might say, charm.)

But now we’re back where we started, which means its time to look at these counterexamples, letting it be stipulated that we are in agreement that, like the symphonies of Bruckner, there’s not a whit of wit to be found in either Beethoven’s piano sonata Op. 111 or in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. So what qualities do they have that Bruckner’s music lacks?

Hold the phone though! We’re saying that Beethoven’s Op. 111 – the very boogie woogie sonata itself – isn’t witty?? This is literally one of those pieces that purveyors of classical music use to convince little kids that what they’re listening to is in fact ‘fun’:

And yeah OK, this is fun. It’s danceable and light and maybe even a little goofy. But I don’t think it’s really witty. (And, boy, I probably should have gotten to this a long time ago, but if you’re wondering what I mean by ‘wit’ in music, just go listen to everything Haydn ever wrote.)

The boogie woogie music serves as a leavening agent in a mostly serious piece, but this sonata contains multitudes: world-weary melancholy, bodily joy, smiling through sadness, philosophical introspection. And now we’re getting somewhere, because these are all items that I would add to the list of Elements Lacking in the Music of Anton Bruckner.

Elements Lacking in the Music of Anton Bruckner

  • Wit
  • Fun
  • Danceability
  • Goofiness
  • World-weary melancholy
  • Bodily joy
  • Smiling through sadness
  • Philosophical introspection

Now we turn to Wagner, whose idiom shares many more surface similarities with Bruckner’s than Beethoven’s does – the brass-heavy orchestration, the tertial harmonies, the rhythmic drive, the sonic intensity. Both their musics play out over celestial timelines, and they’re both aiming to express the nature of gods and godliness.

But here’s the crucial distinction: whereas Bruckner’s art is the manifestation of his deep religious devotion to God, Wagner’s is an expression of both the divinity and the devilry of Man. Wagner’s characters, his gods, his heroes, and his magicians, are all intensely human, imbued through his music with lust, love, envy, and fury. They are pure id machines, motivated above all by an unmitigated sexual drive. Bruckner’s is the Music of the Spheres; Wagner’s is The Music of the Genitals.

OK then, it’s time for a new thesis: it’s not just wit that Bruckner’s music lacks, it’s Earthliness. If you really look at it, wit is an earthly characteristic – it’s is how clever people entertain themselves when they’re confronted with the messy realities of life on our planet.

What Bruckner’s music contains is Heavenliness, and that’s not a bad quality in and of itself. A sense of the divine is something we all need, and music is perhaps its most genuine expression. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, and for me, sitting in a concert hall listening to one of Anton Bruckner’s gargantuan symphonies, I find the music is always hovering oppressively above me, too far out of reach for a real connection. Bruckner’s target audience seems to be God himself. And to bring it back to Zach’s point, maybe that’s why so many fascists enjoy it – it flatters their sense of divinity.

Ask a Maestro: What’s the deal with vibrato?

OK I want to clarify my position here: I’m not in any way against performing music without vibrato. In fact, I think it can sound cool af. What I’m against is the rigid adherence to a doctrine of non-vibrato under the heading of Authenticity.

As usual, it’s the fans, admirers, and courtiers surrounding the Early Music set who are most ardent in their worship of senza vibratoism rather than the musicians and scholars who are better read and practically grounded (of course there are some real doozies in that bunch too…) I have heard many a Baroque enthusiast say that they simply won’t listen to a vibratoed performance because it’s not authentic.

The world, my dears, ain’t so black and white, and that’s what I’m trying to get at in this video.

All right: Come at me bro!