Subtitled The Art and Alchemy of Conducting, John Mauceri has written an illuminating book which is more about the art and craft of leading an orchestra than it is about alchemy. Maestro Mauceri has had a distinguished career which has taken him to many of the world’s top orchestras and opera houses. Among the latter are The Met, La Scala, and The Royal Opera House. He had a very close working relationship with Leonard Bernstein for 18 years.

The book is filled with delicious anecdotes that are interspersed within a serious discussion of the practicalities of leading a symphony or opera orchestra. The first of its 10 chapters, after a brief Introduction, is ‘A Short History of Conducting’. The conductor as we know him today is a creature of the 19th century. The increasing complexity of scores required that someone be in charge. The two founders of  modern conducting were both great composers – Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner. It was obvious that no matter how detailed the notation and instructions of a score, there was considerable room for interpretation such that the conductor’s attempt to realize the composer’s vision was bound to vary from conductor to conductor. Composers soon recognized that they often were not the best conductors of their own works. The anti-semitic Wagner went so far as to hire the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi to conduct the first performance of Parsifal, so important had the conductor become in proportion to the complexities of Wagner’s scores. No one else conducted the opera until after Levi’s death. Given the greater demands of opera compared to symphonic music, it’s no surprise that all the major conductors of the late 19th and early 20th century came from the theater.

The conductor is the only person in the hall or theater who makes not a sound. The players play, the singers sing, and the audience applauds, boos, whistles or hisses. At least such was the case until the advent of the wireless microphone which allowed the maestro to make pungent or gratuitous remarks before allowing the show to proceed.  So how does a man (usually, but less so than earlier) influence the quality of a performance by gesticulating wildly and sometimes even jumping up and down? This effect on players and singers is what most of Mauceri’s book is about.

The first, and perhaps most important requirement is keeping everybody together. Such coordination is harder than you might suppose. Then the conductor must determine how slow or fast and how loud or soft the orchestra should play. Some leaders, like Toscanini, claim that they are just following the composer’s instructions; but a score is full of ambiguities and has markings that have no literal meaning. The conductor’s job is to realize a performance that brings out all the meaning in a score realizing that each good conductor will find different meanings. There is no one right way to perform Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or Verdi’s Aida.

Mauceri tellingly depicts the adversarial relationship that typically defines the interaction with a conductor and the orchestra he directs. He tells the story of the unfortunate, and incapable maestro, whose orchestra was so unhappy with him that in the middle of a quiet slow movement the percussionist picked up his cymbals and played an earsplitting crash. The unfortunate conductor looked at his score for a moment and then said, “Who did that?”

Anyone who has served on the board of a performing arts organization knows that the players almost always get bored with their music director after a while even if he’s very good. It’s just the nature of the job. The reaction of an orchestra to a visiting conductor is often hard to fathom. The players usually fill out an evaluation sheet which determines if the maestro is asked back. These evaluations may reflect the conductors personality (real or perceived) as much as his musical ability.

Today one becomes a conductor by studying for the job at a conservatory or university under the direction of a pedagogue who may have more experience teaching conducting than as an on the job conductor. As mentioned above, practical training in the opera house as repetiteur or assistant was the way to the podium.  Toscanini went at age 19 from the cello section to the maestro’s baton with no intermediate steps.

Mauceri’s depictions of the path to leading an orchestra, the demands of the job as well as the satisfactions, and all the virtually innumerable things that can go wrong are the meat of this book. Anyone interested in the workings of a symphony or opera orchestra will find Mauceri’s vivid enumerations of the maestro’s job an illuminating read.

His explanation of the difficulties inherent in conducting opera have a surprising omission. An opera singer not only has to sing very difficult music, but he has to do it in costume and makeup while moving around a stage impersonating a character. So, of course, a lot can go wrong. Mauceri describes how a conductor handles an operatic mishap, but he doesn’t mention that there’s a prompter in  opera whose job it is to keep the singer on course and without whom the conductor’s task would be much harder.

The techniques and idiosyncrasies of many famous maestros are sprinkled throughout the volume. One interesting story is how Herbert von Karajan was engaged by the Met to stage and conduct the Ring Cycle over four seasons. According to Mauceri, he left after doing just the first two Ring operas because the Met’s orchestra wasn’t up to speed. This was before the now out of favor James Levine made the orchestra into one of the world’s best.

The chapter about who’s in charge today concludes that a lot of different people are, but with the possible exception of Valery Gergiev, none of them is a conductor.  So who are these gantze machers? General managers, board members, divas, ballet masters, big donors, and stage directors are among those who call the shots. The last of these come in for special obloquy – rightly so in my opinion. These knuckleheads have done more to set opera back then ten 12 tone composers.

Anyone who spends a lot of time on the road will sympathize with Mauceri’s encounter with airport security, sterile hotel rooms, and intense boredom in between performances. Trying to tell the TSA that two batons in a case are harmless will send a shudder down the spine of anyone who’s been singled out by them for special attention. But Mauceri’s kvetching  about a conductor’s problems with management and modern travel are not unique to a musician. Every practitioner of every profession  undergoes the same passion. You just have to suck it up and get on with the job or else drop out and go on the dole.

Conducting a big orchestra is a tough and compelling job. Its satisfactions should outweigh the tsouris that goes with it. If you love Beethoven and Verdi you’ll enjoy this book. Worthy of careful attention.