The conductor is the central figure in most orchestral performances and is the person with whom audiences generally identify. Certain conductors attain ‘cult status’ which even endures posthumously; examples include Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, both powerful musical personalities. Norman Lebrecht scruti-nized the personality cult of the conductor in his book The Maestro Myth, and there is debate as to the extent to which a performance ‘belongs’ to the conductor or to the orchestra. British conductors rising to prominence during the 1980s and 1990s included Sir Simon Rattle, who became synonymous with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Richard Hickox, founder and close associate of the City of London Sinfonia.
   There is speculation as to why there appear to be so few up-and-coming British conductors. Conducting opportunities are scarce for students, so for the most part they must study by observation rather than practice. Many aim to work as repetiteurs as a first step in a conducting career, or set up groups of their own. Many British orchestras and opera companies operate assistant conductorships, usually aided by sponsorship. There is also speculation about the lack of women active in conducting—in the British and International Music Yearbook there are fewer than twenty female names in a total of 400—though, as in other professions, the balance is slowly tipping towards equality, with the emergence of such conductors as Jane Glover, Sian Edwards, Odaline de la Martinez and Wasfi Kani.
   Most holders of conducting posts with British orchestras were born abroad. Many of these simultaneously continue their international careers, typically holding more than one orchestral post and making guest appearances. For example, newcomers in 1996 to British conducting posts included the Royal Philharmonic’s music director, Daniele Gatti, born in Milan; Frenchman Jean-Bernard Pommier at the Northern Sinfonia; and American Joseph Swensen, principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Many conductors from abroad develop strong relationships with British orchestras; for example, there is the close connection which has spanned a decade between Libor Pešek, awarded the KBE for his services to British interests, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
   Conductors have also risen to especial prominence in the performance of authentic/period music. Many, such as Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner, undertake careful study to ensure performances are as close as possible to those of the composer’s time.
   Further reading
    Lebrecht, N. (1992) The Maestro Myth, London: Simon & Schuster.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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