FAQs- The Travelling Maestro!

Dear Mr Woods-

I hope you may be able to answer a very general question relating to the
working life of a conductor. I am researching for a screenplay/film project
that involves a character who is a Maestro or high profile conductor.
He is invited to conduct a new symphony in a particular country perhaps
giving five or six performances plus rehearsals.

My question is this. Would the conductor in question normally travel to the
country alone or would he be accompanied by an entourage or at least one or
two people – PA, press officer etc etc? Is this kind of performance given by
a conductor normally attached to a particular symphony orchestra the kind
that he would travel to alone?

I would be very grateful for any inside information you may be able to give

Very best wishes


Dear David

Thanks for the note. Funnily enough, I had a rehearsal yesterday when you were writing me this note, and over lunch we were bemoaning the exremely sorry state of film history with regards to performing musicians of all kinds, but especially conductors and composers. Almost all the screen portrayals of either I can think of are so cartoonish and built around the most ridiculous cliches as to make the films that contain them almost unwatchable to the people who should be most interested in them. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

So, I’m happy to help!!!

Of course, if you get this thing made by a major studio, it would be nice to be a paid consultant….

In your scenario, I would say that 6 performances would be a real rarity. The biggest orchestras would maybe do four, more likely 2-3. Four rehearsals would be typical preparation time for the concert, which would usually include some other music, maybe 1-3 other pieces depending on the length of the new work.

Most conductors travel alone- most of the PR work is done by the local orchestra, and, yes, it would be the orchestra in that city that would be presenting and organizing the event. A very few conductors travel with PAs, but with VERY few suggestions, those PAs turn out to be romantic partners of some kind. In fact, I’ve never known a conductor’s PA who travelled with them everywhere who wasn’t sleeping with the conductor in question (although many conductor’s have a personal secretary or assistant of some kind who they are not sleeping with).

If it is a very major event, the conductor’s agent might well show up. They almost never travel together, however, and the relationship is always complex between them. The agent is basically coming to see how the conductor does, almost like an audition, so there is a certain uneasiness there. If it is a new piece of music, the composer is likely to show up, as is their publisher. Everyone is collaborating and trying to help one another, and at the same time there are many layers of competition, rivalry for media attention and so on going on.

Guest conducting is a funny life, rather different from conducting your own orchestra, because the extremes are even more apparent. One minute you’re rehearsing in front of 100 musicians, the next you’re stranded alone in your hotel room for 12 hours with nothing to do. You might not speak the local language, and if you’re in a place like Hungary where there are no cognates with your own language, you can feel very isolated, and even finding toilets can be an adventure.

You might be asked to do a radio interview or two (not in Hungarian!), or even talk to the local paper. There may be social engagements you’re asked to attend with donors or board members. Almost everywhere I go there’s at least one musician in the orchestra from my corner of the world, or a school I studied at, so you’ll usually have.

Most of your concerns while in town will be practical ones- people will be asking you about your rehearsal schedule (when to the trombones need to come, that sort of thing), and most of the rehearsal work is pratical- louder, softer, faster slower, longer shorter. If it’s a new piece, there are certain to be mistakes in the parts, and often changes are made as things progress, usually at the suggestion of the composer (if he’s there), but also from the conductor.

Some VERY famous conductors (actually only one I can think of) have their own assistant conductor that they travel with. Of course, when you’re in as a guest, it’s assumed their regular conductor is off guesting somewhere else, so you see very little of your peers, but there is often a cover conductor (like an understudy) employed who is at all your rehearsals, and who may be chasing you for career advice and the like, but also is listening from the audience for balance an so on.

Anyway, hope that’s a start. Do let me know if you have other questions.

BTW- one can be a maestro, or be called Maestro, but one would’nt _be_ a Maestro. Conductors are usually called either by their first names, or maestro, but almost never Mr Woods or the like. Just as you might be called Coach or Ditka, but you wouldn’t be a Coach.

Hope you don’t mind if I use this as a blog post in the next couple days…


Disclosure- The author is writing this from Newark Airport. At this moment he is not travelling with anyone, assistant, romantic partner or agent…

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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