How could it take me so long to stumble upon this gem in the New York Times- A Little More Sweat, Maestro.” ?


Who is the sweatiest conductor? Answer below! (Photo assembly from the New York Times)

It has long been postulated that the aerobic benefits of conducting were the key factor in the unusually long lives and careers of conductors like Monteux, Stowkowski, Wand and Sanderling. My own feeling is that once you know what it takes to develop a really first rate and long-lasting career, you wouldn’t let something as pedestrian as death stop you working.

But, I can certainly testify that for me, conducting, especially big repertoire, is a workout. An Elgar, Sibelius or Mahler symphony is bound to be exhausting and calorie burning work….

My favourite quote from the Times piece is this on the merits of “conductorcise-”

And it is low impact and requires no skill, making it easy for people who are older, very overweight or chair bound.”

No skill, eh, paper of record? Well, I doubt you’d find many orchestra musicians who disagree…

Sweating maestros is a topic one can discourse on at length. I sweat between a bit and a lot in concerts and some in rehearsals, which actually puts me in the moderate-to-light sweating end of the conductor/perspiration continuum. [Venue is important- I always feel totally dehydrated after an evening in Guildford’s Electric Theatre, and I might has well have done the Sahara run as conduct the Wilmslow Symphony in Wilmslow Leisure Centre last month. My suit could have driven itself home after that concert]. But if you think I’m bad… There are some conductors who begin to sweat from every pore the second they open a score, conductors who cannot rehearse without a towel(s), conductors who regularly splatter the front desks of the strings in every rehearsal. If your principals are bringing umbrellas to rehearsal, try less coffee beforehand. Most conductors wear black to rehearsal for two reasons- it makes the baton easier to see, and doesn’t change color when soaked with sweat. I would say that more than half of professional conductors change shirts at the break in rehearsals.

Without doubt, London musicians have the most interesting and broadminded takes on conductor sweating. I recently heard one of the major London orchestras referring to a very famous and very, very sweaty conductor as “the self-basting pig” a cruel, but cruelly funny nickname. I trust they meant it affectionately. Of course, the maestro would be deeply hurt to learn this, but could take comfort in the fact that his career choice, which “is low impact and requires no skill, making it easy for people who are older, very overweight or chair bound,” means he’ll be racking up lovely fees when they’re all in their early graves….

Answer- This is tough competition- three of my favorite conductors. Although David Robertson is shining the most brightly in this picture array, research has shown that James Conlon sweats just a little more than his peers in this lineup. None of them is on the extreme end of the perspiration spectrum (and Abado sweats less since his cancer problems caused him to become economical in his approach), although Conlon may enhance his sweating performance by being the only maestro in Cincinnati who had his own espresso machine in the dressing room.


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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.

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6 comments on “Schvitzing”

  1. robert berger

    Richard Strauss,famous for his restrained,understated style of conducting,hated
    overstrenuous conductors.After conducting a concert,he would feel his armpits,
    and if there was a lot of sweat,he would angrily say to himself,”amateur”.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Robert

    Fair enough- Strauss was economical to a fault. On the other hand, Mahler was a famously demonstrative and athletic conductor until his heart condition forced him down the Zen path.

    I also feel I must disclose that the first time I conducted for Erich Kunzel, the longtime Pops czar in Cincinnati, and asked him for feedback, his assessment was both brutal and empathetic “You sweat like a pig….. just like me, but you were the best one I saw all day.”

  3. John

    There was a similar article in the NY times a few years ago – I completely forget who the conductor was – but he was also an avid skydiver. The experiment was to put a cardiogram on the conductor while he was skydiving, and again while he was conducting a Beethoven Symphony.

    The end result was that his heart rate was SIGNIFICANTLY higher at many points whilst conducting Beethoven.

    I have to admit – I sweat while in the heat of the battle – more off the forehead than the underarm though. The “Trial” through to the “Gambler’s chorus” in Bach’s St. John Passion I think was a highlight. The second chair actually bought me a hankie after the dress rehearsal. Probably because the constraints of the venue put me right over their stand light, and in the first row of the capacity audience.

  4. erin

    I sat directly below Gergiev’s podium once at the Barbican… I swear I was sprayed a couple times. He grunts too, and jumps up and down, his feet actually leaving the podium entirely sometimes. I have a sneaking suspicion this is the one the London orchestras were talking about…

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Erin

    Good to hear from you!

    Your description of Gergiev is quite vividly accurate, but there is a method in his madness. Yes, he is a very prolific schvitzer, and some may call him a ham, but he was not the maestro in question.

    On a side note, whenever people get going on the “what do you think of Gergiev” riff, I’m reminded of my first encounter with him. It was the first tour of the Kirov, and they finished the concert with Tchaik 6, which remains one of those rare few performances that you hold on to to remember just how powerful music can be. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience as shaken to its core as after that concert.


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