Guest Blog- Peter Davison “If Bernard Haitink conducted in the forest…”

Peter Davison, artistic consultant of the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester and artistic director of the Two Rivers Music Festival takes a clear-eyed look at how the music business finds and overlooks talent, and the disconnect that can happen between ability and achievement.  Forget the old question of whether  a tree that falls in the forest makes a sound. If a 38 year-old Bernard Haitink or Manny Ax showed up on today’s music scene, would anyone notice? On the evidence of last week’s concerts, they would.


Judging talent in the public space

There has been more or less universal acclaim for the recent Proms given by Bernard Haitink, Manny Ax and Chamber Orchestra of Europe. For once, public, critics and the aficionados of the music-business are chiming in general agreement. These were performances of the highest quality – redefining standards and our perception of the repertoire. Most impressive was the humility of the performers. Haitink is a modest, quiet man, whose words are as a well chosen as his gestures on the podium. There’s nothing fancy or theatrical about him. Ax is much the same. The music comes first, while egos are left trailing far behind. Add to this auspicious pair a group of instrumental players bringing huge commitment and technical finesse to music of fabulous craft and depth, then clearly we have a potent alchemy. For once, we can all shout ‘hooray’ together and really mean it.

Seeing such unequivocal and, it has to be said, well-established talent on display raises the question of how we recognise ability and give it prominence, in circumstances where there is no consensus about merit. The trajectory of many a career begins with winning competitions, thereafter doing hard yards working the circuit in mundane places. There is then often a testing process to win the attention from critics, promoters, agents, recording companies and so on. You can be as good as Haitink and still find yourself beating your head against a brick wall, if you don’t get the right opportunities. Talent is not in itself a guarantee of success. Equally, not having much talent is no barrier to achieving considerable public attention.  We hope that the critics and professionals will eventually arbitrate, and they often do.

Yet, there is a natural reluctance for artists of integrity and substance to sell themselves as commodities and to join in the crazy charade of image-making and self-promotion. High integrity and hyperbolae associated with marketing are diametric opposites. But it is almost unthinkable now for any major artist not to consider such matters, otherwise the unscrupulous and the mediocre will steal the show. In recent times, we have seen how, even in government, the obsession with controlling the message has led politicians of ability and integrity into very murky waters. And yet in the arts, the true professionals involved in PR, marketing and media understand that it is a necessary game and they know the rules. They know that if you exaggerate consistently, you will eventually be found out.

The public space is notoriously fickle in the short-term – susceptible to the whims of fashion. The media latch on to people, only to let them then fade away, when they are no longer the latest best-thing-ever. The genuine artist has to ignore all of this and look to the long-term – building slowly by consensus, never shouting too loud, but being the persistent voice that just will not go away. Someone of Haitink’s eminence has achieved his reputation over an arduous lifetime, with some notable lows among the many highs. But, in the end, he is noticed for his music-making and little else. He is a private man who asks only to be judged for his music, not his wardrobe or personal habits.

Whether it is possible to build a career like his now is less certain. The need to project an image, a life-style and to become the story is much greater. The competition out there is increasingly young, dynamic, articulate and media-savvy. Managers know this and encourage it because big money and big headlines are often at stake.  There are now so many new ways to put out a message. There is a lot of white noise drowning out the music-making. But can it be realistically avoided, as I said before, if the mediocre are not to triumph? The Haitink Proms were reassuring in that regard. I have confidence that the public space cannot in the end be manipulated over a long period of time. The insubstantial will be found out and the froth will blow away. The public space is a court of a much wider opinion than the image-makers can ever control. Quality has a habit of nagging us until it is recognised. Occasionally mass delusion sets in, for reasons beyond easy psychological explanation, but fortunately it does not last. So congratulations Messrs. Haitink, Ax and the members of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. You have reminded us that true quality is not just a matter of opinion but can be objectively and universally recognised.

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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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2 comments on “Guest Blog- Peter Davison “If Bernard Haitink conducted in the forest…””

  1. Brian

    I can only hope that Mr. Davidson’s contention is true. I have seen my fair share of charlatans of the podium who do seem to be in the business to put forward their own egos. Would that the world find more artists of the kind demonstrated by Messrs. Haitink, Ax and their colleagues in the COI.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Brilliantly well said, as always from P.D.

    It’s important to hear the big note of hope in this essay- my choice of metaphor was meant to reinforce that. The question of whether a tree that falls in the woods unobserved makes any sound is a purely philosophical one, and one that is easily answered. Of course it makes a sound! As the industry evolves, we’ll hopefully learn what we can about the media culture, but the Proms this summer have clearly shown us that listeners are remarkably able to discern great music making. Ask around the Albert Hall, or follow along on Twitter, and the Proms that everyone has been talking about are those by Haitink, Bychkov (his Verdi Requiem and Mahler 6 with the BBC Symphony) and Ivan Fischer, and the rather unique case of the John Wilson orchestra. It seems that singular artistic vision and commitment to excellence can still trump empty hype in many hearts. Note that both Fischer and Wilson started their own orchestras, and the COE, which triumphed so mightily with Haitink, was started by the graduating musicians of a youth orchestra project many years ago. PR works best and has the most value when it’s one tool for sharing the same message you share in the concert hall, rather than making up for the lack of one.

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