Is the era of the musical maestro approaching its end? The abrupt falls from grace of several world-famous names in the wake of the #MeToo movement have led to intense scrutiny falling on conductors as the locus of authority in music making. Historically, the non-playing director only became the norm in the 19th century, with Berlioz one of the first to win fame on the podium. The 20th century was the great age of the celebrity conductor, when the likes of Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Fritz Reiner, Carlos Kleiber and Herbert von Karajan had more clout than any instrumentalist or singer.

Daniel Hope © Thomas Entzeroth
Daniel Hope
© Thomas Entzeroth
In recent years, however, there has been an upsurge in the number of orchestras who have partially or wholly dispensed with baton-wielders. The way was paved in the 1970s by HIP orchestras specialising in Baroque repertoire, which returned to the earlier practice of having the continuo player lead the ensemble. The violinist-director also has long historical antecedents: even as late as the 1830s, François Habaneck led the Beethoven symphonies from the first violin part. Indeed, the role of the concertmaster in standard symphony orchestras is a vestigial reminder of this older tradition, and they often have more of a role in direction than is commonly recognised. Rumours abound that during Furtwängler’s tenure the Berlin Philharmonic coordinated themselves with the concertmaster rather than relying on the maestro’s notoriously erratic gestures.

Today, a significant number of chamber orchestras are reverting to this model of the violinist-director. Of the three interviewees I spoke to, Daniel Hope is the most recent to have taken on this dual role, having succeeded Sir Roger Norrington as music director of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra in 2016. It has been a new experience for the orchestra also. Under Hope’s stewardship, the players have literally stood up for themselves (no more sitting down), enabling greater interaction between them. As he explained, the musicians have had to rise to new challenges: where a conductor can give an anticipatory gesture to cue them, a player-director cannot play before the beat. As such, the players can no longer follow their director (even if only by a nanosecond): the two have to be exactly in sync. Happily, the new arrangement seems to be working out well, with audiences finding the players’ enthusiasm "infectious". Recently Hope has taken on a second player-directorship, which will involve curating and leading the young San-Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra’s concerts, a group already used to working without a conductor.

In 2004, David Grimal set up Les Dissonances, a Paris-based artists’ collective. Where ZCO puts on c.150 performances a year (with Hope at the helm for around 100 of these), Les Dissonances is a project-based group, meeting for around ten days four times a year and giving 15-25 concerts. Grimal sees it as an “island away from the mainstream”, one which requires a new sensitivity in listening amounting to “love” (his word) between the musicians. Each member of the orchestra has studied the full score and needs to know it intimately. At the end of a tour, he claims that each of the players could conduct what they have been playing. One cannot quarrel with the results: their repertoire includes the likes of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, enormously challenging works even when one has a skilled conductor to guide the players through the changing time signatures and fluctuating tempi. To achieve seamless coordination in these pieces without a conductor verges on the miraculous. 

The veteran in terms of time in office is Richard Tognetti, who has been at the helm of the Australian Chamber Orchestra since 1989. Since then, the orchestra has grown into a world-recognised ensemble, getting rave reviews at home and overseas for the vibrancy of its music-making. Tognetti gets to spend around nine months of each year with the players, which has enabled them to establish the sort of interaction and rapport one expects of chamber musicians. In common with the ZCO, the ACO is frequently led by others from within and outside the orchestra.

The three violinists have interestingly divergent opinions on the nature of their relationship with the rest of the orchestra. Perhaps by virtue of his nearly three-decade tenure, Tognetti most clearly aligns with the traditional notion of the authoritarian leader, describing himself as a “conductor with a violin”. For him, the benefit of playing is that he can illustrate exactly the sound he wants, conveying his intentions more clearly to the players than a conductor could. The core of the ACO is a small string ensemble, but when they collaborate with wind players, especially those using period instruments, Tognetti is willing to defer to their opinions on technical issues when he requests a particular phrasing. Size also is a factor here: if only a handful of players are needed for a piece, then matters can be more democratic than when there are upwards of forty players involved. 

Richard Tognetti leading the Australian Chamber Orchestra © Christie Brewster / Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti leading the Australian Chamber Orchestra
© Christie Brewster / Australian Chamber Orchestra

By contrast, Hope describes his procedures as “a bit of a give and take, really … I like the collaborative process, I like the suggestions coming in, I like to try to things out”. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that as leader the final decision is his, and it won’t necessarily please everybody. Grimal is committed to the notion of collaboration in theory, but when rehearsal time is limited, in practice one can’t canvass the opinions of the other 94 musicians involved in The Rite on tempo and articulation. Basically he works with the trust of his friends, who can intervene if they have something of importance to say. Rehearsals of Les Dissonances are intense: there is never any idle talking and no time wasted. As Grimal acknowledges, sometimes his ideas don’t work; if so, this quickly becomes apparent in the rehearsal process and they try something else.

All three violinists have had mixed experiences when performing concertos with other orchestras. Tognetti notes that by contrast with the careful curation of sound he undertakes with the ACO, “as a guest one can only go so far in establishing a sound profile”. Hope has observed a generational change between older conductors, who prefer to have all suggestions from soloist to the orchestra to pass through them, and younger figures, who are happy for the soloist to communicate directly with the players. For Grimal, the conductor can on occasion be a block on the communication between soloist and orchestra of the sort he enjoys with Les Dissonances.

David Grimal in rehearsal © JB Gloriod
David Grimal in rehearsal
© JB Gloriod
So what might the limits be for the conductor-less ensemble? Opinions on this question differed wildly. As far as non-concerto repertoire goes, Hope thinks Mozart, Schubert and the likes of the Bartók Divertimento ideal for the ZCO; he’s starting to explore the early Beethoven symphonies, but is not convinced that it’s time for the Eroica yet. Brahms and Mahler are definitely not in his sights. The ACO has offered impressive performances of Brahms symphonies in the past, and in terms of size has gone as far as Mahler 4, but sometimes even for pieces with smaller forces (for instance, Adams’s Shaker Loops), Tognetti has set aside the violin for the baton.

Grimal prefers not to set any boundaries to what the conductor-less orchestra could achieve, seeing it rather as a question of time and resources. With adequate preparation and intelligent collaborators, he thinks even the Ring Cycle would be possible. For him, a conductor is needed when an orchestra has to grind out up to three programmes a week, a model utterly antithetical to how Les Dissonances operates. Grimal sees his group as bringing performance into the 21st century. The traditional orchestra, with its top-down model of leadership in which each player is a cog, emerged in tandem with the industrial revolution, when such hierarchical structures were normative, but in his view the next phase in human development will harness a more dispersed, collective intelligence.

The new wave blowing through the classical music world promises much, for players and audiences alike. Violinist-directors are in a prime position to steer the new course, being both leaders and performers. With musicians of the calibre of Tognetti, Hope and Grimal shaking things up, conductor-less orchestras are where some of the most exciting music-making is happening today.