When the Baton Is a Magic Wand, Musicians Better Their Best

Conducting an orchestra may be the most mysterious profession. All successful maestros must have an acute ear for musical sound, a mastery of the score that finds underlying order among dizzying combinations of notes, and an ability to harness 100 players and lead them toward a common goal. But nobody, as Norman Lebrecht writes in his contentious study of the profession, The Maestro Myth (1997), has “ever explained how one man with a physical flourish can elicit an exhilarating response from an orchestra while another, with precisely the same motions and timing, produces a dull, unexceptional sound.”

Conductors are as much in the dark as everyone else about how they do what they do. “I can’t explain why I know how to conduct,” Franz Welser-Möst, the young Austrian music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, recently told me. “It’s a gift I discovered.” Orchestra players say they can tell in a matter of minutes whether a newcomer has it or not. The father of Richard Strauss, who was a horn player and a bête noire of conductors, wrote: “When a new man faces the orchestra, we know whether he is the master or we, from the way he walks up the steps to the podium and opens the score-before he even picks up his baton.”

Mariss Jansons, who recently came to town with the Vienna Philharmonic, has it in spades. Everyone who has heard this burly Latvian conduct the two orchestras with whom he has spent the most time (the Oslo Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony) has witnessed that rare alchemy whereby a good ensemble-as if galvanized by a collective will the players didn’t know they had-becomes greater than the sum of its parts. In this regard, Mr. Jansons’ only peer may be Sir Simon Rattle, who brought his provincial City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to New York a few years ago and played a Mahler Third Symphony that had the man sitting in the box next to me-the New York Philharmonic’s then music director, Kurt Masur-glowering in disbelief at the spell cast by these nobodies from the English Midlands.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of great conductor-the maestro who drives the players to do their absolute best, and the maestro who inspires them to become something more than their best. In the last century, the most celebrated representative of the first type was Arturo Toscanini, for whom conducting was a supremely rational business; his counterpart in the second category was Wilhelm Furtwängler, for whom music was a supremely meaningful undertaking. Among today’s conductors, the dichotomy isn’t so clear: Most contemporary maestros like to think of themselves as “Toscawänglers.” But the division can still be felt-and to me, it was perfectly evident when I compared Mr. Jansons and the Vienna musicians with what I’ve been hearing from the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel.

When Mr. Maazel was named the Philharmonic’s music director in 2001, I was hardly dismayed: Here was a long-familiar maestro who began his conducting career as a child prodigy more than 60 years ago. But I was disappointed that the nod hadn’t gone to the other contender, Mr. Jansons. At the time, it was rumored that the notoriously obdurate Philharmonic players objected to the Latvian because he’d pushed them too hard in rehearsal, preferring Mr. Maazel for the laser-like efficiency with which he goes about getting what he wants. Many people in New York’s music world still haven’t forgiven the Philharmonic for dumping the adventurous Pierre Boulez in 1977 and hiring the more humdrum Zubin Mehta. In their eyes, the choice of Mr. Maazel was yet another instance of the Philharmonic’s instinct to settle for the tried and true.

Mr. Maazel, who recently turned 75, is now in his fourth season as music director, and whether you think the Philharmonic made the right choice or not depends on whether your taste in conductors runs in the Toscanini or the Furtwängler direction. I can’t imagine that the Philharmonic ever sounded better. With a responsiveness to Mr. Maazel’s magic wand that borders on the Pavlovian, the orchestra snaps, crackles and pops as never before. I’ve never heard from these superb musicians textures so clear, accents more incisive, dynamics more exquisitely registered than they routinely deliver in ungenerous Avery Fisher Hall. Mr. Maazel has transformed this orchestra from the worthy band of Meistersingers it was under Kurt Masur into a virtuoso powerhouse. But why do I (a Furtwänglerian, I admit) often leave the Philharmonic concerts feeling decidedly unnourished? And why, during Mr. Jansons’ performances, did I feel so wonderfully fed?

True to tradition, the Vienna Philharmonic played programs that were, by today’s dietary standards, heavy on meat and potatoes: Beethoven, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Brahms, Mahler and (early) Schoenberg. It happens that only a few weeks before, I’d heard the Sibelius piece-the First Symphony-conducted by Mr. Maazel and the contrast was illuminating. In the New Yorkers’ hands, the exuberant harmonic landscape-perhaps the greatest movie music never written for a movie-emerged in strobe lights. Contrasts were black and white; new themes arrived in italics. The degree of Mr. Maazel’s control was breathtaking. But my admiration for the performance never turned to awe. What vistas lay beyond the players remained unglimpsed.

Mr. Jansons never lets you forget that you’re hearing surpassingly beautiful music-making. With the Vienna, he’s commanding an ensemble whose sense of beauty (velvet strings, fibrous woodwinds, baleful horns) is as distinctive as a Kandinsky painting. He may be today’s most watchable conductor, not because of any histrionics, but because he uses all of himself-head, hands, arms, shoulders, knees-to give direction, pulse, shape and urgency to the elusiveness of sound. What he does better than any conductor I know of is to take you into the inner spirit of a piece-the unguarded romanticism of the Sibelius, the sorrowing punishment of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, the hypnotic eeriness of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, the sweet swagger of Mahler’s First Symphony-with so much vibrancy that I felt like Margaret O’Brien at the end of The Secret Garden when she opens the gate to her private paradise and we enter, for the first time, a world in color. Like Furtwängler, Mariss Jansons is a conductor who makes you see.

When the Baton Is a Magic Wand, Musicians Better Their Best