The relationship between leader and orchestra conductor returned to mind this week as the world celebrated a century since the birth of the great Leonard Bernstein. One of Bernstein’s protégés is a colleague and international associate of Flow – Itay Talgam. A renowned international conductor in his own right, Itay has studied the link to leadership and contrasts the difference in the approach adopted by some of the leading impresarios of the 20th century in his work – Kleiber, Mutti, Van Karajan, Strauss and Bernstein himself.

When an audience applauds at the end of a performance who exactly is it applauding? The conductor is routinely at the front of the stage and the first to take a bow, yet the only one not to contribute directly into the sound that enthralled the assembly. The conductor’s only instrument is the (silent) baton. Yet with one wave of the baton the conductor’s contribution is the most critical of all – to turn chaos into order. Discord into harmony. Noise into melody.

Many leaders I encounter still believe leadership is about having all the answers. Incredibly, even in the 21st century, there are many out there still confusing expertise and title with leadership. No conductor could ever hope to match the virtuosity of the soloist. No more than any soccer manager could take a free-kick like Ronaldo.

Yet within the conducting greats, there is still room for individual styles to prevail in how to build a partnership with the orchestra. That personal style is built on two things. Their belief of how the music should be translated (you might say vision for the music) and how they communicate this to the orchestra – a communication that, by definition, is entirely non-verbal.

Mutti presents as an authoritarian believing the musicians should adhere rigidly to the composers will, while Kleiber invites individual interpretation and is deliberately vague. One is stern, the other joyful. Both balance praise and sanction of the performers.

The pinnacle for Talgam, however, is (unsurprisingly) his mentor Bernstein – so adaptive in his style and relationship with the orchestra, so accomplished he is literally “doing without doing”.

For more, see Talgam’s TED talk here:

Itay TED Talk

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