Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

By | August 25, 2013 at 3:11 pm | 2 comments | Austria August 2013, LSO On Tour | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A couple of things caught my eye this week. An article which has been doing the rounds suggests that performers in competitions, are judged more on the way they look than the way they sound.

I’m always a little uneasy about music competitions, partly due to my own lack of success in them and partly because music isn’t really a competition in the Olympian sense. We are all of course striving to be the best that we can be, but the ultimate goal isn’t a victory but a successful and moving musical outcome. It’s easy to disprove this however. If you’ve ever been in an audition warm up room full of aspiring flautists waiting to prove their worth to the panel, you can smell the aggression and there is no mistaking the winning at all costs atmosphere that poisons the room. In much of Europe and America, they talk about winning a job although, the auditions are usually behind a screen to make sure they are judged on sound and not what they look like. In any case, the sound of great musicianship is more attractive than the sound of a beautiful face. it does in my mind provoke questions of just what we want from performers and especially conductors. I interviewed Valery again last week for a radio programme and the inevitable subject of the toothpick raised its upbeat once again. People are fascinated as to why he uses it and how we follow his ‘distinctive’ beat. I think the answer is  quite simple. What an orchestra needs from a conductor is not what an audience perhaps wants or expects from them. If you were to ask a child to do their best impression of a conductor, the chances are they would immediately adopt a serious face, grab the nearest pencil and start flailing around their arms as if being attacked by imaginary wasps.

Next Generation

If you watch any film which portrays musicians, you will often find that the actors playing the cellist/oboist/flautist will have been given lessons in how to look convincing (see various recent releases about string quartets). The conductor on the other hand is more often than not a slightly restrained version of the childish impersonation. Slightly. This brings me onto the second thing that caught my eye this week. It was a tweet from a TV/radio personality/presenter who commented that after seeing the face of the conductor in action at the proms, they could see why the orchestra loved playing for him…
Unless he was mouthing the words, “I’m personally giving you a 50% pay rise backdated to 1996,” all the way through the symphony, I find it hard to believe. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve never looked at the face of a conductor and thought, yup, now I remember why I love playing for you. Actually, I lie. I did once when we were recording the soundtrack to a computer game and for publicity purposes, Lara Croft conducted a bit for the cameras. But that doesn’t really count. My point is that onstage, the conductor is just part of the way things are held together. They beat time, they shape phrases, speed up and slow down and along the way they might, with their face, look rapturous (Bernstein), jokey (Bernstein), distressed (Bernstein), sob (er…Bernstein) or look like they want to kill somebody (Gergiev).

Valery making an encouraging expression

These looks are for the audience not the orchestra in my humble opinion, it’s all part of the show. So are we as the audience (yes I sit in the audience too. I still like music) guilty of judging conductors by sight and not sound too? I would say that we almost certainly are.

Khatia Buniatashvili copyright Julia Wesley

I’m writing this on a 4 hour train journey from Villach to Vienna having played last night with the pianist Khatia Buniatishvili. Now, she has two things going for her. Firstly the delicate touch and beautiful sound she brings to the Chopin concerto and secondly for the less musically discerning in the audience, she is also rather beautiful which is what started this thread of thought. If you judge her on her look or her sound, you can’t lose. I really don’t like the Chopin concerti that much, but she brings an elegance that seems natural and unforced; all those florid runs become more than pianistic excess and I’ve really enjoyed her playing.

Sitting where I do in the orchestra, I doubt anybody judges my performance on what I look like. I hope not anyway. In any case, as I have a face for radio, tomorrow (Monday August 26th) at 8pm exclusively on Classic FM, you can hear a two hour programme I’ve written and presented about life on the road with the LSO based around my book, The Show Must Go On. I talk about the 1912 tour when the players spent considerably more time on a train than we are today. I ask Valery why he uses a toothpick, and you can also hear about what its like on tour today from Sue ‘the shark’ Mallet, David Alberman, Sarah Quinn and my fellow blogger Maxine Kwok Adams. It’s worth tuning in to hear Sue’s Bernstein story alone. As well as LSO recordings through the ages, you can hear the very first recording ever made by the orchestra with Arthur Nikisch in June 1913. 8pm tomorrow night on Classic FM.

I’d better go now as we are arriving in Vienna and we have an outdoor concert this evening. That would be why it’s pouring with rain outside…


  1. Roger Rey (1 year ago)

    Gareth hej from Sweden.
    In my experience the majority of an audience seem to need the visual aspect whereas personally my concern has to do with experiencing the music.
    If one really listens then any form of visual inteference distracts.
    Yes, I can understand peoples visual needs though I find it rather sad.

    As to one of your examples the pianist Khatia Buniatashvili whom I have heard play, …… unfortunate experience. If there is one crystal clear example of the sheer blatant flaunting of ones body for the camera then she fits the bill to perfection.

    We do live in a world where surface sensations are rife, where the image is used to seduce, real depth of experience is discouraged and where the organs of perception are dying. Sadly, that is just the way it is. Rey.

  2. Tib (1 year ago)

    I suppose, then, that the LSO is quite lucky…not only highly talented but also look very good!


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