How To Be A Maestro

Managers can sound a lot like performing artists. More than ever, they talk in terms of audience, choreography, experience. Business schools teach ‘active listening’ and empathy. The late management guru Peter Drucker was surely correct when he said, famously, that Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

So it was an eye-opener for me to attend a recent Masterclass by Daniele Gatti, chief conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and one of the world’s great maestros.

Gatti’s method is to show more and to tell less. He frequently stepped up to the podium and took the baton to demonstrate an idea. His comments were succinct, and his advice while often playful was never less than profound. Leaders in any field can learn from this example.

Gatti and his band spent three consecutive days with four protégés, all rising stars of classical music: Nuno Coelho, Roderick Cox, Ruth Reinhardt and Tianyi Lu (pictured, above).

From my seat in the choir stall, I watched from the vantage point of the orchestral musicians. It was one of those rare occasions when the correlation between input (Gatti’s insight and rationality) and outcome (the young conductors’ reactions, the orchestral sound) felt exact and precise.

We often hear that effective leadership is a test of authenticity. No doubt this is true, but it is not the whole story. Leaders learn to communicate by example. They must create belief – and, from that, efficiency.

I took detailed notes on Gatti’s mode of instruction: Articulation. Coolness. Economy of style and technique. Transparency. These are the observations which have stayed with me. Each is a core element in what might be called a Daniele Gatti method.

Daniele Gatti | photo: Concertgebouw

For context, here’s my summary of his advice to each of the four protégés.

Driving is easy

First to the podium was the Portugese conductor Nuno Coelho, a student of many stellar and storied maestros, who has been busy collecting top prizes in competitions from Barcelona to Salzburg.

Coelho chose a middle passage from Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’. Two dark and stormy minutes into the score, Gatti urged him to rein back his sweeping arm gestures. “You are like a traffic policeman. This way, off we go. Brrrm, brrrm,” interrupted Gatti.

Driving like this was easy, according to Gatti. An orchestra knows the route. (The same might be said of the CEO in a big company or the principal of any well-established organisation.) A conductor’s job is about articulation, to signal “inflection points” which otherwise would pass unseen and unheard.

As he took the baton, I noticed the economy of Gatti’s gestures. The change in sound was instantaenous, as the orchestra responded to deftly angular jabs from his baton, elbows and free hand. “Sonority = Belief,” he urged.

Transparency not guile

American Roderick Cox, guest conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra and winner of the 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, tackled another passage from the Stravinsky with huge charisma and verve.

A bold presence, he was a passionate force in front of the musicians. But what was the musical idea? “Appassionata. Something romantic,” Gatti recognised. How to articulate it? “They will not play louder because you wave your arms.”

Cox began to explain. Gatti hushed him. “Two pieces of information is enough. You have to be an actor,” he urged. A leader must “act with transparency not guile.” This kind of musical method acting is efficient, the means to “pass responsibility” to the performers.

Secure the bass, unpack the chord

Ruth Reinhardt opted for a passage from Brahms’s ‘Haydn Variations’. A German-born graduate of New York’s Juilliard School, she holds conducting positions with orchestras in Dallas and Los Angeles. “You are like a banker who has a problem with his bank,” Gatti told her.

Turning to the musical notation on the page, he asked the section leaders in the orchestra to isolate three dominant chords, rising to a tonic. “You have to listen harmonically. Secure the base, then unpack the chord.”

Reinhardt’s tempo slowed at each melancholic phrase: “With your gesture that is beautiful here, you are squeezing the sound a bit too much. Try to beat the quantity of the crescendo, the dynamic.” For an orchestra of this calibre, said Gatti, the beat is “not a metronome”.

Music is communication. “Privilege the orchestra. Let them be free,” counselled Gatti. He raised the baton on a soft, but meticulously controlled, pizzicato in the strings: “There is the black heart of destiny.”

The musical, the dramaturgical

Tianyi Lu, assistant director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, has a career spanning three continents. In 2014, the Berlin Philharmonic and other bands chose her as a finalist in a competition where critical orchestras – not conductors – are the judges.

Lu chose the Grazioso section of the Brahms. There was “a big problem of articulation,” Gatti told her. She tried to describe – and sing – “the line” of the musical phrase from her score. “Be careful [when you] talk about the line. They know the musical line,” Gatti cautioned.

A conductor’s responsibility is to interpret, to out-think the printed notes. He or she finds “the musical, the dramaturgical” in works that often are already familiar to an orchestra.

Principles

These, then, are hallmarks of a Gatti School: Articulation. Coolness. Economy of style and technique. Transparency.

The complete video of Gatti’s 2018 Masterclass is available via the following links on the Concertgebouw website: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.

Gatti’s counsel is, substantively, a behavioural model of leadership. His instruction aimed to realise a conductor’s interpretation, a measure of authenticity. His concern was for music, but the intelligence of this approach holds far beyond a concert hall. Surely, these elements are essential to efficient leadership in any field.

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