“The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, like most large ensembles, has been forced by Covid rules to play with fewer musicians on stage, in an empty hall, effectively as a chamber orchestra. As they were rehearsing, the players realized this was the first time in its history that the orchestra was appearing without a conductor.”
—Slipped Disc, March 8, 2021
The following will appear in the next edition of the Saint Louis Gazette:
“Orchestra announces plan to play conductorless beginning in September”
Recognizing that almost every aspect of musical performance has changed as a result of Covid-19, the Saint Louis Philharmonia has decided that they will no longer have either a music director or a conductor. For the past six months, the 62-member ensemble has had to perform without anyone on the podium, and the results have been so successful that they no longer feel that this is a requirement.
Acting Executive Director Harriet Longbow said, “At first we simply followed the CDC guidelines with distancing, masks and sanitation measures in place. Once we started rehearsing, the musicians said they didn’t need someone waving a stick at them telling them what to do.”
Reviews of virtual performances affirm that there was no appreciable loss of ensemble or tonal finesse. One of the musicians, speaking anonymously, remarked: “All we had to do was look at each other, and that was it. Going with our natural instincts made much more sense than the bloated ideas of any ego-driven maestro.”
As a result, the board abolished the music director position. The conservative estimate is that this will save thousands of dollars each year. Moreover, the savings will increase as the number of guest conductors diminishes.
Chairman of the Board William P. Hemiola stated, “Getting back to normal concert life is imperative. At the same time, we were hit hard during the pandemic and need to further tighten our belt. One additional benefit of eliminating conductors is that we will no longer need a podium. Audiences found the bulky piece of wood distracting.”
Soon-to-be outgoing Music Director Susan Crochet was less heartened. “Women have made some important strides as conductors during the past few years. My concern is that this new trend might be discouraging for those who actually believed they had a chance in the field.”
Not all of the members of the Philharmonia are convinced. Concertmaster Simon Baraban commented, “My job was much easier when there was someone conducting. All I had to do was nod in agreement at any instruction or change he or she requested. Now I will actually have to turn around and say something to my section.”
When pressed about some of the more complex works on the season’s docket, such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the presentation of Madama Butterfly, Baraban said: “Conductors like to think that we don’t know the music when, in fact, we have usually played these pieces much more often than they have led them. And we rarely look at the conductor anyway.”
Some audience members will miss the sight of the maestro onstage. “I always hoped that the conductor would either trip or fall off the podium at some point,” said longtime patron Serge Razumovsky. “It would add a lovely physical element to the concert, which frankly needs more visuals. After all, we come to see the concert, not hear it.”
All programs for the 2021-22 season are unchanged. However, the public is encouraged to submit suggestions for the following year, in the hopes that they can stump the orchestra by proposing repertoire that cannot be performed in this manner. Longbow stressed, “The participation of the audience is of paramount importance to us. Even if they think the orchestra is also unnecessary, we must listen to what our public desires.”
Season subscriptions can be purchased through the orchestra’s website, as all the box-office personnel have been let go.