Marketing Images of Conductors

November 4, 2001

I have noticed that the music industry has developed various images for conductors which are used as marketing strategies. Star conductors are usually presented in one or more of the following loosely defined categories: 

+  Recording industry sex symbol (Abbado, Muti, Mehta)
+  Cultured European/ European civil servant (Sawallisch, Masur, Dohnányi)
+  Image of the corporate executive (or arts patron darling) (Slatkin, Levine, Thomas, Conlon, Bernstein, Maazel)
+  Kindly musical wise man (Günter Wand, Bernstein, W. Steinberg, Giuilini)
+  Authoritarian artist-prophet (Richter, Fürtwängler, Mahler, Toscanini, Stokowski, Reiner, Solti, Karajan,       Celibidache)
+  Wunderkinder (Esa-Pekka Salonen, Simon Rattle)

One could elaborate in detail on each type, how they are created, how they function, how the types overlap, the exceptions, and the stylistic tendencies of their work. Most conductors are a combination of these patriarchal images. 

To a certain degree, specific cultures seem to favor certain types. Germany has 144 state run orchestras with 52 week seasons and not surprisingly, most of the conductors fit into the artist-as-civil-servant image. Even smaller cities have a full-time orchestra. They cannot afford "stars" nor are they particularly interested in cultivating that type of music-making. Due to its funding structures, America tends toward the "corporate executive" and "cultured European" models. Almost all of the jet set stars must also fit into the "recording industry sex symbol" type. The "artist-prophet" type is essentially extinct since unionized musicians no longer tolerate their abuses. Karajan and Celibidache were the last. Bernstein was also cast in that model, at least the degree it would work in the western hemisphere. 

Since there has never been a world famous woman conductor, they have no established marketing images. The problem is compounded because all of the established images are distinctly patriarchal. Some feel that the nature and traditions of the orchestra give it an almost unavoidably patriarchal character. This problem will need to be solved as women enter the profession. Perhaps new images for the conductor need to be invented -- if they can be. 

To my knowledge, Sarah Caldwell was the only relatively established woman conductor of the preceding generation. She was modeled more or less along the lines of the kindly musical wise woman. She did not make the sorts of compromises (if that is the word) that would have enabled her to be marketed by today's standards. An article in the _New York Times_ about Kimberly Grigsby hints at how a woman conductor can be presented as a sex symbol. (See excerpts below.) 

The problem with the sex symbol solution is that the expiration date for women in our culture is considerably earlier than it is for men. It can be difficult to present a woman as a sex symbol after the time she has reached her full musical maturity. Sex as a marketing strategy is thus of limited value for classical women musicians.

William Osborne

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June 8, 2001 
Broadway's Electric Conductors


Sara Krulwich/The New York Times 
Kimberly Grigsby personifies the beat as she conducts the orchestra at "The Full Monty." [The article is now in the archives and costs about $2.50.]

A one, a two, a one-two-three!" With that time-honored call to musical arms, "The Full Monty's" pop overture is off and pulsing. And so is Kimberly Grigsby. Hips twitching, toes tapping, hands slicing the air, she does not merely conduct the music. She becomes the music, like one of those novelty-store mechanical flowers that shake, rattle and roll to the strains of a Top 40 tune.

Ms. Grigsby, 32, is standing on the conductor's platform, perched at the vertical midpoint between the stage and the orchestra pit of the Eugene O'Neill Theater, her shoulders, back and long brown hair visible to the Wednesday matinee crowd. Several feet below her sits the other, unseen audience for whom she is swaying, the 12 members of "The Full Monty" band: trumpet, trombone and keyboard players and musicians on percussion, clarinet, flute, guitar and saxophone.

Their cramped habitat, with its black walls and view limited to a section of the theater ceiling, may sound like "The Full Monty," but it feels like "Das Boot." The O'Neill pit is sort of an isolation booth, a virtually enclosed chamber both removed from and integral to what is happening onstage. As conductor, Ms. Grigsby alone is the link between the realms aboveground and below. Down here, experiencing the musical is possible only by gazing up at Ms. Grigsby's expression as she watches the action onstage, her face aglow in the lighting. 

Still, the musician's-eye view of "The Full Monty" yields secrets no ticket holder can learn. For instance, Ms. Grigsby conducts the entire show barefoot. 

Ms. Grigsby is one of the few women among the conductors of the 21 orchestras playing on Broadway, although there are several more female associate conductors who preside over some performances. (A 22nd musical, "Contact," has a recorded score.) And she is not the only live-wire orchestral presence. Slowly but surely, more and more productions are finding ways to train a hotter spotlight on the conductor, reminding audiences of an aspect of musical theater that is sometimes taken for granted: the contribution of live musicians. 


"I always thought it would be fun for a woman to conduct this show, given the subject matter," said Ted Sperling, music director of "The Full Monty," the story of six working stiffs who become male strippers for a night.

It is no exaggeration to say that Ms. Grigsby throws herself into her work. "The music makes me do that," she said, over lunch before the show, of her highly physical style at the rostrum. "This music is rock music, and I think to myself, `O.K., I'm going to bring this music to them.' I'm part of telling the story."

"The Full Monty" is not her first Broadway gig. A graduate of Southern Methodist University and the Manhattan School of Music, where she earned a master's degree in piano accompaniment, Ms. Grigsby conducted the 1999 revival of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" as well as Jeanine Tesori's score for the Lincoln Center Theater production of "Twelfth Night" that starred Helen Hunt. But it was not until the San Diego tryout of "Monty" that she realized all the theatrical possibilities. For one performance, she decided to put on a backless gown. It got an ovation.

"So the producers said, `You can only wear backless dresses from now on,' " she recalled. When she got to New York, a woman handed her a card after a performance and said, "I'm going to dress you for the Tonys." The woman, Randi Rahm, a Manhattan fashion designer, eventually lent her about 20 gowns, skirts and dresses, which means she has a lot more costume options than the people onstage. 

[the article continues...see the URL above.]