Conductors' witticisms (and foibles) - your experiences

May 6, 2019, 1:10 PM · At my string orchestra rehearsal last week a violist made a slight slip of the tongue when addressing the conductor, from whom there was a witty and instant response.

Violist: ” I have a question mark!”
Conductor: “I'd see a doctor about that if I were you. I have a colon, but I don't go around talking about it!”

When the laughter subsided nobody could remember the question.

This conductor had been a university physics lecturer until he retired, and was doubtless adept at handling questions in the lecture room.

Replies (31)

May 6, 2019, 1:52 PM · I Have played in a community orchestra for decades, but I can only remember one witty remark made by the conductor. Actually it was my first rehearsal and the conductor, welcoming us to the new season and addressing the new musicians, said: "If you are going to make a mistake, please make it loud so that it is interesting." We all laughed or chuckled but he make his point - don't be afraid, play out, don't hold back.

Yeah, he actually started every new season with that same joke but it stuck and helped me as well as others.

I know he told us a lot of stuff and made lots of jokes but only that perennial season opener is burned in my brain and I use it with my students.

Edited: May 6, 2019, 2:51 PM · The wittiest conductor of them all might be Thomas Beecham, who has enough quotes to fill a small book. Two that I can paraphrase; re. Beethoven Symph. #7, 4th movement; "What can you do with it?, It's like a bunch of Yaks jumping about" 2) A male opera soloist complained that he couldn't perform an aria very well while lying down in a bed. Answer: "Some of my finest performances have been from that position"
One that I use sometimes, that strangely seems to work, is " I'll pretend to be a conductor, and you pretend follow me".
May 6, 2019, 3:35 PM · My youth orchestra conductor was full of bizarre remarks. Some highlights:
"You're playing this like popcorn on a windowsill," "Rehearsal D for Dummkopf," "Don't play like you're pushing a banana through a screen," "Celli, you sound like feral cows," "Don't skin the antelope," and a fan favorite: "Every time you play this passage, it sounds like you open a cage of wild rabbits and they all start running around." He also, for some reason, liked to compare poor phrasing to the groundhogs in his yard, which he claimed he "removed" with a shotgun (knowing him, probably not true). Big on animal metaphors, it seems. On tours, he always said that the purpose of the assistant conductor was in case he got arrested.
He also often called us musical assassins and compared our playing to running wild in the street.
From what I hear from my current colleagues in the university orchestra he used to conduct, he was not nearly as (absurd? witty? sarcastic?) with them. Different context, I guess.
May 6, 2019, 3:39 PM · "You play like peeeeet orchestra."
"You play like sour pickle."
-Victor Yampolsky

"Slow is not beeeautiful. Slow is slow."
"Don't vorry about it. Just make museec."
"Some people make a living out of writing in the orchestra instead of playing."
-Peter Eros

May 6, 2019, 3:44 PM · * "Sounds a bit avant-garde" (when we play out of tune)

* "I am happy to announce that it is now allowed to practice your parts at home" (said to us after one of the last rehearsals before the concert)

* "Take any other tempo you like, but I won't be following you"

Edited: May 6, 2019, 4:48 PM · I saw Sir Thomas Beecham conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall (1960, about a year before he died). It was magnificent. The concertmaster was Sidney Harth. It was a "lollipops" program (all orchestral encore pieces). The orchestra really played for Beecham.

He was already somewhat frail, and they had placed a stool on the podium so that he could sit when he conducted. After every piece, he would motion the orchestra to stand and take a bow. And only then would he stand, turn to the audience, and take a modest little bow.

After about the 3rd encore, he motioned the orchestra to stand. But instead they stayed seated, and all motioned him to stand. It was a wonderful moment. Beecham stood and turned to the audience. We were all on our feet, giving him a thunderous applause.

Beecham raised his hands and motioned to the audience to be seated. And then, out of his frail body, came a booming voice with this aristocratic British accent. His voice filled the hall as he said, "You know, you have a wonderful orchestra here in Chicago. But....there is ONE thing they haven't learned......OBEDIENCE !!!"

Some things you just don't forget.

May 6, 2019, 4:03 PM · Beecham was legendary for his quotes, although a number of them would probably not be considered politically correct today. Here is a website with a bunch of them. Enjoy!

May 6, 2019, 4:49 PM · One of my friends at Oberlin kept a notebook in rehearsal and every time the conductor made a remark that could be taken as an unintentional double entendre, she would write it down. Out of consideration for our underage members, I won't repeat any of them here but a couple of them have stuck in my brain for nearly forty years.
Edited: May 6, 2019, 5:16 PM · In early summer 1973, 46 years ago, I was blessed to play in an orchestra under the direction of Herbert Blomstedt. This was in the orchestra for one of the annual 2-week Conducting Master Classes he gave every summer in Redlands, CA. It was certainly a wonderful experience I will never forget. Ever since then I have held Blomstedt's example as a communication benchmark for conductors I have played under. They don't have to have the same style but for me they have to have a similar level of communication in their body language. As an amateur, if they violate that to severely I can go somewhere else to play - and have done!

The "student" conductors at that master class were pretty much all employed as music faculty at various colleges - so they had lots of conducting experience and their individual "styles." However, before he allowed any of the conducting students into the rehearsal room Blomstedt instructed the orchestra members to play in exactly the style each conductor indicated. So choppy conductors got choppy playing, etc. It so shocked them that some of them practically dropped their baton. The orchestra had a goodly share of LA professional musicians - so they all knew how the music should be played and were certainly able to have done that - think we played a lot of Mozart that first night.

May 6, 2019, 5:31 PM · I can think of a lot of funny things that happened in orchestra but few of them have anything to do with the conductor. The comment that sticks out most in my mind is in music camp orchestra (I was a teenager) when the conductor, aiming to get us to play an Italian overture with the right style, referred to it as "spaghetti music." I was very offended on behalf of the piece because I thought the overture was very beautiful. His comment was obviously something he had pulled out of the hat many times with the intention of being witty. And that was over 60 years ago. Scary how long you remember things you heard as a kid...
May 6, 2019, 6:03 PM · Scott Cole: At Tanglewood, years ago, Veektor (Mr Y) would say "you play like yogurt." I wish I'd thought to thank him for saying we sounded so cultured.

Edited: May 6, 2019, 8:05 PM · What is it about conductors and food references? I have a whole archive of conductor quotes. A couple of the more memorable food-related ones:

"It's the difference between tomato puree and tomato paste. You're playing tomato puree. We need the paste."

"Start at 266 again so we can be fluffy. Let's grab the nice loaf of French bread that suddenly appeared in front of us."

May 7, 2019, 1:52 AM · To summarize: It does not look like conductors are a very witty group of people. Which is exactly my own experience.
May 7, 2019, 4:48 AM · Mary, over-age members outweigh the underage members here, and besides, I promise whatever you were going to say is 1/10th of what they hear on a daily basis from peers.
May 7, 2019, 8:13 AM · I am well aware of that but that doesn't mean I'm going to contribute to lowering the public discourse.
May 7, 2019, 11:19 AM · Well, when I heard Brahms conduct his 3rd Symphony......Oh, never mind.
May 7, 2019, 11:36 AM · Said by a conductor that tried to conduct one of my pieces, but had trouble getting the tempo consistent; "If this is the music of tomorrow, why do we have to play it today?"
May 7, 2019, 8:35 PM · Community orchestra: "If you're not going to practice, at least listen to the music so that you know how it goes!"
Edited: May 9, 2019, 4:00 AM · This is just a sampling from about six years' worth of conductor quotes I've written down...

Christian Baldini (also responsible for both of the food-related quotes above):

"It needs to be lazier in the clarinets. A little more feline." (imitates cat stretching) "Almost like you're taking a nap. Let's try that again."
(orchestra runs passage)
"I fear my image of the sleepy cat gave you the wrong impression. It needs to be like that in sound but not in tempo. This cat is a little too sleepy now. Maybe try sleeping, but with one eye open."

"Violins, how dare you start the tremolo without me? Listen to the poor timpani, he's been practicing for 20 years just for this moment, and you're just going to step on him like that? How dare you ruin his moment?"

"Violas, why are you so aggressive? This reminds me of some of my favorite guitar moments... electric guitar." (launches into air guitar solo)

(re: orchestra friends and family discount code)
"Share it with your friends... unless you have very rich friends, in which case we'll give them a different code that will make them pay twice as much. "

"Take a moment to decompress. You've had a long week, you came from work... Some yoga, maybe. Close your eyes and imagine yourselves in a beautiful place full of Ginastera..."

"This whole movement, the second movement, is beautiful poetry with a mattress of flowers underneath. If you let the flowers get overgrown, there is no poetry."

(on Beethoven's metronome marks)
"We have one minute left. Let's go to the beginning of the movement. If we play in tempo we might be able to play the whole movement."

(score falls into piano)
"It's a Haydn concerto for prepared piano and orchestra now."

(at outdoor concert, just after describing the season's programming including the John Adams piece -- raises baton, lowers it as a car engine revs loudly)
"We'll wait for the Short Ride in a Fast Machine to finish."

"You should learn to ignore me completely, like you do all the time anyway."

"This is -- I'm sorry about the wording -- a very horny movement."

"The trumpets add some spice, but we need the tikka masala sauce that you bring."

(on late night happy hour at a local restaurant after the concert)
"The late night prices don't start until 10pm, and it's a short program... so we'll play everything a lot slower."

"It's like a worm turning into a butterfly... and then you come in with a bazooka."

"We have Mika Pelo here, just in from Berkeley. And now we are going to terrify him with what we've done with his piece."

(on having the chorus walk onto the stage while the orchestra is tuning)
"Chorus, I'd prefer if you could get in before... Curtis, the 1st oboe, should not turn blue, please. That would be nice."

"This needs to be more like a chicken. Not like a little bird. This bird doesn't fly."

Michael Morgan:

"That's the thing about a requiem, somebody else is dead. Not us. We don't have to play it like we're dead."

(on misprints in the parts)
"I have long maintained that everybody who prints music for a living... should be killed."

"The moment you feel like a pirate on speed, you're working too hard."

Peter Jaffe:

"You're on the Volga, maybe eating some borscht, or doing something romantic... anyway it has a lot of sour cream in it. 93 again, [in Russian accent] like folk song from old country."

"That was the best 16th note pickup we've had yet. Group telepathy -- we need nothing short of that. And we'll all bend spoons during the break."

"Seconds! You don't love this enough. It's a loving rage."

"Bruch put accents on the dotted quarter notes. I want accents on the eighth notes too. It has to have GUTS! BEER AND NAILS!"

"I.V., everyone. Movement I.V.! This movement needs medical attention."

Conductor: There is always an absolute worst order for any program. Prokofiev's 5th, then the concerto, then we do the intermission, and then Wagner. 3-minute second half.
Cellist: Or the slow movement of the Prokofiev last.
Conductor: Oh, Alexander has an even better one. Everything in the first half except the slow movement of Prokofiev.

"Please remember to remain on stage after the concert. If you need to visit the little virtuoso room, you have a few minutes to do that, but remember to come back to the stage for the photo."

"So we all stand up, there's thunderous applause, we throw our instruments into the mosh pit, the house lights come on, and I think the audience will know the concert is over by the time we start setting up for the photo shoot."

Pete Nowlen:

Conductor: The violinists will stand up and stab you if you rush here.
Concertmaster: Are you allowing us to do that?
Conductor: I would support it.

"We're gonna ignore one of Beethoven's specific instructions. He will not be at the performance."

"The beginning of the movement is where the hunters are gathering. Hunters were a little silly back them, so we need to hook the 32nd notes in a slightly silly way."

Cellist: What are we wearing?
Conductor: Clothes.

"You guys [gestures at celli] are the pasta, and we have capers [violas], olives [2nd violins], anchovies [1st violins], and other stuff [waves broadly at winds/brass] bouncing around in there..."

"That texture needs to be there. It's like ice cream with no chunks in it: disappointing."

"Drive it to the down beat. Drive it like a truck through the Capitol... oh, wait, that's happened."

Various other conductors:

"Night on Bald Mountain, Night on Bare Mountain... Night on Some Kind of Hairless Mountain, at least."

"Don't be down at the frog. Little green thing telling you to kiss it and it will turn into a prince -- don't believe it."

"Not a Beethoven forte. We don't want to get excited. We're too bourgeois to get excited. It's beneath us."

(on Carmen)
"Murder and death and all this terrible stuff--and then there's cigarettes!"

"Play them [sforzandi] like you secretly want to stab me and take my job -- or not so secretly."

"Even more! The damn Judgment Day is near, the trombones are going to throw us all into Putah Creek!"

"Up, down, up down, up do-own, u-up, down, u-up down. Those are the original lyrics... Are you titillated by our bow talk, brass and winds?"

May 8, 2019, 6:00 PM · Years back, I had the pleasure of playing for George Hurst a number of times. On quote sticks in the mind.
"Why do people insist on giving a clear beat? If you give a clear beat, some idiot's going to play on it"
In fact, he was one of the clearest conductors around. He wanted us to listen more to each other.
May 9, 2019, 12:22 AM · Andrew, you're playing in an orchestra where Michael Morgan is the conductor?

He was Solti's assistant at the CSO, and the conductor of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra when I was a high schooler. Marvelously acid tongue. I really enjoyed my CYSO time with him. (I was principal 2nd, and therefore heard many muttered remarks, too.)

Edited: May 9, 2019, 3:30 AM · Guest conductor. He conducted Camellia Symphony in an all-Mozart concert that included the Requiem in 2017.

One more quote from him:

"If you have any bow left at this point, you have failed and your life is meaningless."

May 9, 2019, 2:48 AM · Andrew - thanks for those, wish I had heard them in their original setting. And this conductor one is a classic:

"You should learn to ignore me completely, like you do all the time anyway."

May 10, 2019, 10:09 PM · There is actually a book of Sir Thomas Beecham quotes called "Beecham Stories" compiled by Harold Atkins and Archie Newman. Fun little book. FYI, a little quote from it:

"A woman confided to Sir Thomas that her son wanted to learn an instrument, but she couldn't bear the purgatory of his practicing in the initial stages. What is the best instrument? she asked.

I have no hesitation, madam, he said, in saying the bagpipes. They sound exactly the same when you have finished learning them as when you start learning them."

May 11, 2019, 6:23 AM · Another word on Mozart (not the Requiem) from Toscanini:

Some people play Mozart as if he were a little... sleepy. But we know different. I think he was a MAN! He liked women-- like you and like me. Ancora!

May 11, 2019, 10:27 AM · … Stephen: back in the 'glory days' when all orchestra musicians were male I guess ...
May 13, 2019, 11:08 AM · Among my favorite conductor anecdotes and witticisms that I've collected over the years are the following:

When a budding composer once asked Hans von Bulow what he thought about a work he just composed that included obvious pilferages from the masters, he replied “I have always liked it”.

After Theodore Thomas conducted the overture to Die Meistersinger before a Chicago audience for the first time, it met with no reaction. Thomas turned around to the audience and said "You don’t like it? Well, when you hear it again, perhaps you will like it better.” He then conducted the entire overture all over again. [ The Opera Quiz Book” “Questions and Answers from the Opera Quiz Intermission program from the Met Broadcasts. Edited by Geraldine Souvaine et al. 1948]

Artur Nikisch always always answered from admiring women who requested a lock of his hair. His friend though asked him when the time might come when he would go bald. He replied “ I won’t go bald-but my dog might”.

At one Friday afternoon matinee at Carnegie Hall, Toscanini stopped the performance and turned around to stare at latecomers making their way to their seats. " You're late!" he exclaimed.

Thomas Beecham was asked after one opera performance why he allowed his orcherstra to drown out the singers. He replied: " I did it as a public service!"

Erich Leinsdorf told the story of a young conductor who engaged the great Vienna Philharminc to conduct a program of well known war horses. At the rehearsal, he constantly interrupted them to give instructions on how he expected them to play. After a while, the first cellist said to him ” My dear sir, if you stop us once more, we shall be sure to play the piece exactly as you conduct it”. ["The Role of the Orchestra in Opera” Opera News, 11/27/1939]

Wilhelm Furtwangler, during a rehearsal,s aid to the orchestra ” Gentlemen, this phrase must be-it must be-it must-you know what I mean-please try it again”. They then played it superbly, after which Furtwangler said to them “ You see how important it is for a conductor to convey his wishes so clearly?”

In November, 1956, Howard Taubman of the New York Times desribed Dimitri Mitropoulos's gyrations on the podium as that of a "Byzantine monk frantically engaged in shaking Martinis".

On a Metropolitan Opera Quiz, Fausto Cleva once answered the question “ Who is the most important person in an opera performance?” by saying “ The conductor-because he can do the most damage” [7/1911 "Opera News"]

When a famous German baritone altered a phrase in an aria in a Bach cantata, he justified it to
Otto Klemperer by claiming that Bach had come to him in a dream and told him he wanted the phrase changed. The following day, Klemperer turned to the baritone and said " Last night, I too had a visit from Bach in a dream. I told him what you said and he told me he doesn’t know you.” [Told by John Ruby-Smith , formerly of the BBC (1998)

After going over with a a member of the Cleveland Orchestra many times on how a part should be played, the player finally said to George Szell "Maybe I should quit while I'm ahead." Szell, in response, asked him "What makes you think you're ahead?" ["Tales from the Locker Room: An Anecdotal Portrait of George Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra" by Lawrence Angell & Bernette Jaffe]

One night after an opera, Fritz Reiner walked into a restaurant where Regina Resnik was dining. She asked him what opera was performed, to which he replied “I don’t know what they did. I conducted Meistersinger.”“

When Hans Knappetsbusch was asked why he did not conduct from memory, he answered “ Because I can read music”. ["La Nilsson: My Life in Opera" by Birgit Nilsson]

Knappertsbusch didn't like re-rehearsing compositions he had conducted previously with the same orchestra. On one occasuioin though, he complied with the orchestra's insistence on a rehearsal. The subsequent performance, however, did not go well, after which Knappertsbusch told a friend “ That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had that rehearsal”.

May 21, 2019, 6:37 PM · Harry Legge was pretty witty. One of his less outstanding ones, but one which I remember is "She can play Aida - I 'eard 'er".
May 22, 2019, 2:01 AM · More the opposite of the thread's title, but Leonard's Fritz Reiner quip about Der Meistersinger reminded me of a part from the fun movie about classical music Raising the Wind where a peripatetic violinist is talking to a fellow violinist.

Violinist 1 explains to his mate that he'd played a particular piece the previous night.

Violinst 2 asked who had conducted.

Number 1 replies, No idea. Never looked at the blighter.

May 22, 2019, 3:57 PM · Just finished reading Solti's "Memoirs" (1997). In it, he says that "Hubay was a notoriously bad conductor. At one rehearsal, when a harp player missed his entry, Hubay asked him why he wasn't playing. The harpist replied ' I'm watching for the cue professor.' 'A cue?' replied Hubay. 'But can't you see I'm conducting?' "
Edited: May 23, 2019, 8:34 AM · Now I don't know whether to classify this one as a foible (perhaps not), but it's certainly not a witticism, so I'll use my OP's privilege and tell it anyway ;)

The young conductor of one of my orchestras, a professional horn player, pianist, and teacher of wind instruments and conducting, mentioned to the orchestra during Tuesday's rehearsal that he had just attained Grade 2 on the violin.

I know that over the years he has been with us he has had long conversations during the coffee break with our CM about how passages should be bowed and articulated, and it turns out that he has been taking violin lessons from the CM over the last year.

It's great to see a conductor taking the trouble to learn the violin, an instrument outside his technical field, so that he is able discuss things with the string sections at their level, and understand their technical problems.

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