Chief conductor

March 31, 2021, 7:32 AM · Hello,
So this is more of a general music question than string specific, but its something that has always confused me.
What is the difference between a music director and a chief conductor?

Thanks on what may be a silly question

Replies (11)

March 31, 2021, 8:14 AM · The distinction is usually between "music director" and "principal guest conductor". The music director is theoretically administratively in charge of the orchestra, musically, in addition to their podium time. The principal guest conductor is someone who routinely comes in to conduct, but does not have the administrative aspects -- i.e. doesn't choose new players, plan the overall arc of seasons, etc.
March 31, 2021, 1:04 PM · Some orchestras are self-governed, i.e., don't work for an external board or suffer under a music director. Or, they might have a source of power that is not the conductor. Walter Legge's Philharmonia Orchestra was like that. He tapped Karajan, and then Klemperer to be his man in charge for much of the recording and performance activity, but made it clear that they also worked for him. The London Symphony has had a variety of people in charge over the years, but rarely if ever a music director as we think of the role.

Some of the big American orchestras recently had a Principal Conductor when they were between music directors. Someone to fill dates and be a spokesman, but without the same level of responsibility as the person they eventually hired.

March 31, 2021, 2:25 PM · I think I meant a principal conductor and a music director. Thanks
March 31, 2021, 5:45 PM · Principal conductors may conduct Stockhausen and Cage.
March 31, 2021, 5:50 PM · (Actually I'd better be careful - I had a principle biochemist superior who likes listening to Stockhausen (and probably Cage))!
April 2, 2021, 10:54 PM · Asked if he had ever conducted any Stockhausen, Beecham said, "No, but I once trod in some."
Edited: April 2, 2021, 11:31 PM · When Fritz Reiner was asked about his job, his answer was something like "30% conducting and 70% business management". For more complex performing arts, like opera or motion pictures, the job is split between a producer and a director. But for many american orchestras we expect the music director to do both. That might explain why some orchestras run into financial trouble, many skilled conductors do not have a career, and many prominent conductors have surprisingly poor or idiosyncratic baton technique.
I remember when Zubin Mehta left the LA Phil, Carlo Maria Giulini was named as the Music Director. He was only in town about 1/3 of the time, flying in and out, and was derisively known among musicians as the "Principal Guest Conductor" Everyone knew that Ernest Fleischman was running the orchestra. Decades later, that joke has become an official title.
April 4, 2021, 10:50 AM · The Music Director makes even more money for doing even less conducting,
Edited: April 6, 2021, 10:53 AM · Lots of orchestras have had principal guest conductors before. The BSO had Colin Davis in that slot before Bernard Haitink took it up. And the NY Phil had a few in the 60s, I think.

An interesting development in London-- Simon Rattle is leaving the LSO, and the next guy will be not a music director but a chief conductor. Of course, he is also the music director over in Covent Garden, so maybe he was happy not to take on two doses of fundraising, etc.

April 6, 2021, 12:02 PM · If I remember correctly when Colin Davis was with the LSO towards the end of his life, he was happy to conduct the orchestra and deal with musical matters, but wanted nothing to do with the administrative side, selecting (and maybe firing) players, raising funds etc. Presumably this put him closer to the 'principal conductor' than music director.
The BBCSO has had several 'principal guest conductors' - including Gunter Wand.
We also have 'associate conductors'. I'm not sure where they fit into the hierarchy.
One issue which has not been mentioned in this thread is choosing programmes for a concert season, and maybe even suggesting guest conductors and soloists. Is this part of the 'music director' role? I've no idea if this was part of Davis's responsibilities at the LSO.
April 6, 2021, 12:45 PM · At the Boston Symphony, Tony Fogg is the artistic administrator-- one notch down from Mark Volpe who was the CEO by some other title, and below the Music Director. I don't know to whom he reports, precisely.

Anyway, he is the point man for booking guests and choosing programs, among other things. At some level, the Music Director is responsible for all that, but Tony is hardly a passive underling in the process.

Also, depending on the guest conductor, they might have their own list of things they would love to do or avoid.


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