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  • Writer's pictureMarcia Seligson

My Fantasy Life of Being a Conductor

If I could do it all over again, create my life from the top and be and do anything I wanted, I'd be a classical symphony conductor. I’m not kidding.

I think it’s the most extraordinary and powerful job in the world. More powerful even than being President of the United States, although almost everyone on the planet knows the President's name and has an opinion about them. Why on earth do I think being a classical conductor is the most powerful job in the world?

Well, imagine standing on a stage facing the 106 fabulous musicians in the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, conducting the world premiere of a new piece by a distinguished Danish composer with an unpronounceable name. All the musicians and everyone in the audience, except for one of the cellist’s mothers, is focused on me and the music I’m shepherding. And these musicians are dependent on me for two hours, they are merely the talented cogs in the wheel while I’m the wagon that pulls everybody forward and together.

And then just think about my being the centerpiece on the giant stage in Disney Hall, in LA, or the much more giant stage at the Hollywood Bowl, waving my arms around, swaying, using my baton to keep everybody in line with my vision of the how the music should be played. How about having all these brilliant oboists, percussionists and more than a dozen violinists focused on ME, just waiting for my musical instructions and my permission? How about the audience of 18,000 at the Bowl mesmerized by the music and ME? What could be a more thrilling, ecstatic and, yes, powerful experience? Have you ever seen anybody look happier than Gustavo Dudamel?

How did I get to this massively egocentric and weird fantasy life? Well, I was a talented classical pianist from childhood until I abandoned it after exhaustive training in college, at a time in my young life when I wanted to spend less time practicing piano and more time focused on boys and football games.

Then I was a journalist for a few decades, and the part I loved was galloping all over the world having wild adventures, reporting on fascinating people or cultures completely different from mine. The part I disliked sometimes was writing. Sitting alone at my desk, when I was single and by myself in my home, the most exciting thing that happened in a typical workday was my dog jumping on my lap. After I was married, my husband usually left home early to spend the day with a client in an interesting or even boring corporation, but at least he was with people. When he came home, he would tell me what he'd accomplished, whom he’d worked with, and I'd tell him about the four pages I wrote, the tuna sandwich I had for lunch, and the single phone call I got from the Department of Water and Power about the bill.

Finally, I gave up writing. I wanted to work with human beings, and I wanted to be surrounded by music. No, it was far too late in life to start down the path of becoming a conductor. I began a musical theatre company, called REPRISE, was the Producing Artistic Director for years, loved every second of it and continued working in the theatre until the pandemic shut everything down. So, I started writing again, this time quite enjoying it, much to my surprise, and this year I had a book published. But still, being a conductor is like being a theatrical producer. You’re in charge, the center of that universe, everything runs through you. And as I’ve said over and over, I like being in charge.

I love reading the bios of conductors in the program of the LA Philharmonic, to which we are subscribers, and fantasizing what a romantic international journey it would be. One adventure to lead a concert at the Berliner Philharmonicer, another trip to the Paris Opera, yet another expedition to conducting at the Edinburgh Festival or a series of concerts in Japan.

But here’s a startling and disturbing fact: While there are thousands of male conductors on the planet, there are hardly any women conductors in the classical music universe. Among the twenty-five largest international ensembles, there are now zero women serving as music directors. Zero. Susanna Malkki, whom I saw a few months ago conducting the Dvorak Slavonic Dances with the LA Phil, is breathtaking. She’s now the Phil’s principal guest conductor, and according to the program is “sought after at the highest levels.” But nowhere has she been a chief conductor since she left the Helsinki Philharmonic. But why? She is brilliant, charismatic, experienced. So is Dalia Stasevska, whom we saw last month conducting Tchaikovsky and Sibelius at the Phil. She is a “passionate opera conductor,” according to the program and works all over the world. That’s of course my fantasy of traveling the planet waving your baton in Oslo and New York. But Dalia, like Susanna, is never the chief conductor with an orchestra anywhere.

Classical music has always been a male dominated world. It was fine to be a lady in the orchestra, but not to have a conductor’s power and control of the whole game. You would think that might have changed recently, but this cultural world is no more enlightened than the corporate and political universes. For me, it’s even more infuriating and incomprehensible.

Back to my fantasy life. Of course, there’s the music itself, the main draw, the reason I never would imagine or care about running Apple or AT&T. There’s the music. I won’t go on and on about that, it’s pretty obvious that if you’re conducting Beethoven’s Third Symphony, or a Brahms Piano Concerto, your soul is connecting to the music, your body is vibrating, your brain is electrified. My heart tells me this must be one of life’s most astonishing experiences. Maybe in my next lifetime.

Check out my recent memoir MY MOTHER WOULD HATE THIS BOOK. It is now available in hardcover, paperback & eBook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or order through your local bookstore.

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