People keep asking me if I’ve ever worked with Lydia Tár. I hate seeing their disappointed faces when I tell them that I’ve never crossed paths with her, despite having been a professional violinist for 30 years. Also, she isn’t real. Not even when you subbed with the New York Philharmonic? No, and did you hear the part about how… she’s not real? But I understand their confusion: Our industry and her character are so perfectly rendered in director Todd Field’s film Tár. I recognize Lydia in many of the conductors I’ve worked with at the top of the field — except for her gender, of course — and it’s been thrilling to have people so interested in an industry that struggles to compete with newer and shinier forms of media.
For the sake of these newcomers, I’ve made a list of similarities between Lydia and real conductors so that anyone can spot a conductor in the wild.
1. They Love Analog.
Conductors’ pure and total love for all things analog makes Luddites look like Apple Geniuses. Instead of the hundreds of metronome apps available, Lydia uses a beautiful Wittner metronome, but even that might be too technologically sophisticated for most conductors. No, they want the original metronome, which very well may have been a composer’s upstairs neighbor thumping at the butter churner while he scribbled little black dots on rat-bitten paper. And even though many musicians now use iPads to read their music, I have yet to meet or work with a conductor who isn’t buckling under the weight of three to five massive sheet music scores at a time. Genius is apparently too heavy for the cloud.
2. They Are Mediums.
Because orchestras still rarely play anything composed by living people, all concerts are basically seances where the musicians converse with and carry out the wishes of the dead — a seance that, instead of requiring a group to hold hands around a table, takes just One True Genius and a pencil. The conductor is the shepherd through this journey, scrying ancient texts to divine the intention of these ghosts. In her Juilliard masterclass, for example, Lydia channels Bach, as well as many of the dead pianists who played his music. Bach never told her explicitly that “he knows it’s the question that involves the listener, never the answer,” but she divines that from the way he composes his Prelude No. 1. Being a medium for these messages is a very demanding job, something that requires conductors to be absolutely porous. Does that sometimes come with a lack of boundaries that carries over in the fleshly world? For sure. That’s why there are so many intra-orchestral relationships.
3. They Have Favorites.
All conductors have favorites, and no matter how good you are at your instrument or how much of your soul you give in every rehearsal and concert, you aren’t one of them. There’s always some newer member (maybe a young cellist with great taste in shoes?) who requires their undivided attention. The sooner you accept it, the less therapy you’ll need.
4. They Hate Cancel Culture.
Classical music itself seems to serve as a counterpoint to cancel culture. When you’ve built an entire industry around the same few dead guys for centuries, you can’t afford to cut ties with one or two, nor do you want to. Also, a main point of communing with these ghosts is to see how perceptions of their work change over time — and how they’ll keep changing, as long as we keep playing Ouija with them. As Leonard Bernstein says in the movie, “You must never forget that music is movement. Shifting and changing, and flowing.” Cancel culture, which depends on reducing an individual to a moment — or, in many cases, a pattern of moments — doesn’t hold space for multiple interpretations or future reinterpretation. Yet cancel culture is also necessary in the field of classical music, an industry that reduces itself and its cultural importance by not going further than lip service in addressing systemic issues like entrenched racism, sexism, and elitism.
While we’re on the subject of cancellation, Field gets one thing very wrong: While there have been a couple high-profile cancellations within the industry, most of the Lydia Társ have been protected by their institutions — quietly investigated while continuing to receive lucrative salaries. Classical music institutions have preserved white supremacy and the patriarchy for as long as they have protected the worst males in it.
5. They Love Accessories.
Like most conductors, Lydia wants to seem relatable while projecting that we can trust her taste, hence the unbranded luxury clothing and the vintage Rolex turned inward. A love for old classics in one medium carries over to all others — what is #oldceline if not Mozart’s timelessness translated into fabric? (Although, I would guess Lydia is already wearing new Celine.) Classical music has always pretended to be for the masses, the equivalent of Tár’s New York Rangers baseball cap. A better equivalent? Her exorbitantly expensive coat from The Row.
6. They Have Big-Stick Energy.
Whether it’s the baton, which makes every conducting seminar look like wizard cosplay, or the pencils they use to mark up their scores, conductors are all about that big-stick energy. Batons are very personal. Some conductors get theirs handmade in Tokyo or from a family member’s olive tree. I’ve even heard of aluminum or caribou antler pomelos (the little teardrop end of the baton). In one instance, a conductor had one made from the cork of his favorite vintage wine.
Lydia holds her baton’s pomelo in the same spot as her mentor, Leonard Bernstein, and uses a similar model and length (whippy birch with a cork bulb). This is sus because his baton maker, Richard Horowitz, passed away in 2015, and Bernstein is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery with a pocket score of Mahler 5 and a Horowitz baton. Who wants to guess where Lydia got hers?
As for pencils, musicians and conductors are alike in being hella picky. We collectively mourn the loss of discontinued Eberhard Faber Blackwings and Itoya pencils but accept the newer Blackwing 602s as a substitute. Lydia has an entire cabinet full of boxes of the original Blackwing 602s by Eberhard Faber. While everyone else was hoarding toilet paper like a schmuck during the pandy, Lydia went after real items of value. At the time of writing, a dozen of these pencils currently go for $930 on eBay.
7. They Control Time.
When audiences go to concerts, they tacitly agree to relinquish their experience of time, a beautiful concession that takes a lot of trust, and not something conductors take lightly. They study and interpret the best way to unfold time sonically so that we can experience old pieces in new ways. They’re so good at keeping, really, at making time, in music, and yet they never seem to remember when rehearsals are supposed to end.
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