"… the magician and the prophet on the one hand, and in the elected war lord, the gang leader and condotierre on the other hand"

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is into the last two weeks of its season, under a pair of guest conductors who might also be reminders of the group’s post-James Levine conducting predicament: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, often touted as a candidate for a caretaker BSO music director, and Charles Dutoit, currently filling a similar role at the crying-poor Philadelphia Orchestra. I am hardly an expert in classical-music criticism—as Globe readers rarely hesitate to remind me—but I do have a good trick for gauging the relationship between a professional orchestra and a guest conductor, a ridiculously simple one, but one that usually tells a great deal about the concert at hand: is the orchestra looking at the conductor? It’s not necessary, after all; I could probably get up in front of the Boston Symphony, give the downbeat for Brahms 2, and then walk away, and the orchestra would probably come up with a pretty decent Brahms 2 all on their own. There have been BSO concerts I’ve seen where the players spent more time stealing glances at the concertmaster than at the conductor. There have been a few that started out that way, but where, over the course of the concert, the conductor won them over, so that by the end, the players were hanging on every wave of the stick. And then there’s the ones where the podium is the natural focus of attention from beginning to end. It’s not foolproof, but, for the most part, that’s a corresponding progression in the quality of the concerts as well.

It’s a criterion that measures, among other things, a conductor’s charisma, which is something I was thinking about in the context of both the Boston and Philadelphia situations. Not so much charisma in the sort of vague, strong-personality everyday use of it, but in the somewhat more specific way that the great German sociologist Max Weber used it. Weber’s ideas about charisma come in a long lecture, Politik als Beruf (“Politics as a Vocation”), that he delivered late in his life, in the wake of World War I. (You can read “Politics as a Vocation” here; the translation, uncredited, is by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills.) Weber characterized three different kinds of political leadership:

To begin with, in principle, there are three inner justifications, hence basic legitimations of domination.

First, the authority of the ‘eternal yesterday,’ i.e. of the mores sanctified through the unimaginably ancient recognition and habitual orientation to conform. This is ‘traditional’ domination exercised by the patriarch and the patrimonial prince of yore.

There is the authority of the extraordinary and personal gift of grace (charisma), the absolutely personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation, heroism, or other qualities of individual leadership. This is ‘charismatic’ domination, as exercised by the prophet or—in the field of politics—by the elected war lord, the plebiscitarian ruler, the great demagogue, or the political party leader.

Finally, there is domination by virtue of ‘legality,’ by virtue of the belief in the validity of legal statute and functional ‘competence’ based on rationally created rules. In this case, obedience is expected in discharging statutory obligations. This is domination as exercised by the modern ‘servant of the state’ and by all those bearers of power who in this respect resemble him.

Weber’s definition of domination is specifically in the context of the state, the power of which Weber analyzes as derived from its claim on a monopoly on the use of violent force: “The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence”. The power wielded by a symphony orchestra is awfully garden-party by comparison. But one can, I think, find hints of Weber’s three legitimations in every orchestra. Certainly the orchestra’s artistic power is based, in large part, on the authority of an “eternal yesterday”; and some of the organizational power struggles could be traced to a conflict between that traditional authority and the rules-based legal authority of unions and corporate regulation.

But it’s Weber’s gift-of-grace (the literal translation of χαρισμα) that sets orchestras apart—they’re some of the very few organizations whose leaders are, necessarily, even by definition, charismatic leaders. We might think of such charisma as a de facto requirement in the political sphere as well; Weber, in 1919, was already at least hinting at its predominance:

To be sure, the pure types are rarely found in reality. But today we cannot deal with the highly complex variant, transitions, and combinations of these pure types, which problems belong to ‘political science.’ Here we are interested above all in the second of these types: domination by virtue of the devotion of those who obey the purely personal ‘charisma’ of the ‘leader.’ For this is the root of the idea of a calling in its highest expression.

But charisma is a democratic choice, not a requirement. Garry Wills’ polemic-disguised-as-a-meditation The Kennedy Imprisonment draws heavily on Weber’s categories to make that point, contrasting the low-key, legalistic, trust-the-hierarchy administration of Eisenhower with JFK’s explicitly charismatic brandishing—and appropriation—of presidential power. Since Kennedy, political success has, more often than not, been judged in charismatic terms. But political office is not inherently dependent on charisma—and such offices actually can resist charismatic leveraging. (As does the electorate—witness the pleasing-nobody limbo of Barack Obama, a charismatic figure but a temperamental legalist, trying to pivot from a Kennedy-esque campaign to a very Eisenhower-like style of governing.)

Orchestras, though, are predicated on charismatic leadership—you need somebody the players are going to look at. Wills’ analysis, interestingly, suggests that such leadership is actually a chronic source of organizational instability. In the political sphere, charismatic leadership best flourishes in crisis situations—Wills points to the Kennedy administrations penchant for marathon, high-stakes convocations of decision-makers centered in the White House: “Since the charismatic leader’s special powers grow from special dangers, the two feed on each other,” Wills notes. “For some crises to be overcome, they must first be created.” For orchestras, such crises tend to be centered around changes in leadership—music directors rarely depart except under circumstances of crisis, which, cyclically, gives the succeeding music director the fuel to exert a new round of charismatic authority. But such lacunae are perilous, especially now that the peripatetic, scheduled-years-in-advance conductor is the norm. The charismatic basis of music directorships means that the organizations are comparatively impoverished in the vacuum left by their departures. Wills again: “Charisma, the uniquely personal power, delegitimates institutions. Rule by dazzlement cannot be succeeded by mere constitutional procedure.” He quotes Weber’s biographer, Reinhard Bendix:

Such a transformation from charismatic leadership to traditional domination occurs most frequently when the problem of succession must be solved. In a strict sense that problem is insoluble, for charisma is an inimitable quality that some higher power is believed to have bestowed upon one person. Consequently a successor cannot be chosen at all. Instead, the followers wait in hope that another leader will appear who will manifest his own charismatic qualification. [emphasis added]

In that sense, the timing of the Philadelphia Orchestra board’s decision to file for Chapter 11 is hardly coincidental, the weakness of the institution expressing itself in the absence of a permanent charismatic head. (Interim conductor Charles Dutoit, indeed, seemed surprised by the move.) As far as I know, the BSO is not in comparable financial distress (although, if Philadelphia gets away with their petition, I cynically would not be surprised to see every orchestra in the country try a similar maneuver the next time a contract re-negotiation is on the horizon). But they’re most likely looking at a couple seasons, at least, without an official music director. Given Levine’s history, one might chide them for not being more proactive in arranging for a successor, for letting the situation reach such a crisis point. Under Weber’s analysis, though, the crisis is the point, the crisis is necessary before the institution can make a move, because the crisis is what lends authority to the next leader.

It’s hard to imagine what a conductor who relied on Weber’s “legality” would look like—even those who philosophically defer to “the authority of the score” tend to make such deference part of their charismatic aura (and can be among the most charismatic of all—Riccardo Muti, for example). Maybe such statute-based power can only be found in those ensembles that abstemiously avoid permanent conductorial authority—St. Luke’s, Orpheus, A Far Cry, &c. For most traditionally-structured orchestras, though, charismatic leadership is par for the course—which means that, structurally speaking, so are regular doses of drama.

Update (4/25): Joshua Kosman thoughtfully looks on the bright side.


  1. Joshua Kosman already childed the BSO Board for not being proactive, given Levine's ups-and-downs over the last few years. I understand your point about why they could not move, at least publicly, until the crisis point – surely they could and should have been making quiet inquiries.

    Meanwhile, I have my own gauge, related to yours: how does the orchestra look after the concert? Dour? Relieved? Happy, and applauding the conductor?

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