To “Maestro” or not to “Maestro”

This week I happened to catch a program on public television entitled “Maestro” about the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.  He is the chief conductor (or music director) of the Maryiinsky Theater (formerly the Kirov Theater) in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), Russia, responsible for conducting their ballet and opera productions.  He also has conducting positions in Europe — at the Rotterdam Philharmonic and London Symphony.  The show featured interviews with him, his manager, orchestra musicians, a ballerina, and Anna Netrebko, the opera singer.  No one called him “Maestro,” however; they called him Valery.  So why title the show “Maestro”?  And what’s this thing about calling conductors “Maestro”?

I collided with this question early in my writing Perceval.  Would Evan prefer to be called “Maestro” or not?  And I wanted to find out more about this term in order to understand how Evan might feel and think about it.

The term “Maestro” (or “Maestra” for a woman) is used in English to recognize someone as a “master” in an artistic field, usually someone with years of experience and knowledge in an art and is able to teach students successfully.  It means “master” or “teacher” in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.  It is also conferred as a title of respect for an artist and his work.  In classical music, composers, orchestra conductors and music teachers are most frequently given this title.

During my research, I heard this title used with the utmost respect and deference, and with the utmost contempt and sarcasm.  I have met and observed conductors who expected to be called Maestro, and others who couldn’t stand the title and preferred either their first name or Mr. or Ms.  In my experience, the conductors who truly have earned the title by its definition are usually the ones who don’t particularly like it. 

And it is a term used primarily by those outside the performing population and music business, i.e. the general public.  In all the orchestra rehearsals I’ve observed, I’ve only once heard the musicians use this title when addressing the conductor, and it wasn’t sweet and friendly.  Usually, they address the conductor by his or her first name.  And woe to a conductor who told an orchestra to call him “Maestro.”  (I’m thinking of Toscanini here.)  I can’t even imagine a conductor doing that nowadays, but I can imagine the musicians’ response if he did.  After all, implicit in the original definition of this title is the person having earned it through work, experience and the accumulation of knowledge, not simply because the person wants it.

I decided that Evan Quinn would tolerate the title but not like it.  He regards it as a job title, a convenient term of respect for the public to use in the Green Room after a concert or on the street.  He doesn’t need or require it, however, and would not be offended if someone called him “Mr. Quinn” or even just “Evan.”  He prefers musicians and orchestra staff to call him “Evan.”  I decided that when he meets someone in a situation outside of his work arena and they call him “Maestro,” he will tell them he’s not working and to call him “Evan.”   Secretly, he would feel that he didn’t deserve to be called a “master,” anyway. 

So, what do you say if you meet an orchestra conductor, whether in a concert hall or on the street?  Here are the guidelines I follow:

— If I’ve not met the conductor before and know little about him/her, I will always use “Maestro” or “Maestra.”  If the conductor corrects me, great.  Otherwise, I’ve shown my respect.  (An exception might be with particularly young conductors who have not yet been hired as a music director, such as an assistant conductor.  Then it would be “Mr.” or “Ms.” unless introduced differently.) 

— If I’ve not met the conductor before but I’ve been told he doesn’t like to be called “Maestro,” then I will address him as “Mr.” (or “Ms.” for a woman).  This is still respectful, especially of the conductor’s wishes.

— If I’ve met the conductor before, I stick to “Mr.” until he tells me to call him something else.

When in doubt, use “Maestro.”  And no matter how excited you are about the concert or meeting a conductor, never, ever exclaim to a conductor: “You’re the greatest conductor in the world!”  I’ve seen more than one conductor redden and squirm with embarrassment at that.  Conductors (and musicians) love to hear how much someone loved the music, their performance of it, however…..


4 responses to “To “Maestro” or not to “Maestro”

  1. Interesting description and consideration.

    I had an analogous experience trying to introduce Peter. Is he just Peter? Mr. Tobias? Dr. Tobias?

    If it had been simply social, I would have immediately opted for Peter, if it was someone I was friendly with. If it was someone I knew socially, but had not particularly strong connection with, I would have by default used Mr. I’m just old-fashioned, I guess. I know a lot of people don’t use the terms anymore in this sort of situation.

    On one occasion, the person in question was a colleague of mine who was also a scientist. Which to use? While I’m not in the same branch, I wouldn’t consider it out of the realm of imagination to run into him in our respective professions. [especially since I’m working for the same company this summer!] And, since he is a ‘doctor’, I asked about his preference.

    He adamantly did not want to be called Dr. Tobias. He considered it something to simply accept in professional situations. He would never introduce himself that way, considering it pretentious or putting himself above others.

    I find most folks with a Ph.D. (or Sc.D., as he technically is), most people don’t get hung up on it.

    I’ve seen business cards for academic doctorates as either Dr. Jane Doe – or Jane Doe, Ph.D. I’m not sure if it’s personal preference or employer demands (after Peter asking I not refer to him as Dr. Tobias, I asked why it was on his business cards from MSU. Policy, not preference.)

    This brings up an interesting point about the cards.

    Do conductors have business cards? Do they use any of the alphabet soup scientists tend to ? My last uber-boss had cards reading “Dr. Thomas Waytes, MD, MPH”. Would the maestro/maestra preference for this title be reflected on such an item? Would such a preference, like Evan’s be reflected there? His take seem basically the same as Peter’s.
    I’m in a grad program for Public Health. I can opt for a degree as an MS (master or science) or MPH (master of public health). They’re basically the same thing. Someone asked why I wanted the MPH. In all honesty, it is vanity. If I get the MPH, my business cards will read: Elizabeth Tobias, MPH. Otherwise, it will simply be my name. Vanity: I just think it looks cool.

    I actually answered that the only MS I wanted was the one in front of my name. 🙂

  2. Interesting question about the business card. I have no idea if conductors carry business cards. My first reaction is “probably not.” Let me ask around and see what I can find out….

    I do not see Evan carrying a business card. He only cares about being known within his profession, which he is and very well known. I wonder if musicians in general ever carry business cards. I suppose if they teach privately or are on the faculty of a college/university they might.

    I carry a business card but I don’t know if all writers do — freelancers definitely carry them. As for other artists, I don’t know that, either.

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