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…..