Book Review: So What Does A Conductor Do? by Nicholas Braithwaite

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Before settling in Hahndorf, the classical conductor Nicholas Braithwaite trod the globe while fronting some of the world’s most illustrious symphonic orchestras. With wit and candour, he recalls his journey and lifts the curtain on a backstage world of politics and passion.

So What Does A Conductor Do? commences by recounting Braithwaite’s formative years as the precocious son of a conductor, follows his years as a Royal Academy of Music drop-out and starving expatriate in Vienna, before intricately tracing almost three-decades of his professional career, from 1963 until 1991.

As the title suggests, this is a memoir that places its emphasis upon Braithwaite’s professional life. While he does provide fascinating anecdotes about his family’s history at times, including a scandalous and tragic skeleton in the closet, he discusses his private world generally only when it intruded upon his career.

As such, this is a book written for opera lovers and orchestra aficionados; he writes based upon the reasonable assumption that those interested in reading his memoirs will share his affinity for Verdi and Wagner.

Braithwaite waves his literary baton though, and ensures that there is an even blend between levity and heft. For every dense analysis of the artistic process, there is a counter-balancing vignette about an egotistical outburst in the rehearsal room or a blooper on opening night.

Adelaide residents, and those familiar with his time leading the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, will perhaps flick immediately to the chapters outlining his acrimonious departure from that role. Braithwaite does have a flair for caustic rejoinders against those who did him wrong, or simply did not meet his expectations. In describing one unfortunate singer, he states that he sounded like “an ox in labour.” If the conducting gig hadn’t worked out so well for him, Braithwaite could have easily thrived as a stinging reviewer!

While this is a rich source of chuckles, it is also a serious work that is a valuable educational resource for conductors-in-training, or emerging classical musicians of all persuasion. The final chapter, This Conducting Thing, could easily be set as a required reading for students at conservatoriums across the nation and the world. In it, he distils his philosophy as a conductor, and summarises the techniques of the maestros he has witnessed and admired throughout his life.

It was a little disappointing not to see much time devoted to the past three decades of his life, but perhaps that could be fodder for a second memoir down the track.  Nonetheless, this is a worthy window into the life of a man who has contributed to the artistic tapestry of South Australia for many decades.

Reviewed by James Murphy

Rating out of 10:  8

Distributed by: Amazon UK
Released: February 2018
RRP: £27.66 (approx. AU$48) paperback

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While this is a rich source of chuckles, it is also a serious work that is a valuable educational resource for conductors-in-training, or emerging classical musicians of all persuasion. This is a worthy window into the life of a man who has contributed to the artistic tapestry of South Australia for many decades.

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