What A Little Nuance Can Do!

Itay Talgam

An orchestra conductor faces the ultimate leadership challenge: creating perfect harmony and progress without saying a word. How does this work? Itay Talgam finds metaphors for organizational behavior – and models for inspired leadership – within the workings of the symphony orchestra.

Itay Talgam
… is an Israeli conductor and business consultant. He studied at the Rubin Academy and gratuated in philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Starting out as a pianist, he switched to conducting after completing his military service. He attended a summer course given by Leonard Bernstein in Fontainebleau, France. After a ten year conducting career in his native Israel, Itay Talgam has now reinvented himself as a conductor of people in business.


When gravity is no more!
An essay

Imagine a Dixie band in full swing, simultaneously improvising in a chaotic yet clearly organized, synergetic, happy cooperation. Why can’t every musical performance be like that?

Why can’t all work be like that?
Why isn’t life always like that?
Well, the answer, to my mind at least, is that it should be.
Yet it very frequently isn’t …

The reason for this is that balance between the all-essential structure – achieved in music by prior agreement on form, style, keys etc. – and the no less essential element of indeterminate, free space for things to happen in ways unanticipated – that balance  is not easy to achieve. Some musical groups tend to be one sided in their behavior. If you play ‘free jazz’ you make a point of disregarding structure. If you play in a ‘marching band’ you look to minimize all uncertainties. This is the same issue that most organizations struggle with, using a variety of frequently changing mixes of order and disorder.

Symphony orchestras are unique among musical ensembles worldwide in their size (up to about 130 players), the inner diversity of instruments and professions, and the level of complexity of the music they perform (this is not to suggest that symphonic music is in any way necessarily ‘better’ than other kinds of music). So it’s hardly surprising that the ‘Maestro’ – the great conductor and sometimes dictator – has stood for many years at the helm of this body, claiming, and universally regarded as having, complete control over the exact execution of what is entirely his (but never her) artistic vision.

Surprisingly, this model of leadership still exists, and is robbing many young musicians of the joy of playing in orchestras, and sometimes even of their very love of music. Very few orchestras (the ‘Orpheus’ chamber orchestra of New York is one famous example) chose to work without conductors at all – filling the void in leadership with complex, often time-consuming procedures of inner negotiations and consensus-building. The players of these orchestras seem happy, creative, and often exhausted. Even so, players readily admit that a great conductor – or a great soloist performing with them – can bring greater value to the performance.

What would that something be?

I think it has to do with the word ‘great’ having a new meaning – quite different to the greatness of leaders of the past.

A great contemporary conductor will balance structure and freedom through creating controlled processes, shared with the skilled musician-players through an understanding of the underpinning logic. He or she actively create spaces for other musician-players to fill, and shares the emerging experiences both inwardly – with the musicians involved – and with his or her other partners in the orchestra, but also with the audience. The great conductor will constantly identify and use gaps, or even create gaps in the process of rehearsing, studying and performing. Gaps in meaning, interpretation, and gaps in process and control are all opportunities for creative thinking and sharing. The great conductor will keep her virtuoso players at the peak level of individual creativity through constant challenge and open spaces, letting them be engaged in all sorts of interactions, while constantly creating a strong center of gravitation. If he or she is truly lucky, that gravitational force will be love: the love of music, the love of making music together – I call it: When gravity is no more!

Just like in the Dixie bands.


“An orchestra … gives the conductor an opportunity to create an organized sound with one gesture. Everything is about nuance, and Talgam shows what nuance can do,” says Daniel von Gool, a writer at ARGnet.

Nuances: Lennie Bernstein
It’s all about “meaning”. Bernstein explains and shares experiences to lift the young orchestra up to his ideas/his meaning. He doesn’t tell them what to do … but  he still gets everything he wants. WE all can do it!  And WE’ll do it and achieve it together! Minimum effort, maximum results!

Nuances: Carlos Kleiber
Kleiber is a great performer and he always seems to have great fun! He combines top down with giving space to the soloist and inviting him to perform. He completely trusts his orchestra while he is actually NOT conducting during the most complicated passages of the performance.

Nuances: Herbert von Karajan
Player:“Maestro, please let me know when to start playing!”
Karajan: “Start, when you can’t stand it no more!”
Karajan is totally into self monitoring and self regulation. He gives the musicians maximum space, he forces them in a soft way to collaborate, he enables the orchestra to unfold. Players have to watch each other, they have to listen to each other – otherwise the orchestra would collapse.
Karajan eyes are closed while conducting – there are only weak ties between Maestro and orchestra.

Nuances: Richard Strauss
May God rest his soul!
It is all said and written! Just do it! No interpretation!

Nuances: Riccardo Muti
The exact counterpart to traditional top down management – not an inch of space or chance of interpretation given to members of the orchestra. The orchestra is forced into following his dictatorial commands.
Even though Muti’s work is highly respected, La Scala in Milan forced him to step down after 15 years as musical director and principal conductor.
The reason: No chance that the musicians can personally develop under his iron rule.

About Leaders And Followers
(Gunter Dueck)

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