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Bow to Baton - A Leader's Life
by John Georgiadis
Paperback: 408 pages
ISBN-10: 1727426649
ISBN-13: 978-1727426649
Published 2019

There have been few books written by orchestral musicians prepared to share their feelings about the conductors under whom they played. One exception is Shoot the conductor, written in 2015 by former Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestral leader, Anshel Brusilow.

The author of this autobiography, John Georgiadis, appears to have achieved a certain notoriety for his frank assessments of many of the conductors (and some soloists) with whom he worked, in particular while leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. This breaks an unwritten code of silence covering orchestral players and conductors during rehearsals. John Georgiadis is keen to assert, however, that colleagues had compelled him to publish his writings after more than 20 years of gestation.  I should say that I decided to avoid naming most of the musicians featured in this book, thus avoiding any accusation of having included spoilers in this review!

The opening dramatic scene aside, the book follows a chronological order. In recognition of the interests of some readers, the author suggests that those wanting to hear his thoughts on conductors could skip the biographical details and start reading from Chapter 4. Readers choosing to follow this advice would however miss his comments in Chapter 3 on his time playing as an extra with the Hallé Orchestra and working with Sir John Barbirolli.

While his views initially may seem extreme, closer examination reveals ambivalence in his attitudes to many of the selected maestros. One autocrat, despite having achieved a god-like status as a conductor, regularly bullied and verbally abused musicians. Once he even attempted to slap his wife, who was attending a rehearsal. While not excusing these incidents, Georgiadis saw him as an inspiring conductor. Other examples reveal an unhealthy relationship between certain conductors and players, akin to that between a strict schoolmaster and cowed pupils. Chapter 8 bears the heading, Tyrants, although Chapter 9, headed Hungarian March, deals with Hungarian conductors. This is rather confusing, as the 2 categories are surely not mutually exclusive!

Georgiadis makes clear his total disdain for some conductors whom he regards as either technically incompetent, lacking musical inspiration or both. One much-recorded conductor at rehearsal was confronted by several bored players reading newspapers, thus rendering themselves invisible to the irate maestro! Georgiadis is happy to admit to the subjective nature of his assessments, stating, “It's funny that the orchestral musicians I knew were so different in their views on conductors.”

Apart from the lengthy and detailed sections on conductors there is much to savour. The author offers a lucid account of the lives and working conditions of orchestral musicians during the 1960s and 1970s. We learn about auditions and the desk system, the latter identifying openly those players recently promoted/demoted. The picture he paints is far from rosy – low pay rates, job insecurity, cramped rehearsal space, tight rehearsal schedules and bullying by some seemingly untouchable (for financial reasons) conductors. On the subject of stress experienced by players, Georgiadis describes the effect on an individual of dominos – playing a wrong note or an early entry, and the ensuing public humiliation. It is unsurprising that some orchestral players succumb to the dreaded pearlies, a nervous complaint which afflicts all musicians, but especially string players. Stress problems were not confined to players. At one concert a popular maestro who suffered frequent attacks of stage fright, walked on, then immediately off stage, needing coercion to return. Following criticism of his leadership by one tyrant, Georgiadis is compelled to ask himself: what does leading an orchestra actually involve? Do you play entirely in sync with the other violins or very slightly ahead of the beat? He also describes techniques adopted by string players – bowing, vibrato, pizzicato etc.

While reading this book I was amazed to learn that during the ‘60s and ‘70s neither the LSO nor LPO included any women players. The author compares belonging to an orchestra to playing in a football or rugby team. He expresses surprise that few applications for vacant orchestral posts were received from women and appears ambivalent about the need to change the status quo.

Georgiadis offers a frank and occasionally painful assessment of his own shortcomings – a tendency to moodiness, a deep shyness, a short fuse and a lack of diplomacy - resulting in personal embarrassment and regular friction with conductors. One famous Italian maestro even refused to conduct the LSO while he remained leader. He acknowledges having been in a privileged position as an orchestral leader, yet finding himself reaching crisis point, compelling him to relinquish his post. At times he comes across as a lost soul “on the edge of a precipice.” At the age of 38 he quit the LSO for the second time. Redemption came in an unlikely form. He sought guidance from a conductor whom he had previously found inspiring, Sergiu Celibidache, and enrolled in his conducting classes; the maestro thereafter assumed the role of mentor, as Georgiadis embarked on the next phase of his musical career. Georgiadis devotes more space in his book to Celibidache than any other conductor and it is evident that he regarded him as a source of enlightenment as much as a teacher of conducting techniques.

In recent times, John Georgiadis has demonstrated his versatility, engaging in a wide range of musical activities: education work, playing in chamber groups, conducting the London New Year Concerts, making CDs of Viennese music and conducting with the Essex Youth and Bangkok Symphony Orchestras. He seems to have relished the variety and challenge offered in these roles and to have achieved a state of relative calm in the process! Having recently observed young conductors on the podium, he expresses optimism for the future. Can we now safely assume that the future for orchestral players is tyrant-free?

To sum up, this is a very entertaining read, providing a deep insight into the orchestral scene in London. The central core of the book is crammed with musical personalities and anecdotes which come thick and fast. This section may seem a bit episodic and may have benefited from some pruning, as all of the stories are not equally enthralling. The book may be best read by dipping in and picking out certain names or topics which appeal. To facilitate this, the book contains an alphabetical index of musicians, critics and others from the musical world. John Georgiadis relates many episodes from what has been a fascinating and varied life and he writes in an open, fluent and humorous style. The arresting and dramatic opening to this book bodes well for the next chapter in his life, as an author of fiction. He has just published his first novel.

Tony Flynn

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