Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Musical podiums/Recent spate of conductor-swapping raises questions

By Thor Eckert Jr.New York / August 1, 1985



Turnover in music directorships has always been a fact of orchestral life. But lately it has been happening with greater frequency, because of the way many conductors have built careers on several continents, with prolific recordings and a lot of jetting around. Gone are the days when a conductor was willing to spend most of a season with his orchestra. In the last year or so the domestic orchestra scene has experienced a veritable frenzy of turnovers. The latest announcement is that Edo de Waart will be taking over the Minnesota Orchestra in the 1986-87 season. Yet just this past May, the San Francisco Symphony officially bade him farewell for what was to have been the artistic directorship of the Netherlands Opera. That position is said to have changed drastically since he agreed to leave San Francisco. His successor in San Francisco, Herbert Blomst edt, takes the podium this fall after an introductory Beethoven cycle that had audiences cheering and critics raving.

Skip to next paragraph

This past year, Gunther Herbig took the helm at the Detroit Symphony, and Christoph von Dohnanyi the head job with the Cleveland Orchestra. This fall, Andr'e Previn takes over the Los Angeles Philharmonic from Carlo Maria Giulini. In Cincinnati, Jes'us L'opez Cobos has just been appointed to succeed Michael Gielen in the fall of 1986. Also in the fall of '86, the noted pianist-turned-conductor Philippe Entremont goes to the Denver Symphony from New Orleans, where the orchestra has named Maxim Shostakovi ch, the late composer's son, as his replacement. Pittsburgh is still searching for someone to replace Mr. Previn, whose precipitate resignation was sparked by a feud with the orchestra's executive director.

Several newer music directors seem securely placed. Sergiu Comissiona has been doing impressive work in Houston, a post he took in the fall of 1983, at the time Gerard Schwarz became principal conductor of the Seattle Symphony. The Philadelphia Orchestra is still deliriously happy with Riccardo Muti, and he in turn has carefully rebuilt the orchestra into a delectable chameleon of an ensemble. Although the orchestra rarely makes the yummy noises it used to generate on demand from the late Eugene Ormand y, it can now create a totally different sound for Faur'e, Var`ese, Britten, or Bruckner.

There are a few podiums that, for the moment, seem unshakable. Zubin Mehta's contract has been renewed at the New York Philharmonic at least through 1990. Seiji Ozawa shows no sign of wanting to step down from the Boston Symphony, despite persistent rumors that he wants to give up the BSO and immerse himself in opera. Sir Georg Solti is intent on staying on in Chicago, despite an increasingly small commitment of time to that podium -- less than a third of the season these days. There, rumors have abound ed that Claudio Abbado would be offered the job when Sir Georg chose to step aside, although Mr. Abbado has just recently accepted the music directorship of the Vienna State Opera. Sometimes rumors cannot be discounted, since the de Waart story -- implausible as it seemed even a month ago -- was furtively bruited about for several months before it was publicly announced.

The results of all this shuffling remain to be seen. Although many of the appointments are logical, even promising, they do tend to raise questions. What is at the root of all this change? Is it the conductors seeking new posts to bolster their international images? Is it the orchestra managements trying to snag the biggest names, in current baseball fashion?

In the past, most great orchestras were built by a strong head who devoted a majority of his time to his orchestra over many years. It is almost a truism that the quality of musicmaking in America has been in direct proportion to the commitment of music directors to their orchestras. But how many conductors today feel that life with one orchestra is valid in this fully international age?

Conductor-swapping is bound to challenge not only the directors and their symphonies, but also some of our most firmly held ideas about what it takes to reach the highest standards in musicmaking.