Musical Chairs

America's top orchestras are handing their batons to 'name brand' maestros. Will any make more daring choices?

Orchestral conductors have been taking over American cities with the sweep of four-star generals on a military campaign. The appointment of Christoph Eschenbach at the Philadelphia Orchestra in January was followed quickly by the news that Lorin Maazel would lead the New York Philharmonic. Young German conductor Frans Welser-Most is taking over the mighty Cleveland Orchestra, and at last word, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was in prolonged negotiations with James Levine, music director of New York's Metropolitan Opera, to take the helm.

That makes four of the traditional "Big 5" American orchestras in a state of flux. The tendency so far has been to hire yet another international superstar, usually a European. But what about the pool of talented young American conductors? Will women or African-American conductors ever get a shot at the major posts? Will America's orchestras continue with "musical chairs" or bring in fresh talent?

A conductor is more essential to an orchestra than most presidents are to countries. He or she determines what music is played and how the audience experiences it. More than a mere "dictator of the podium," the conductor must turn notes on a page into a great musical experience - in the process convincing 100 or so often-reluctant musicians to follow along. Critics have looked favorably on the Philadelphia Orchestra's hiring of Mr. Eschenbach, who proved himself a deeply emotional and ac

complished conductor while in Houston, and who was able to tame the Orchestre de Paris, one of the most unruly ensembles in the world. He might have even been able to tackle the New York Philharmonic, widely known as "the conductor's graveyard" for its sometimes lethal treatment of conductors they disapprove.

Before the veteran Mr. Maazel was hired, the Philharmonic had scheduled a tryout concert with the superbly talented Mariss Jansons, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Although Mr. Jansons has been praised for his interpretations, which combine dynamic energy with passion, he somehow did not pass muster with the Philharmonic players, according to some media reports.

Even the best conductor can have an off day: For a while, Britain's Sir Simon Rattle was persona non grata at the Vienna Philharmonic, and part of Mr. Welser-Most's motivation for heading to Cleveland is surely that in his previous post in London, players punningly called him "Worse Than Most."

Maazel is no stranger to orchestral scorn, either, having driven some musicians away from the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1970s with his "surly and hostile" moods and "weird, maddening, and indifferent performances," according to Donald Rosenberg, author of a recent history of the Cleveland organization.

But clearly Maazel can dish it out as well as take it.

At a recent press conference, he slid in critiques of colleagues' baton techniques. The occasion was to announce a new $5 million conducting competition, funded by the philanthropist Alberto Vilar. Known for publicity stunts, such as conducting all nine Beethoven symphonies in a single day, Maazel remains impressive for his ability to impress others. The bedazzled New York Times recently described him as "lithe as a rock star," without specifying which rock star it had in mind: Ozzy Osbourne or David Crosby.

Far more encouraging than the New York situation is Philadelphia's choice of Eschenbach, a true professional whose first care is for the beauty of the music. And other such conductors in their 40s are waiting to burst upon public awareness.

Among the most outstanding of these is Antonio Pappanio, currently head of La Monnaie opera house in Brussels. In 2002, Pappanio will take over the reins of London's troubled Covent Garden Orchestra, where things are so volatile that he may wish for an orchestral job in America soon.

In addition to being the finest Italian opera conductor around today, Pappano also has a deep understanding of composers from Wagner to Schonberg and excels in orchestral repertory.

Another up-and-coming conductor, Peter Oundjian, had a superb 15-year career as first violin of the Tokyo Quartet in their finest era and now is music director of the prestigious Caramoor Festival in Katonah, N.Y., as well as holding posts in Holland and Belgium. Mr. Oundjian says today's conductors, unlike their predecessors, do not think any more in terms of appointments for life. Instead, they have contracts that may or may not be renewed. "Some conductors may be reluctant to make very long-term plans with an orchestra, or are too concerned with approval or disapproval," he says. "The one thing that hasn't changed is that orchestral musicians are looking to be inspired, even if they don't admit it, and like to respect the person on the podium.... I believe this, otherwise I wouldn't conduct."

Another brilliant younger American conductor, David Charles Abell, is based in London because of the dynamic musical scene there. Mr. Abell - who masters composers from Mozart and Puccini to Broadway tunesmiths - agrees with observers who argue that there is an American conducting style, and that there is a strong pool of American conducting talent available. "To make a sweeping generalization, Americans tend to be more gregarious than Europeans, and this certainly comes out in their conducting." Able says. "I think Europeans like the fact that we wear our hearts on our sleeves."

Although talented young American conductors earn conservatory diplomas every year, Abell observes, "The eternal problem for young conductors is getting experience on the podium."

This problem is accentuated for women and African-Americans. Marin Alsop, one of America's leading female conductors, is music director of the Colorado Symphony in Denver and gives concerts internationally with such major groups as the London Symphony Orchestra. She says that for talented younger conductors in America, "there is no clear path to pursue as far as solid artistic and technical growth is concerned. It doesn't appear that America strives to nurture and promote its own talent."

Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland (Calif.) East Bay Symphony, says the pressures of being an American, especially an African-American, "mean you'd better make a stunning first impression, since no one seems interested in potential or watching your development anymore."

Apart from Morgan, the Chicago Symphony's resident conductor William Eddins, and Raymond Harvey, leader of the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Symphony, African-Americans are scarcely visible on American podiums. One notable maestro, the Oregon Symphony's James DePriest, nephew of the legendary singer Marian Anderson, is retiring in 2005, and among numerous conductors invited as possible replacements in an unusually public selection process, not one African-American has appeared so far.

All the experts agree that orchestras' hiring policies are based on principles of business, rather than art.

"Apart from [Leonard] Bernstein and a few others," Morgan says, "the leading conductors ... have not taken on the responsibility of teaching the next generation, having apprentices, and then promoting them [helping them get concerts]. This means the business is run by managers and administrators, who should not be determining what, in fact, constitutes a good conductor.

"Some [orchestra managers] even wind up relying on the advice of critics to decide what is good."

Adds maestro Abell: "It is very hard for laymen to judge conductors, since [except for the odd grunt or tuneless humming!] they make no actual sound themselves. Consequently, many administrators and board members rely on reputation, personality, or just the exotic sound of a foreign name to recommend conductors....

"The best situation is when a really fine conductor gets hired because of his or her talent and ability to thrill an audience, and not because they or their managers have talked their way into the job."

Who's going where

Many of the world's most famous maestro's are past 70 years old. Senior maestros from four of the traditional "Big 5" American orchestras are all leaving in 2002. Below, a roundup of the changes ahead:

Boston Symphony Orchestra

The BSO is said to be in negotiations with American James Levine, music director of New York's Metropolitan Opera, to take the helm from Seiji Ozawa, who moves to the Vienna State Opera.

Cleveland Orchestra

Young German conductor Frans Welser-Most will replace veteran Christoph von Dohnanyi.

New York Philharmonic

Veteran conductor Lorin Maazel, formerly maestro in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, will succeed Kurt Masur. Masur moves to the London Philharmonic. Maazel will be the first American to lead America's oldest orchestra since Leonard Bernstein (1958-1969).

Philadelphia Orchestra

Christoph Eschenbach, a German conductor who has led the Houston Symphony Orchestra, will take over for Wolfgang Sawallisch.

At the other "Big 5" orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, Argentine-born maestro Daniel Barenboim is under contract until 2006.

Among other changes, Robert Spano takes over the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in September while continuing as music director of the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Philharmonic. Both the Minnesota Orchestra and Indianapolis Symphony are looking for music directors.

- Staff

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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