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Room at the Top

“Luck is the residue of design.”

Branch Rickey

Another year has gone by without the New York Philharmonic announcing its choice to replace Kurt Masur as music director, even though general manager Zarin Mehta had promised us a final choice by Labor Day. Similar states of entropy exist in Boston and Philadelphia, leaving three of the “top five” American orchestras leaderless and floundering. Each board of directors has a short list of candidates and the turn of a new millennium seems a good opportunity to examine their potential strengths and weaknesses. Here are the once and future courted in no particular order:

1. Simon Rattle

First choice in both Philadelphia and Boston, Rattle was seriously considering moving to the City of Brotherly Love just as they are about to unveil their new concert hall on the renamed Avenue of the Arts. Sir Simon had narrowed his choice down to Philadelphia or Berlin and several factors found him leaning across the pond. His children by a previous marriage live in the US and his new bride is American. His guest conducting on Broad Street was extremely successful and his Carnegie Hall performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder with the fabulous Philadelphians was the best orchestral concert heard here in many years. However, Rattle opted for Germany because they did not require him to do any fundraising, leaving that to the professionals. He declined the Philadelphia offer gracefully, stating that he would perhaps take the position twenty years hence but did not want to split his time between musicianship and charitable politics just now. He is not even moving to Berlin, opting instead to commute from England, but still prefers this arduous regime to dining on the rubber chicken circuit. Rattle would have brought to Philadelphia a rougher, more soulful edge to their brilliance and it is interesting to speculate what veneer he will apply to the already silken sound at the Philharmonie.

2. James Levine

It is rumored in this town that Jimmy was offered two million dollars a year to walk across the Lincoln Center Plaza and take over the troubled Philharmonic. His refusal might seem cavalier until one realizes that he earned four million for one afternoon last summer by standing next to the “Three Tenors” in Paris. Levine has established an impressive hegemony at the Metropolitan, improving the orchestra significantly and taking it to the next level of first class symphonic afternoons at Carnegie Hall. His power base still seems secure at the opera and he has already begun to groom a hand-picked successor in Valery Gergiev. There may very well come a time soon when the maestro becomes tired of such a steady diet of the stage (and its corollary backstage politics) and he has recently accepted guest appearances in Boston. But Levine has already stated that he does not want to travel, so that even though he can write his own ticket, he never seems to want to utilize it. He is the best orchestra builder around and would thus be a skilled candidate for either Boston or New York, but recent considerations of health have forced him to scale back his hometown schedule, so his viability as a serious candidate seems suspect.

3. Lorin Maazel

The latest entry on the New York list is this highly talented and experienced professional. Some years ago, when I hosted my own radio program, I wanted to do a series of shows about Mahler and thought to present the ten symphonies in their best recorded versions. Soliciting help on the internet, I asked aficionados from around the world to come up with their favorite performances, submitting my own list as a guideline. Most of my choices were rather mainstream (Klemperer for the 2nd, Szell for the 4th) but one was greeted with a barrage of cyberspatial catcalls and outright invective. I had dared to select the Maazel 7th with the Vienna Philharmonic and discovered that he is generally disparaged if not downright detested. In fact, Maazel is regularly lambasted by the New York press and in recent concerts has seemed disconnected as a communicator. I found his Mahler 1 with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra highly manipulative and his Bruckner 8 with the recalcitrant New Yorkers a bloody battlefield where the conductor’s interpretation was completely ignored by his troops (this is the same orchestra which once told Joseph Stansky that if he didn’t start behaving himself, they would start following his beat). It is especially galling to fans of Mr. Masur that Maazel is now being considered because, at 70, he is only three years younger than the current conductor, who was given as one of the major reasons for his sacking his advanced age.

4. Riccardo Muti

Apparently Mr. Mehta doesn’t read the papers, otherwise he would have known why this highly interesting Italian left a glorious reign in Philadelphia. He simply wanted to go home to Milan where he could make a fine living as music director at La Scala and also pursue his lifelong interest in the music of Pergolesi and Palestrina. After charging everyone up in New York, Mehta was forced to admit that Muti was not a serious candidate for more than a handful of weeks a year. Had he been so, the people of Pennsylvania never would have given him up in the first place.

5. Christoph Eschenbach

Now considered the frontrunner in Philadelphia and highly sought after in New York, this flamboyant podium presence seems destined to end up with one of the three jobs in question. He is perhaps a little radical for Philadelphia, not as a musician but as a personality. Always wearing black and never sporting a tie, Eschenbach and his shaved head exude a classical music version of “gangsta rap” that always seems a little naughty and might not go over well on the staid, respectable main line. I used to review this young lion in Houston and found him to be a solid orchestral disciplinarian and a man of sound musical values. His reported toughness would be a blessing for New York, which seems determined not to hire an American candidate and would be enchanted with another Teutonic figure. It would remain to be seen, however, whether the lion would transform into a lamb after tangling with the unions and atmosphere of bad manners which dominate the daily life of the Philharmonic. Attitude is a major problem at Avery Fisher. At a recent conference of musicians, one of the first chair players was asked what it was like to play for the best conductors. Stating that he had been with the Philharmonic for many years and was therefore bereft of the experience of performing for any great conductors, he referred the question to one of his section mates who had recently transferred from Philadelphia.

6. Mariss Janssons

Perhaps the best of the lot in terms of instrumental progression, this unsung Norwegian has done a terrific job in Pittsburgh. He has built the country’s best wind section (although first flautist Robert Langevin has now jumped ship for New York) and overall the tightest ensemble in America. But Janssons had a serious heart attack recently and I doubt if he would prosper in the jungles of New York. He is first in line after Eschenbach on the Philharmonic’s list and a hefty Gotham salary would pay for a lot of digitalis.

7. Michael Tilson-Thomas

Demographically he is the ideal candidate for the New York job as he is both Jewish and gay. He is an excellent communicator and educator and is very comfortable with the media: a sort of Lenny redux. However, he seems very happy to be a demigod in the Bay area and is not considered likely to move.

8. Leonard Slatkin

The Phil plays very well for this colorful American who is also adept at little pre-performance fireside chats, but he has recently accepted a top offer from the BBC and will probably not spend that much time in the States going forward.

9. Bernard Haitink

This fine craftsman is already the principal guest conductor of the BSO and I am sure could take over as music director in a heartbeat except that his is slightly irregular. He gave up both the Concertgebouw and the London Philharmonic due to ill health and I can’t imagine him saddling himself with a major responsibility in the near future.

10. David Robertson and Roberto Abbado

These two younger men lead the pack of also-rans. Robertson is a modern music expert with impressive credentials at IRCAM and a sophisticated understanding of later twentieth century musical styles. This background might make him ipso facto a distinguished reject, but it would be appreciatively courageous if one of the boards would actually appoint him (an outside shot in Philadelphia). Abbado comes from that musical family but seems more of a follower than a leader if recent guest appearances are typical. Everyone else seems remote, either too involved already or not high up enough on the ladder of celebrity (remember that the fundraisers still rule these organizations).

Once the dust settles, probably none of these performing bodies will be totally pleased with their choices. Something is bound to suffer: either the box office, the concert quality or both may deteriorate. Only Philadelphia could survive without a leader for an extended period; both Boston and New York are in need right now of a steady hand. Unfortunately, even an extended search has not produced many strong candidates. Does this bode ill for all orchestras in the 21st century?

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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