Thursday, October 8, 2009

Rebirth in New York?

(No matter how awful the Lindberg piece was, opening night had some awesome Berlioz)

In the midst of all this Dudamania, let's not forget that something almost equally incredible is happening at the New York Philharmonic. The NYPhil, that singular bastion of American conservatism, the banner constantly used for everything that is wrong with American musical life, has hired a 40 year old near-unknown as its music director named Alan Gilbert. The last time they did this was over 50 years ago, when they took a chance on a young American conductor whose greatest achievements until then were as a Broadway composer. In the classical world, he was best known for a TV show in which explained classical music to the masses at a time when discussing music was greatly frowned upon. Needless to say, this relative unknown turned out to be Leonard Bernstein. It was only a matter of time before his collaborator Stephen Sondheim was turning out opera for Broadway of greater intelligence than nearly any opera composer, and even less time before Bernstein's manner of talking about music began to look extraordinarily effective, even downright necessary. Bernstein's methods, deemed superficial and glib in his lifetime, seem absolutely appropriate for our own. Bernstein is still our contemporary.

In the forty years since Bernstein left New York, the NYPhil coasted on the brandname he established. I'll never forget a visit I took to the NYPhil giftshop at Avery Fischer Hall, it tells all you need to know. Barely a single CD displayed in there had any other conductor on the label. A steady stream of big names followed Bernstein into the music director's chair - Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta; Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel - all of whom ran afoul of the audiences, the orchestra or the critics (in the case of Boulez, all three) and had to be gotten rid of before long so that the orchestra could find a better long-term solution. The orchestra never recovered from Bernstein's early departure, and no music director seems to last any longer than his 11 years on the podium.

(and Sacre Saint Fran├žois! Messiaen on a New York Phil opening night?!? It's as though the Philharmonic finally realized it's 1949.)

The New York Phil was always known as an orchestra of conductor-killers. The list of conductors who had drubbings from the NYPhil is like a list of the greatest conductors of the century. Otto Klemperer once explained how the Beethoven's 5th was inspired by his autobiography and the oboeist rose to say 'Klemp, you talk too much.' Georg Solti once told the orchestra how fortunate he felt to be conducting them only to have a cellist say "You probably say that to every orchestra you want to be music director of." And those are just guest conductors. Mahler was hounded by the NYPhil board from the moment he took over until his premature death 2 years later. John Barbirolli was so demoralized by his directorship that he accepted an offer to take over a then-third-rate orchestra in Manchester for which he had to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a submarine in the middle of World War II. His successor, Artur Rodinski, was said to carry a gun with him to every rehearsal. Poor Dimitri Mitropoulos was another who may have been driven to an early grave from his music directorship of the NYPhil. Their reputation for treatment of conductors is so awful that lots of great ones still refuse to lead them. When asked why he wouldn't conduct the New York Philharmonic, Simon Rattle replied in his trademark Liverpudlian twang "Ah like me balls."

But unknown as Alan Gilbert is, he is not unknown to the New York Phil. He is, in fact, one of them. Both his parents were first violinists, and as a teenager Gilbert often accompanied his parents on Philharmonic tours - often handling the orchestra's passports. In 167 years, the New York Philharmonic has not once had a native New Yorker lead them. If they tear Gilbert up, they really are as bad as their reputation leads us to believe.

Gilbert has started in ways just as promising as Dudi. Thomas Hampson and Valery Gergiev are artists in residence. Magnus Lindberg is composer in residence...ok, that's not that promising. But what's important is that the New York Philharmonic is beginning to think longer-term. Rather than a concert-by-concert repeat of the same experience blue-haired old ladies had in 1956, the Philharmonic now wants artists who have things to say and can give audiences real experiences that both entertain and challenge. Things are looking up at the orchestras of America's two major cities. Let's hope this lasts for a while.

(Well...Lenny he ain't. But hopefully he'll find his own way and it will work well for what he has to do.)

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