Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Boston Symphony New Music Director Sweepstakes

In a helpful demonstration of what happens to out of shape conductors who take two jobs, James Levine has been forced to quit the Boston Symphony. Surprise!

As Alex Ross said, it's a terribly sad ending to a promising partnership. The BSO seems to have been fraught with excessive tzuris for the last fifty years - a great American orchestra (probably the greatest during the WWII era) whose leadership made mistake after mistake. None more costly than the thirty-year tenure of Seiji Ozawa, a virtuoso technician whose aptitude for flashy grandstanding was entirely wrong for the most intellectual city in America.

(Vintage "Silver Age" BSO under Charles Munch.)

But under Levine, morale was higher than it had been since (the first two years of) the William Steinberg era (1969-72). Unfortunately, like the Steinberg tenure, the Levine Rennaisance was cut cruelly short by the conductor's health. Even so, James Levine was precisely what the BSO needed - a veteran who guaranteed quality. Jimmy showed the organization that they can still be a first-class orchestra so long as they had a first-class musician facing them. Here's hoping that the next director can stick around longer, though I'm not holding my breath.

Now the search begins for the new music director. There are probably dozens of conductors who would drop everything in the most undignified possible manner to lead the BSO. I'm guessing the search will probably focus primarily around two candidates with almost diametrically opposed strengths:

1. Riccardo Chailly (58) -

The Good: Purely as a conductor, the Italian director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is probably the most talented of his generation - combining supercharged energy in his performances with intellectual rigor. Equally at home in the traditional repertoire and the avant-garde, he will combine all of Levine's strengths with the added energy of someone in good health. Has a 30-year relationship with Decca Records which shows no signs of abating.

The Bad: Chailly's friendly demeanor belies a long history of clashes and flakes with both orchestras and management. Less than ten years ago, he stunned the music world by leaving his post as director of the Royal Concertgebouw to become the Gewandhaus's music director. It was said that he left Amsterdam to direct more opera, but within three years he had resigned from the opera portion of his job in Leipzig because of clashes with management.

The Ugly: Reports have surfaced that he's already entered talks with the BSO, but did so partially as a way to extract more money from the city of Leipzig (for the orchestra, not him).

2. David Robertson (52)

The Good: Like Leonard Slatkin before him, the current music director of the St. Louis Symphony looks like the superstar that never was. There is no one in the entire orchestral world who programs more interesting music, and no one more willing to engage the public to show them why they should give obscure music a chance. With attendance falling around the country, what every great orchestra needs is a great ambassador to the community. No candidate would devote more energy to the Boston Symphony or be better tailored for the city's unique strengths. He has subbed for James Levine on a number of occasions and has a long-standing relationship with the orchestra.

The Bad: His performances can sometimes be as dull as his programs are interesting. Often gives interpretations, at least in Romantic repertoire, of great intelligence and little personality. He can seem like every inch what a great conductor should be, until you're in the concert hall. Still, can be extremely compelling in more no-nonsense repertoire.

The Ugly: The longtime darling of the New York Times was twice a bridesmaid with the New York Philharmonic - losing out the second time to Alan Gilbert, whom many consider a younger, better-connected version of Robertson.

Other Candidates:

3. Andris Nelsons (32)

The Good: The new 'hottest young conductor in the world' is already spoken of in terms reserved for the very greatest. It cannot be denied that this Latvian is already displaying an interpretive maturity far beyond his years. Though currently the director of Simon Rattle's old band, The City of Birmingham Symphony, it's only a matter of time before he is called up to the big leagues. Perhaps even bigger than the BSO.

The Bad: It's already circulating that his longtime mentor, Mariss Jansons, is grooming him to shortly take over the Bavarian Radio Symphony in Munich as his health grows more frail. And Nelsons could be headed for altitudes still higher before long. Simon Rattle's contract with the Berlin Philharmonic is up in 2018. Unless things aren't working for Gustavo Dudamel in LA, all bets are off if either Rattle or the Berlin Phil. decides not to renew.

The Ugly: Mariss Jansons had decades to develop his craft away from the spotlight, Nelsons has been thrust into it nearly from day 1. Nelsons is still extremely young, and it shows in the willfulness of his interpretations. He takes more risks than any conductor in his generation, and as great as the results often are, his obvious gifts can still curdle into some pretty grotesque mannerisms.

4. Vladimir Jurowski (38):

The Good: A talent that dwarves even Riccardo Chailly. Perhaps the single most talented conductor since Carlos Kleiber, the Russo-German comes from a family of fine conductors and looks to have re-energized the London Philharmonic to a level on which they have not played at since the days of Klaus Tennstedt. A brilliant technician with an intellectual's brain who can elicit remarkable results over a jaw-droppingly wide range of repertoire, including many new composers.

The Bad: Committed to the LPO and the Glyndebourne Festival in the summers for a long while, Jurowski has already turned down the Philadelphia Orchestra and may have difficulty fitting the summer-driven BSO into his schedule. He also may very well be the replacement for Antonio Pappano at the Royal Opera House in a few years, or for that matter be in the running to replace Levine at the MET when the time arrives (and who can doubt that it's coming soon?).

The Ugly: Conflicting reports about his demeanor. Some say he is a dream to work with, others that he has a temper.

5. Antonio Pappano (51):

The Good: The Itali-Brit-American is respected and loved by soloists and singers around the world. It helps that he's also a very talented conductor who breathes enormous life into old warhorses both operatic and symphonic. The Royal Opera House has not had a more successful music director since Sir Georg Solti. But in a few years, he will probably leave Covent Garden for less stressful pastures. He is likely ready for a challenge in the orchestral realm and is no doubt more than up to the administrative side of being an American music director.

The Bad: Not the most intellectually probing conductor. A mostly unknown quantity with new music. Committed to the Orchestra St. Cecilia in Rome for the time being.

The Ugly: Rumors of tempers flaring at Covent Garden (but it's Covent Garden, which would make St. Cecilia herself blow up).

6. Vassily Petrenko (34)

The Good: At 34 years, the young Russian has already amassed a reputation in his native repertoire equal to Gergiev and Temirkanov. In five years, he has energized the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to a level unheard in living memory. Thanks to Naxos, he is the most recorded conductor of his generation.

The Bad: A nearly unknown quantity outside of Russian music.

The Ugly: I'll bet Petrenko is kicking himself right now. I remember reading somewhere (can't remember where) that the BSO was thinking about him as a replacement for Levine. But those rumors may have stopped with last week's announcement that Petrenko will become the next director of the Oslo Philharmonic. The quickness with which he was willing to accept a post the 'next rung up' from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic leaves doubts about his ability to see a job through.

7. Semyon Bychkov (58)

The Good: The Russian-American is currently unattached and beginning to attract a reputation as an old master. Twenty-five years ago he was hailed as a once-in-a-generation talent, but he has since developed out of the spotlight. At home in a huge array of repertoire and possesses both the ear for orchestral color a BSO music director needs, and the intellectual heft Boston requires.

The Bad: He could just as easily end up Levine's replacement at the Metropolitan Opera...or Pappano's at the Royal Opera. He says he is happier than ever as just a guest conductor. But every conductor seems to say that until a better job comes around.

The Ugly: Seriously, this dude is the ugliest conductor since Fritz Reiner. Also, rumored to not always be the most avuncular sort.

8. Ivan Fischer (60)

The Good: If Riccardo Chailly is a generation leader, then Ivan Fischer nips at his heals. Musicians who work with Fischer seem to have a uniformly high (to say the least) opinion of his musicmaking. He created an orchestra in his native Budapest (The Budapest Festival Orchestra) and made it one of the world's finest. There is no finer conductor in today's world of traditional repertoire. He also has a fantastic recording contract with Channel Classics.

The Bad: Just accepted a job as the director of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin (Berlin's 4th orchestra, very weird...). Does not seem to perform much in the way of new music. Known as a bit of a control freak.

The Ugly: With the situation becoming increasingly dire in Hungary, Fischer has been curiously mute - his name was conspicuously absent from a manifesto against the Hungarian government's authoritarianism which his brother Adam (another fine conductor) co-authored. Could very well be looking for a way out of the situation in Budapest. What better parachute than Boston?

9. Osmo Vanska (58)

The Good: A master orchestral trainer who has spent his career in the shadows of flashier Finns like Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste. A conductor of austere temperament known as an authority on 'northern composers' both classic and modern. He stunned the world by releasing a Beethoven cycle which proved him as adept at Beethoven as he was at Sibelius and Nielsen. An extremely productive long-term contract with BIS means that the BSO would never lack for recordings.

The Bad: Vanska would be a fool to come to Boston if it meant leaving Minneapolis. With the Minnesota Orchestra, Vanska has found stardom, artistic freedom, and a community that idolizes him. Their partnership is one of the world's most fruitful, and no greater orchestra should be able to tempt him away.

The Ugly: The volcanic nature of Vanska's performances is often said to be a reflection on Vanska's temperament. Conductors are a temperamental species.

10. Daniele Gatti (49)

The Good: A conductor highly respected as a guest with nearly every world-class orchestra. Said (by Norman Lebrecht at least) to be struggling with his current job in Paris. Could have had an appointment equal in prestige to Boston fifteen years ago, but instead decided to develop away from the spotlight.

The Bad: Probably in the running to be the next music director of three of the world's major opera houses (at La Scala he's probably the favorite). Said to, at the moment, be the Berlin Philharmonic's most favored choice to replace Simon Rattle after 2018. Compared to what he might get, the BSO could be a step down.

The Ugly: His impulsive, erratic, emotional interpretive style is perhaps a reflection of a distinctly long record of divo flareups.

11. Sakari Oramo (45)

The Good: An unassuming Finn who handled the unenviable task of succeeding Simon Rattle in
Birmingham with remarkable assurance. A very fine conductor over a wide array of repertoire with an uncommon level of musical curiosity - interested in everything from new music to obscure composers. Also does the traditional stuff extremely well.

The Bad: Committed in Sweden to the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic for the foreseeable future. Sakari Who?

The Ugly: Does Oramo have an ugly side? Others would probably know this better than I.

12. Ilan Volkov (35)

The Good: The Israeli former assistant conductor of the BSO is known for musical intelligence, musical curiosity to burn and an extremely wide repertoire.

The Bad: A young, relatively unproven youngster who is already not thought of as having the same promise he did five years ago.

The Ugly: Couldn't even handle the BBC Scottish Symphony without temper tantrums.

13. Robert Spano (49)

The Good: The American director of the Atlanta Symphony is another of the American model like David Robertson and Alan Gilbert. Long on the cultural ambassadorship and wide sympathies in his repertoire. He has a longstanding relationship with the Boston Symphony as the director of the Tanglewood conducting program. He has taken such an interest in new music that a group of composers he champions have come to be known as the 'Atlanta School.'

The Bad: Like Robertson, he is often more interesting than good. He is similarly wooden in the core repertoire and is far more comfortable when operating outside the norm of traditional concerts. Not a bad thing in today's world, but if the blue-hairs insist on more tradition, it could become a distinct problem.

The Ugly: With the exception of Osvaldo Golijov, most of the 'Atlanta School' music is thought of (correctly) as music stripped of its ability to make an impression because it is stripped of its ability to offend (and Golijov was never really part of it anyway).

13. Daniel Harding (35)

The Good: One of that increasingly common phenomenon known as the 'child prodigy conductor' who was taken under the tutelage of Simon Rattle (himself a prodigy conductor) and afterward an assistant to Claudio Abbado. He is now all grown up (though he barely looks it) and the director of both the Gustav Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Symphony (where his contract currently runs out in 2012). He has a winning combination Abbado's meticulousness and Rattle's passion. His talent is nearly limitless, but...

The Bad: He is capable of using that talent to obtain distinctly weird results. By the time he's 60 he could incarnate the best of Abbado and Rattle combined, or he could become a second Lorin Maazel - using his obvious gifts to give weird, unmusical interpretations that show little more than his contempt for a job that comes to him so easily.

The Ugly: Seriously. What's up with him and Janine Jansen?

14. Leonard Slatkin (66)

He needs the work.

Who Will Get It: The BSO probably exhausted all its willingness to bet on youth with Seiji Ozawa in the early 70's. They will in all likelihood appoint a proven oldster from Europe like Chailly or Bychkov. Either would get some great performances out of them, but neither would be drama free.

Who Should Get It: David Robertson. Dull or not, the BSO needs reviving as a Great American Institution (and he's not as bad as all that). Nobody is better equipped to make the BSO an essential orchestra again than Robertson.

In a Perfect World: Former Assistant Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas would have been given the keys to the kingdom in the early 70's rather than Seiji Ozawa, and the partnership would be going strong into year 40.


  1. Also: Gianandrea Noseda, Andrew Davis, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Hans Graf, James Conlon, Jaap van Zweden

  2. Noseda is a very good conductor but for whatever reason he doesn't have the 'star power' of some of the above. Davis is simply too old and some people (not me) think he's boring. Harth-Bedoya would be a very interesting pick, but he's so unknown that it's probably extremely unlikely. Graf is also too old, and not the kind of charismatic presence that would get a Big Five post. I've always wondered why Conlon was never considered for larger orchestras, but he's the same age as Graf and his time has probably passed. Zweden would also be an interesting pick, but he has a very good thing just beginning in Dallas and it would be foolish to give it up, even for Boston.

    Someone I forgot is Susanna Malkki, who will probably be looked at, even if I doubt she'll get it. If I have enough time maybe I'll update.

    Hope that answers any queries :).

  3. The first American orchestra to snap up either Jonathan Nott (Bamberg) or Sebastian Weigle (Oper Frankfurt) will have the perfect coup.

  4. I don't know much about Weigle (though I've heard good things). I have mixed feelings about Nott, whom I wrote about on my old blog here:

    Nott has such a wonderful setup in Bamberg, a city that lets him do anything he wants and where 10% of its inhabitants are subscribers(!). I can't imagine him wanting to leave. Especially for an American orchestra where compromises always have to be made, even in the best of circumstances, to stay above water.

  5. A year later, do you have any updates to your thinking, especially based on the upcoming season?

    What about Stephane Deneve? He's 41, has some history with the BSO, led a crackerjack program in SF this week.

    I presume Ludovic Morlot, still in his 30s, is out of the question because he's just finishing his first season in Seattle.

    Elsewhere you mentioned the problems of the BSO getting stuck for decades with a young conductor who turns out to be a dud, that is, Ozawa the Second. That's what five-year contracts are for. :)

    I think that "dull" is totally disqualifying, for Robertson.

  6. Deneve seems to me easily the most talented of the new French batch - not counting anyone on the HIP side, but Neszet-Seguin included if he counts. Morlot does not strike me as being as talented as Deneve anyway. Deneve even looks like a young James Levine. But I wonder if he's still considered too small time for them. I'd probably be over the moon if they hired him, but I doubt they're willing to take a risk on someone that unproven. A shame, because he might be exactly what they're looking for.

    I would love for them to try a younger conductor, and there was a rumor floating (I think from Lebrecht) that Vasily Petrenko was being groomed, but he signed with Oslo right before Levine announced his departure. It's a bit like what happened with Simon Rattle. For years it seemed like a given that he'd replace Ozawa, only for Ozawa to announce he was leaving on the day Rattle was named Berlin's new director.

    Clearly there are four candidates on show this year: Gatti, Nelsons, Jurowski, and Deneve. And if Daniele Gatti has three programs, he's the odds-on favorite. But Gatti is a Muti-level hothead - and as inconsistently inspired as they come. Part of me wonders if they gave him three weeks to see if he could deliver consistently. But even so, I wonder if they wouldn't be shooting themselves in the foot on this one. Chailly and Bychkov would both cause headaches, but they always deliver once they're on the podium.

    The problem with Ozawa was that he had impeccable management. If they didn't resign Ozawa, Ronald Wilford would come after them. I suppose it's possible they'd have been blackballed from any major conductor as a replacement or even as a guest, to say nothing of soloists.

    Anyway, my two cents. Perhaps there's another post in all this somewhere.

  7. Very impressive. There are some qualities to be a good musical director such as enthusiasm, fun, decisiveness, clarity, musicality and patience as well.Music company directors direct vocal and instrumental performances by way of a variety of musical groups like concert artists, choirs, orchestras, and other audio ensembles. They may be responsible for auditioning and choosing performing artists and selecting the correct music to the ensemble. Music directors should also have a simple knowledge of choreography. Most of professional music directors are aware about the record contract.