Wednesday, May 2, 2012

800 Words: Boston Symphony New Music Director Sweepstakes Semi-Finals Part I

No classical music organization ever did more for America than the Boston Symphony, and no classical organization’s decline has been more tragic. The list of works the Boston Symphony is responsible for birthing in its Golden Age reads like a retrospective of its period’s masterworks: some of which include Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Britten’s Peter Grimes, Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, Howard Hanson’s Romantic Symphony, Copland’s 3rd Symphony, Roussel’s 3rd Symphony, Roy Harris’s 3rd 5th and 6th Symphonies, Prokofiev’s 4th Symphony, Barber’s 2nd Symphony, Martinu’s 1st Symphony, Martinu’s 6th Symphony, Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass, Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Stravinsky’s Orpheus, and Poulenc’s Gloria. Is there any orchestra of that period with similar excellence in the work it commissioned?

But what does the BSO have to show for the fifty years since Charles Munch left?...not very much I’m afraid. Like all the Big Five orchestras (except Cleveland), the glory days are long since passed and these once progressive institutions have turned into sad nostalgia acts – playing concerts high on prestige yet low on musical substance. All the while, the most artistically satisfying concerts on the orchestral scene have been found in California for the past twenty years. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony are orchestras far readier for, and far more understanding of today’s challenges  - with lots more (and better) world premieres of new compositions, far better community outreach, and much more integration into their communities. If the LA Phil or SF Symphony folded tomorrow, the cities would truly change because their subscriber base is younger and their outreach programs affect more people. But at any point in the last half-century, a Boston without their symphony orchestra would fundamentally be the same place.

And if that wasn’t enough, no orchestra fell quite as precipitously as Boston has in the last few years. Until recently, the BSO could at least console itself that it was not subject to indignities any different than those of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. But as James Levine cancelled concert after concert, his dates fell mostly into the hands of no-name assistants, none of whom proved up to the job’s demands as Michael Tilson Thomas did when William Steinberg fell ill in the early 70’s. There were reports of open giggling by musicians during their performances. One would think that in such a situation a new music director, even a mediocre one, would be especially crucial. But no such announcement was forthcoming, nor have they even seemed to try to get one.  Like Chicago and Philadelphia before them, the Boston Symphony is too proud to settle for 2nd best.

As a rather pathetic concession to the fact that bad authority is better than none, Chicago and Philly decided on ‘Principal Conductor’ appointments that at least saw a consistent authority figure preside over concerts for 6 weeks of the season until they could find a first-rate director, and however dumb the idea of a ‘principal conductor’ appointment is, even that’s better than what Boston did has seen fit to leave the inmates in charge of the asylum. In Boston, there’s no music director, no principal conductor, not even a principal guest, nothing to signal that there’s a figure at the helm except a grab-bag of guests to take the place a music director should have. The sense of entitlement is simply shocking, especially considering that their last music director was barely present for the last two years of his tenure.

Even if a David Robertson or a Robert Spano is perhaps too dull or mediocre for such a major appointment, surely either would be better than five years without a figure at all to guide the orchestra. To insist on a ‘great’ music director or none at all is to cut off the nose to spite the face. In music, as in life, we all have to settle. Whether in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or Washington, a decent conductor who’s there 15 weeks of the year makes for far better music than a good-to-great one who’s there for 4 to 6. It’s a lesson that the New York Philharmonic finally learned, and with the intelligent-but-dull Alan Gilbert at the helm they’re at least in better long term shape than the rest of the Big Five (save Cleveland). Why shouldn’t David Zinman, Leonard Slatkin, James Conlon, Robert Spano, David Robertson or Marin Alsop get Big Five appointments? They might not be the world’s greatest conductors, but they surely understand what makes an orchestra successful in America better than the foreign also-rans who usually beat them out. Is there really so much difference between the quality of James Conlon’s music making and Kurt Masur’s? The only reason which conductors like Masur get taken more seriously is the distinction of their accents – because no American could possibly conduct European music with the profundity of a European…could they?

It would seem from this year’s schedule that the BSO is finally getting at least little serious about finding a real music director. Around this time last year year, I wrote that the BSO was clearly staking its claim on either Riccardo Chailly or Andris Nelsons, and clearly had nobody else in mind. As I predicted, this was a horrendous error, because it could backfire on them so easily. Both Chailly and Nelsons had to cancel, and there passed not only another year without a new music director, but another year without so much as an audition for a new music director.

This year is at least a little better. There are a few young conductors on this list, some of whom are genuinely promising. Riccardo Chailly is, sadly, nowhere to be found. Chailly would have made a respectable choice: his performances are like the man himself – energetic, intelligent, and warm-hearted. In many ways, they remind one of James Levine (only Chailly is even more gifted), and I don’t doubt that their similarities are why Chailly was considered. He shares with Levine a great love for Italian opera and a dramatic feel for the ‘big tune,’ along with absolute comfort in the more knotty complexities of modernism. But Chailly’s one great fault as a conductor is also one of Levine’s, a freeze-dried lack of spontaneity – the sense that the interpretation we hear was planned thirty years in advance, with no concession made to what the situation of the moment requires that isn’t absolutely necessary to preserve the ensemble. For all his hyper-control, Chailly never fully gives himself to either a performance or an organization, and his legacy will one day be as a curator of great orchestras rather than as a creator of his own performance tradition. Chailly left his post as director of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam for a rather slight provocation. By signaling interest in the Boston Symphony, he seemed to be indicating a willingness to leave his current post as director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus for something equally slight. In the last thirty years, a conductor as talented as Chailly could have been another Toscanini – remaking the entire concept of Italian opera by running any one of a dozen opera houses in Italy. But instead Chailly became a mere custodian to great orchestras, injecting them with just enough innovation to keep the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and Leipzig Gewandhaus fresh without actually changing them. Chailly would have been a ten year appointment in Boston (probably ten turbulent years); just long enough to give them respectability again, but not long enough to begin a second golden age.

In Chailly’s place seems to be another middle-aged Italian. Daniele Gatti, who is scheduled to conduct for a full three weeks of the season – and as he is the only conductor under 75 to receive that honor, he must be considered the clear favorite for the job. In many ways, he is Chailly’s polar opposite. If Chailly is all restraint and consistency, then Gatti is all emotion and volubility. In many ways, he is simply not as good a conductor as Chailly – neither as consistent, nor as curious, nor perhaps as intelligent (who is?). But he has the one quality which Chaily lacks in spades – the ability to give of himself completely. For fifteen years, Gatti directed London’s Royal Philharmonic, and gave this by no means top-flight orchestra a sense of direction which bigger name orchestras in London lacked. His agent, Ronald Wilford, told him he could have his pick of appointments twenty years ago, but Gatti told him he’d go at his own pace.  Gatti does not seem much loved in his position as director of the Orchestre National de France, but a number of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and opera houses seem to find him among their most cherished guest conductors. In fact, rumor holds that when an informal poll was taken of Berlin Philharmonic musicians of whom they would like to replace Simon Rattle during a period when it seemed doubtful that Rattle’s contract would be renewed, Gatti was the clear favorite to replace him. Gatti is a romantic through and through – with a temperament to match. Whereas Chailly seems to play the flake, always finking out on commitments, Gatti seems a genuine hothead – known for tantrums that would even make Riccardo Muti blush. A Gatti appointment would not necessarily be a disaster, but it’s far from advisable. Gatti is a thoroughgoing traditionalist, and his musical conservatism would make an unlikely fit for the most intellectual town in America. I’ve heard a number of performances under his baton in which the playing was near-disastrous. Unlike Chailly, Gatti is no orchestra builder, he is merely a conductor who sometimes gets visceral performances. Yet that ability alone is so lacking among many top-flight conductors that more prestigious appointments may come calling for him very soon. Chailly is eight years Gatti’s senior, and probably missed his chance to be La Scala’s director, but whenever Daniel Barenboim and Stephane Lissner leave (they can’t be there for more than 5 years, can they?), Gatti could easily take over. He would be a well-loved music director at La Scala (for a time), doing the standard Verdi/Wagner fare and doing it quite well – Boston cannot compete with that kind of allure. But with all those provisos, there’s a chance – however small – that Gatti could have a very fine tenure in Boston. He could last twenty years, and remake Boston into a great conservative organization that does romantic repertoire as well as any orchestra in the world. My only problem with this is that an orchestra like the BSO would be setting the bar far too low if they didn’t go for a true innovator. But then again, life is about settling…

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