The Gilbert Era is an absolute tragedy. It should have been nothing less than a decades-long campaign to liberate American Orchestras from the ever shrinking confines of our ghetto back into the vanguard of American intellectual discourse. The fact that it had so many triumphs in its short time, yet ends so whimperingly, and with so little fanfare, is a scandal.
Coming out from this recession, the New York Philharmonic, like every orchestra, needs to replenish its finances, it needs to remodel its hall (and always did…), and needs a director to pick up exactly where Gilbert left off.
The Front Runners:
Esa-Pekka Salonen (Finnish, 54)
The Good: The most forward thinking superstar maestro of today. He champions new composer after new composer, and is a fabulously gifted composer in his own right. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is now one of the best orchestras in the world - in its standard of performance, in its progressive programing, and in community action, it’s arguably better than any on the East Coast, and that’s his doing.
The Bad: He was never nearly as convincing in standard rep as in new music. Hyper-expressivity as a conductor was never his thing. He had more important concerns as a conductor, and rightly so.
The Ugly: He never should have left LA. Getting a new superstar like Dudamel to replace him was the consolation prize for a blow that never should have occurred. When he left, he claimed he wanted time to compose, and then he immediately took a job as Chief Conductor of the Philharmonia in London. Coming to New York, he would simply be asked to do everything he did there, and risk all the good will he once built up. Why is this even considered a possibility? He should be composing!
Marin Alsop (American, 58)
The Good: She is a visionary musician - even if it’s visionary after the manner of a film producer rather than a conductor, Alsop puts on large-scale projects that are truly extraordinary. In her time in Baltimore, she has done live performances of Bernstein’s Mass that transformed the Meyerhoff into something electric never seen before, a West Side Story that utilized the newest techniques in movie synching she mounted live performances of The Magic Flute and A Midsummer Night’s Dream with actors and singers that intermingled among the orchestra, she’s brought in a whole host of new composers not only for their music, but to conduct the orchestra too. An historic appointment of a woman conductor is precisely the sort of thing which will bring people in from outside the classical ghetto, and one who can create such events in New York is precisely what is needed above all else.
The Bad: Living in Baltimore, I must admit that she is,... how can I say this nicely… cripplingly dull in nearly any composer before Mahler. Baltimore’s standard of playing under her is a bit wobbly on its best days, and even the musicians who like her admit that she has variable strengths and weaknesses.
The Ugly: A woman director of the New York Philharmonic (or any other orchestra) is so long overdue it shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. And yet it must be. Sadly, Alsop has more acumen as a career builder than as a musician - which is perhaps inevitable for the first star woman conductor. I currently can’t find the quote, but I remember the executive director, Matthew VanBeisen, saying that she is the ideal modern music director when he was first appointed to the NYPO. Trust your judgement Mr. VanBeisen. Alsop is far from a great traditional conductor, but there are more important questions at stake than a few great nights of Beethoven. She is exactly the kind of progressive thinker that every major American orchestra needs right now.
Don’t Rule Them Out:
Manfred Honeck (Austrian, 56)
The Good: The Pittsburgh Symphony music director is a treasure. A Golden Age throwback to when expression was the most important concern. A truly inspiring conductor whose performances of standard repertoire shine like a beacon to music lovers who think that they’ll never hear Beethoven played like they mean it again. He gets results not by browbeating but with his warm, avuncular humanity, and is seemingly beloved by musicians everywhere he appears.
The Bad: To this music lover’s astonishment, Honeck’s performances are not quite universally beloved of critics. His hyper-expressivity is not commensurate to music lovers who prefer their musical diet served tepid.
The Ugly: There are at least small indications that behind the wonderful surface beats the heart of a fundamentalist Catholic fanatic. God knows what embarrassing quotes might one day surface.
Jaap Van Zweden (Dutch, 54)
The Good: In seven years, the former Concertgebouw concertmaster made the Dallas Symphony into one of the world’s greatest. He gives virtuoso performances of explosive character and volatility. An orchestra builder in the tradition of Dorati and Solti whose performances in Dallas hearken back to the days when America had the greatest orchestras in the world.
The Bad: Dallas drama recently went public. Some musicians are clearly horrified by the tense work atmosphere it took to get them there.
The Ugly: Judging by his response to it when he was asked, Van Zweden doesn’t seem much to care whether people like him. He’s a throwback to the days of Reiner and Szell when the music director’s word was law. His musicmaking is extraordinarily powerful, it’s also, like those great orchestral drillmasters of yesteryear, a mite cold.
David Robertson (American, 56)
The Good: The now longtime director of the St. Louis Symphony is the darling of the New York Times and the continual bridesmaid to every ‘big’ American orchestra. No conductor puts together better programs, no contemporary conductor engages communities more meaningfully, no conductor looks better on paper.
The Bad: As great as he is in music that nobody knows, in any standard repertoire. he’s... kinda boring, wooden, stiff...
The Ugly: ...placid, undynamic, unmemorable, generic….
Not in your wildest dreams...:
Sir Simon Rattle: (English, 60)
The Good: Like Karajan before him, and Toscanini still further back, Rattle is the giant who shapes his era. He is, more than anyone else, responsible for expanding the orchestral repertoire to something multiple times as large as it once was, and all the while rethinking performances of traditional rep into something other than the same generic thing we get from conductors A-Z, and still making time for an enormous number of community projects that make an orchestra into something necessary for the 21st century. He is, simply, the greatest conductor in the world, and the model for what all others should aspire. Music is a more worthwhile pursuit for the way he serves it.
The Bad: At this point, I seem to be the only person in the world not working for a British broadsheet who thinks he deserves every plaudit that ever came his way. Rattle’s greatness stems in large part from the fact that he is not to all tastes. His spontaneousness, his indifference to sloppy playing, his drive to upend every basic concept, his unwillingness to ever make his performances business as usual makes him a much more polarizing figure than he ever should have been.
The Ugly: Rattle and Berlin were a mismatch from the very beginning that he made the very best of. His time there is a highly distinguished failure, he came in knowing that he was being asked to modernize a hidebound traditional orchestra. But the orchestra didn’t want to be modernized. Berlin Philharmonic still wants to stay with the days of the three B’s: Beethoven, Brahms, Big Money. If Rattle just got done with sixteen years of authority undermined in Berlin, there is no way he’s going to decamp to the most notorious conductor-killing of all orchestras. Rattle put it very simply when asked why he never conducts the New York Philharmonic: “I like me balls.”
Riccardo Chailly: (Italian, 61)
The Good: If Rattle’s the greatest and the most lauded of his generation, then Chailly is the most talented. Orchestral musicians seem to fall over themselves describing his brilliance. He moves from strength to strength, seeming to master every corner of the repertoire to which he puts his focus. After ten years at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, he is an undisputed master. He is listed as the next director of the La Scala Opera in Milan, and he may yet follow Sir Simon as the director of the Berlin Philharmonic - classical music’s pope.
The Bad: Chailly has one clear, at times lethal, flaw as a musician. He is utterly unspontaneous, and clearly works out every detail of his interpretation well in advance. He endlessly rethinks pieces, but never allows for accidents to develop the way still more compelling musicians like Rattle or Barenboim might, and thus bends musicians to his will rather than incorporate what they have to offer. From one vantage point, he is a genius of the podium who injected some long-overdue vitality into both the Concertgebouw and the Gewandhaus. From another, he destroyed everything that was individual and special about either orchestra and turned them both into something generic.
The Ugly: After a decade or so, Chailly always leaves, and there are stories of backstage clashes. If Chailly is going to leave Leipzig, where he seems to be venerated as a living god, how the hell would he deal with the world’s most difficult orchestra?
Mariss Jansons: (Latvian/Russian, 71)
The Good: After the death of Claudio Abbado, Jansons will probably be the consensus choice for “Greatest Living Conductor.” Like Abbado, Jansons has an uncanny ability to draw enormous passion from orchestras combined with flawless playing, and all the while never seeming to inject his own personality. Whatever he conducts, he can make you feel as though you are listening to the piece’s ultimate performance.
The Bad: Like Abbado in his final fifteen years, Jansons’s health is clearly failing. He is probably about to become the world’s ‘conductor laureate,’ a guest conductor feted like none other everywhere he goes. He may yet be offered the Berlin Philharmonic, but he would probably have to turn it down.
The Ugly: There was a time when Jansons was turning down offers left and right for more eminent orchestras than his Oslo Philharmonic or Pittsburgh Symphony, but taking the reins of the Concertgebouw and the Bavarian Radio Symphony makes it seem as though he was simply holding out for the highest bidder. His performances seemed a lot more exciting to me when he simply took second-tier orchestras and made them sound better than first-tier ones.
Daniel Barenboim: (Argentinian/Israeli, 72)
The Good: If Jansons is the world’s new ‘Conductor Laureate,’ then Barenboim is ‘Musician Laureate.’ Not that it matters much at a symphony orchestra, but at this point he is perhaps the greatest Wagner conductor the world has ever seen. He is the world’s greatest proponent of a certain kind of Beethoven performance, and in the post-Communist era, has led the Berlin Staatsoper to a point that they’re almost unquestionably better - more German sounding, more inspiring in performance - than the Berlin Philharmonic is on its best days (yet he still craves the crosstown job…). The East-Western Divan Orchestra, while clearly doing absolutely nothing for peace, is nevertheless a staggering achievement. Only a true leader could get Israeli and Arab musicians to play together for so long (believe me…).
The Bad: He was never much of a technician as a conductor, and his proclivities for slow tempos and thick textures are nowhere near as deep as he thinks they are. He is so gifted that it’s amazing how well he makes them work in spite of himself. Like Bernstein before him, Barenboim is such a giant that he gets away with mistakes that would sink anything less than a genius.
The Ugly: The overwhelming love this Israeli has for Wagner is, how shall we say,... a little creepy. And from a certain angle, so is his penchant for lecturing Israelis on their moral failings from his ultraprivileged perch in Berlin. Even in his 70’s, Barenboim clearly craves the Berlin Philharmonic job, and may yet get it, even if he’ll be 76 when it comes open. And even if it’s a quarter-century ago, after the rough time the New York Phil gave his BFF Zubin Mehta, there’s no way this notoriously testy behind the scenes musician would risk his benevolent grandfather image to come to New York.
Ivan Fischer: (Hungarian, 64)
The Good: The one living conductor I have never heard a single orchestral musician have a bad word for. The one living conductor who created a great traditional orchestra from scratch. For more than thirty years, he’s directed the Budapest Festival Orchestra. And his performances with them are, almost beyond doubt, the most consistently revelatory work which any traditional orchestra does today.
The Bad: For all his talk about innovation, tradition is something Fischer clearly venerates almost beyond reason. There is very little new music which he promotes. Furthermore, his orchestra has a rather notorious practice of making players re-audition every two years to keep their jobs. One can only imagine what he’d make of an orchestra whose positions are so secure that they managed to hound out Dmitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Boulez, and John Barbirolli.
The Ugly: What Fischer had to do to create the Budapest Festival Orchestra is unknown. It accepts comparatively little government funding, and probably requires private subsidy from god knows what corporations. When the fascist Jobbik party came into the government coalition, his older brother Adam (a fine conductor in his own right) resigned as director of the Hungarian National Opera in protest. But the younger Fischer is still in Budapest, and while he’s publicly talked about the horrors of the current government, he’s clearly playing a delicate game to keep his orchestra afloat in dangerous waters.
Riccardo Muti: (Italian, 73)
The Good: Mutollini finally seems like he’s mellowed. The Italian who seems to have left every great organization whose charge he ever took in a huff now looks content and comfortable at the Chicago Symphony. He can look back on a career with an extraordinary number of exciting, passionate performances with nearly all of the world’s greatest orchestras.
The Bad: Muti always has days when his razor sharp performance style dulled. But now that he’s a nicer guy, the dullness seems to have set in permanently. A nice Riccardo Muti blunts everything which made him compelling.
The Ugly: The way he led the New York Philharmonic on only to sign with Chicago was unconscionable, and fully in keeping with the level of character and principle he’s shown throughout his career. Muti is, in so many ways, the personification of everything that is wrong with today’s musical world: a conductor made into a star just as he turns 30, living a jet-set lifestyle for his entire adult life, behaving like an ogre to the musicians who work under him. It’s a shame. The New York Philharmonic and Muti deserved each other.
Actually, It Could Happen...:
Valery Gergiev - (Ossetian/Russian, 62)
The Good: Before there was Gergiev, there was Bernstein. Before Bernstein, there was Furtwangler. Gergiev is a once in a generation genius of the podium capable of giving audiences a visceral, out of body experience as no living conductor is. In the horrifically difficult environment that was Russia in the 90’s, Gergiev launched the modern Mariinsky Opera as one of the world’s greatest. In an era when orchestras and singers sound interchangeable, Gergiev has worked a miracle and preserved the old Russian traditions - the sound, the freedom of interpretation, the constant viscral thrills. He is an ambassador throughout the world for everything that is magical and wonderful about Russia and it’s traditions.
The Bad: The effort to take risks so huge that give his performances such life often don’t pay off. Like Bernstein and Furtwangler, his performances are embarressingly bad nearly as often as they’re amazing.
The Ugly: No conductor has revealed an uglier side in recent years than Gergiev. His full-throated defense of Vladimir Putin in the face of all criticism is disgraceful. Had he taken even a remotely more principled stand, or even stayed silent, he might have been offered the job already. But if this all blows over in a few years, who knows?
Daniel Harding (English, 39)
The Good: One of of the world’s most talented. A young prodigy conductor mentored by both Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado, who referred to him as ‘my little genius.’ A supertechnician who can make any orchestra sound like the best in the world in a repertoire big enough to flummox most conductors with slightly less ability. While the Swedish Radio Symphony and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra are not appointments to sneeze at, neither is A-list. And this conductor clearly has ambition and ability to spare. He’s ready for the big time, wherever the big time calls to him.
The Bad: He can give performances wonderful in every way, his interpretations also can be both bizarre and emotionally arid. He is not to all tastes, and certainly not to mine.
The Ugly: He was, by his own admission, rather volatile in former times. He claims that era is over. Perhaps he’s right. We’ll see...
Gustavo Dudamel (Venezuelan, 33)
The Good: Rattle’s heir, the new conducting supergiant. Dudamel will ruffle lots of feathers along the way, he already has. But his gift is singular. Like Gergiev, he will never give the performances of Mahler and Brahms which the cosmopolitan centers want, but like Gergiev, he has a greatness that is absolutely unique. The Simon Bolivar Symphony of Caracas is an orchestra that sounds like no orchestra ever has, and hopefully they will stay together and develop for another fifty years. If Rattle expanded the repertoire, Dudamel has already changed the atmosphere of the concert hall into something less forbidding than it’s ever been.
The Bad: If recordings are anything to go by, then Dudamel’s maiden voyages with ‘traditional’ orchestras - the Gothenburg Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, have not been entirely distinguished. He’s done wonderful community work in LA, but the performances are, dare I say, boring? Something you could never describe his Venezualen work as. It would seem that Dudamel still doesn’t quite know what to do with an orchestra of veteran musicians.
The Ugly: He was offered the New York Philharmonic last time, and mercifully was snapped up by LA before they could get him. Considering the drubbings he gets everywhere, he would have been a disaster. He still may be headed for disaster before his ship rights itself. Neither Berlin nor New York are immune to his star power, and either could very well offer him the job. Any job that potentially takes him away from Venezuela is a mistake, and ruins precisely what makes Dudamel at his best so compelling.
A Little Less Likely:
Semyon Bychkov: (Russian/American, 62)
The Good: After a middling middle age, Bychkov has re-emerged at the beginning of his golden years as one of our true masters. After a series of volatile appointments, he’s sworn not to take another music director position. But he needs a permanent post and an orchestra to develop if he cares about reclaiming his mantle as one of the immortals - and surely his gifts are worthy of it. The New York Philharmonic, at which he seems to be quite beloved judging by the number of times he’s asked back, could be too small compared to what he could get - anything: the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Opera, Covent Garden, the Met, is currently possible for Bychkov to crown his career as the once-in-a-generation maestro people once predicted he would be.
The Bad: Bychkov has never had a music directorship at which he didn’t ruffle feathers. The vipers at the New York Philharmonic would be a terrible risk for him.
The Ugly: Seriously, dude’s the ugliest great conductor since Fritz Reiner.
James Conlon (American, 65)
The Good: The LA Opera director is the forgotten Great American Conductor who recently returned home as the prodigal son after decades in Europe. The native New Yorker never quite got his chance, and his gifts seem run rings around a bunch of eminent American conductors a decade his junior. America is owed a chance to see what this maestro is made of.
The Bad: Well, is he as great as all that? Maybe he only seems better because he’s unearthed so much interesting old music, and the European orchestras he’s had are in better shape than the American ones the others work with. When you hear him in music you already know well, there often isn’t much that’s distinctive about his conducting.
The Ugly: Why did he take so long to come back to America?
Vladimir Jurowski: (Russian/German, 42)
The Good: One of the most talented conductors since Carlos Kleiber. Possessing the world’s greatest conducting technique, intelligence in google quantity, a passion for performing unfamiliar music, and an unfailing musicality in traditional repertoire. He will be one of the very greatest before too long.
The Bad: To just about everybody’s surprise, he’s heading back to Russia and taking over the Svetlanov Symphony of Moscow, formerly the USSR State Symphony made famous by its eponymous conductor. He is a little too unspontaneous, a lot too imperious.
The Ugly: Jurowski is clearly one of the bad tempered ones. He will have a truly major appointment before long, whether in New York at the Philharmonic or the Met, or in London at Covent Garden, or perhaps even the Berlin Philharmonic. But conductors like him know to avoid the New York Phil like the plague.
Stephane Deneve (French, 43)
The Good: The newest eternal bridemaid to American orchestras. Deneve probably should have been the new director of the Boston Symphony (he even looks like a young James Levine…), but he was passed over for Andris Nelsons - the Latvian whizkid who will probably go back to Europe in less than ten years. Deneve is not spectacular, but he seems to very, very good in just about everything he conducts. He’s coming to New York next week, so who knows? Will love strike?
The Bad: He’s good, but will he ever be great? Except for some really fantastic Ravel and Roussel (and let’s face it, who cares about Roussel?...), there’s something unmistakably antiseptic about his performances I’ve heard so far. He gets great playing, but he seems to have trouble getting inside music that isn’t in a narrow French specialization.
The Ugly: He’s the principal guest in Philadelphia. Clearly Philly is hedging its bets in case YNS gets called by Berlin or the Met.
Who Will Get It: Like Muti did before him Salonen will turn it down for better things, so it will go to Alsop.
Who Should Get It: Alsop, with a ban on her conducting anything before Mahler.
In A Perfect World: Leonard Bernstein, having quit smoking in his early 30’s, died in 2013 at the age of 95 after 55 years with the New York Philharmonic. For 30 years, every new recording of theirs broke the top 40 pop charts. His every performance is broadcast over the internet to more than 100 million viewers, as were all the lectures of his final years which he filmed and posted to youtube. From 1969 until the end of his life, he wrote a new musical or opera every two years, and became the most important opera composer since Verdi and Wagner. Hollywood is currently filming a remake of his wonderful but immature musical: West Side Story that costs $150 million. As his handpicked successor, he chooses a little known culture blogger from Baltimore with whom he developed an email friendship in recent years.