Music Director Appointments

I've been thinking a great deal about music directors recently - and how the position, and the type of person filling it, seems to be evolving. It's an issue that a lot of people are thinking about, and here are three examples that I've observed during my time in the orchestra field:

First - more and more U.S. orchestras have created a structure where the music director reports to the executive director - something virtually unheard of twenty-five years ago. But what does it really mean? It does not mean the traditional corporate reporting structure, because "reporting to" in that world means the person one reports to can single-handedly hire and fire you. But I'm certain that no executive director can truly hire a music director alone, nor fire one alone. But boards are choosing this structure more and more, and I'm not sure why they choose it or what it means. One executive told me that it means the orchestra executive director can say "no" to a music director because of fiscal concerns - but that was true in the old, co-equal reporting relationship as well. If the conductor didn't like it, he or she could take his or her complaint to the board leadership - and I suspect one still can in the new reporting relationship. I hope in the coming months to have the League do some research work to learn the reasons behind this change, and its implications.

Secondly - we are seeing major orchestras take their time in music director searches, and turn to some kind of interim solution (Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, Nashville, National). I cannot think of a time in my lifetime when six major orchestras appointed, at the same time, conductors in the role of "music advisor," or "principal conductor." It is a fascinating development.

Thirdly - the choices that some orchestras are making are surprises. They are conductors not yet household names, even amongst serious music lovers in America: Jaap van Zweden in Dallas, Manfred Honeck in Pittsburgh, Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles, all of these conductors have been given prestigious posts in America prior to establishing some level of stardom here. Some would say that is a sign of a lack of superstar conductors, but to me it is a healthy sign - a sign of a willingness to make a bold move for a conductor you believe in, a willingness to take some risk, and a priority on music-making rather than on celebrity. Joshua Kosman, writing in Gramophone, pointed out that the model for this kind of appointment was Los Angeles' previous appointment: Esa-Pekka Salonen - virtually unknown in America when L.A. hired him, in what has clearly been one of the more successful appointments in this country in recent history. I would add two other appointments in more recent years - David Robertson in Saint Louis and Osmo Vänska in Minnesota - as being somewhat in the mold, and to a large degree Paavo Järvi in Cincinnati as well. All three of those appointments appear to be working wonderfully - none of them had American stardom as part of their portfolio when they began in their position. Again, if this means that musical depth and willingness to make a commitment to a community are the prime attributes that orchestras are seeking, rather than celebrity, it is another sign that orchestras are in a good place.

May 8, 2007 10:15 AM | | Comments (7)



One aspect of music director appointments not touched on in this article is that more often than not, the most important aspect of a music director search seems to be that the orchestra looks for the opposite of the outgoing MD, because certain aspects of that particular person have become tiresome, and the institution has concluded it needs a change.

The qualities that need changing vary - young vs. old, American vs. Not, Apollonian vs. Dionysian, contemporary vs. core repertoire, introverted vs. glib - but the historical pattern shows how often it happens.

Most stark is Philly (Stokowski - Ormandy - Muti - Sawallisch - Eschenbach) ... you can almost feel the institution's desperate desire to get "somebody different" each time around, as they swing from mercurial, passionate divas to calm, core-repertoire focused disciplinarians, and back again.

Other recent examples include St. Louis (Slatkin - Vonk - Robertson), Baltimore (Zinman - Temirkanov - Alsop), New York (Bernstein - Boulez - Mehta - Masur - Maazel), San Francisco (Blomstedt - MTT) ... the list is quite long.

If you want to know who an orchestra is going to hire, figure out what the administration, board, and patrons disliked the most about the outgoing music director, and look for the candidate who most brilliantly solves that problem. Given Barenboim's drawbacks, I can only assume that the next music director of the CSO will be somebody glib, approachable, and good at glad-handling, who shows at least a passing interest in the community beyond Orchestra Hall.

It is a rare and, I would argue, unusually self-aware organization that manages to look past the shortcomings of the outgoing MD to hire somebody who is truly the best candidate overall, rather than just to slap a band-aid on the superficial wounds the last guy caused.

Daniel notes an interesting trend that others have observed as well. What is not so clear, because motives are always hard to read, is whether these choices were driven by desire for change, or whether (at least in many cases) it happened that the truly best candidate happened to be different from his predecessor.

Henry Fogel

I do not agree with Robin Engelman's claim
about orchestras and conductors sounding alike.The notion that they do is a myth. Orchestras still sound vastly different; there have been changes in the way orchestras sound because of changes in personnel,but orchestras
still sound very different. And none of today's leading conductors are carbon copies of each other. In my
opinion, the notion that all orchestras sound alike today is a
psychological illusion based on the idealization
of the past.

You mention that, "...the orchestra executive director can say 'no' to a music director because of fiscal concerns - but that was true in the old, co-equal reporting relationship as well." Well, in some places, maybe. But in my experience as an executive or board member for small-to-medium sized orchestras and opera co's, the ED can rarely say "no" to a music director for fiscal reasons. There's no authority, no mechanism, because in the minds of the board, the MD & ED aren't really equal, no matter what their job descriptions may say. The board has to be of the same mind as the ED, and they often simply don't understand. Also, the MD--with boss-performer mystique, deserved or not--has much higher persuasive prestige. Some MD's out there think they have unlimited powers to do whatever they want, and naive board members often go with it.

The reason that I raised the issue of reporting structure is precisely reflected in your comment. I think the reality of the individual situation, and the personalities involved, will be much more important than the actual structural relationship. I am not sure that the reporting relationship change actually changes that reality very much - though I hope to have the League do some research on that issue, discussing the situation with orchestras that have changed the relationship to see what differences it might have made.
Henry Fogel

talking about conductors and what is meant by a successful relationship between boards, players, audiences and conductors, is fun. What I miss is a successful relationship between boards, players, audiences, conductors and the music.

When I was in college, my buddies and I would play a blindfold game called "name that orchestra."

We were rarely wrong. The Vienna, Berlin, leningrad, Philharmonia, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York Phil, were immediately rcognizable by their sound.

We could recognize players-thus orchestras-by their sound(excuse my spelling): Herseth, Voisin, Still, Kincaid, Ghitala, Goodman.

We could recognize conductors by their interpretations-"Style": Toscanini, Klemperer, Stokowski, Scherchen, Furtwangler, Beecham, Bernstein.

I defy almost anyone to successfuly take this blind listening test today. As a player and orchestra historian by osmosis, I hear uniformity in the performances today, live or recorded.

Producers, editiors and the music market will not tolerate mistakes. Conductors and players are very careful. Economics make re-takes and indeed recordings themselves expensive. Conductors co-exist with "their" orchestras
for a few weeks a year.

We now have conductore, mostly young who become flavours of the month. (Same is true for soloists.)

Most of the music our patrons hear is recorded and they will not be inspired for long by blandness and marketing.

Robin Engelman

Deep down, an orchestra looking for a music director is sort of like any sort of social relationship between individuals. One takes note of a "connection" between the two parties that signifies that "hey, we can get along well". That's clearly what happened with Honeck & Pittsburgh and van Zweden & Dallas, if one believes the press reports. The contrast would be with the Eschenbach/Philadelphia and Alsop/Baltimore situations, where these appeared to be top-down impositions from management on the players, irrespective of their wishes.

But the point, of course, is that the "spark"/personal chemistry can't really be forced. It either happens or it doesn't, just like when two individuals meet in a social setting. They may get along well, not at all, or something in the middle, for inexplicable and yet real reasons due to personal chemistry and rapport, or the lack thereof. We in St. Louis are lucky with Robertson and the orchestra in that respect, that they hit it off well from their first meeting.

Regarding getting new conductor leaders, we can contrast the situation with those US organizations with some major London orchestras in the past few years, regarding transitions of the "old guard" of Principal Conductors to the newer generation(s):

LSO: Colin Davis -> Valery Gergiev
LPO: Kurt Masur -> Vladimir Jurowski
Philharmonia: Christoph von Dohnanyi -> Esa-Pekka Salonen

(The recent announcement of the Royal Philharmonic naming Charles Dutoit to succeed Daniele Gatti in 2009 would run counter to this trend, which strikes me as a puzzlement, but never mind.)

Likewise, some of the other UK orchestra have taken chances on younger talent in the past few years, like Ilan Volkov with the BBC Scottish Symphony and Vasily Petrenko with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

It seems that in this country, we don't have the equivalent of Jorma Panula in Finland to take charge for training the next generation of US conductors. There are plenty of conductors, but just not so many of the "big names" that celebrity-conscious America would be aware of, at least in the context of Kosman's article.

PS: I would probably add Robert Spano in Atlanta to Mr. Fogel's list of orchestras taking chances on younger talent, from 2001, at the risk of being presumptuous.

This is, I think, a natural repurcussion of redefining our organizations by their service to their communities. Rather than defining the music director as someone pursuing and fulfilling their own musical vision, our artistic leaders join other internal stakeholders as people who serve. Who are our audience(s)? How do they interact with the music, the orchesta and each other? Where are they now, and where is the next best place, on the road to where? Usually slowly, but sometime suddenly, orchestras become outward looking organizations -- open, inclusive and welcoming. This is a beautiful thing, and the next decade promises untold excitement and not a few pleasures for all involved.

Yes, "musical depth and the willingness to make a commitment to a community" are two prime factors. A real or percieved lack of commitment can be harmful to the mission of an orchestra. Certainly Daniel Barenboim had the musical "goods" to lead the Chicago Symphony but after a few exciting community outreach initiatives early in his tenure he was increasingly percieved by the public as imperious,arrogant and self-serving. A musical genius? No question. Board and patron friendly? Nope. Did he treat subordinates with respect? Whoops. A less than stellar record and part of the reason that his name does not appear on the short lists of any of the "big five" orchestras (Maazel's endorsement not withstanding). I've always felt that Solti wanted Barenboim as his successor for the simple reason that there was little or no chance that the Solti era would be outshone by the Barenboim era. I think the old man was right.

While I would prefer not to comment on Mr. Kupper's views as such, there is one factual error that I would like to correct. When Georg Solti spoke with the Chairman of the Board and me about his successor, he said that there were three conductors whom he felt were appropriate choices to succeed him, and he said that he would give them alphabetically so it was clear he was not expressing any priority between them: Abbado, Barenboim, and Haitink. He then said that that would be his only comment, and that the job of choosing his successor was the Search Committee's and not his.
Henry Fogel


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