Home-Grown Conducting Talent: How to Observe It and Secure It

Until this current generation, America was not the country in which to develop a conducting career--at least not through the traditional European path of working one's way up gradually from the smaller orchestras (often called "the provinces"). While some careers did manage to develop in America, for the most part they were begun at the level of larger orchestras: Bernstein in New York, Slatkin in St. Louis, Mehta in Los Angeles, Ozawa in Boston, Levine (after a stint as assistant in Cleveland) at Chicago's Ravinia Festival and the Metropolitan Opera. Michael Tilson Thomas did spend time as music director in Buffalo, but that actually came after he had achieved considerable fame as an assistant in Boston who wound up conducting many important concerts as a substitute for the ill William Steinberg. Just about the only international career of true importance that began in a small American orchestra prior to the last ten or fifteen years was that of Semyon Bychkov, who started in Grand Rapids and went from there to Buffalo. 
In recent years, the situation has gotten a little better. Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, Giancarlo Guerrero, and Miguel Harth-Bedoya have all developed or are developing major careers having begun at smaller American orchestras (three of them at Oregon's Eugene Symphony Orchestra).

But why has this been so rare? If you look at most of the great conductors whose careers progressed in Europe, you will see a very different story. Karajan apprenticed in Ulm and Aachen, for example. Furtwängler conducted in Lubeck, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Munich before Berlin and Vienna. Klemperer started in Barmen, Strasbourg, and Cologne. George Szell succeeded Klemperer in Strasbourg and held posts in Darmstadt, Düsseldorf, and Glasgow before moving on to the Berlin Staatsoper and, eventually, Cleveland. This was the typical European career path. I have always maintained that the sheer size of the United States makes that kind of career growth more difficult. Today, if you are the chief administrator of the orchestra in Munich, and someone tells you that there is a wonderful young conductor in some smaller German town, you leave your office at 3 pm, get on a train, see the concert, and go home that night. If you're in Chicago and someone tells you there's a terrific young conductor in, say, Albuquerque or Santa Barbara, it is two full days out of your life to go see that conductor. The result is that very few take the time and trouble (and expense). There is far less of a true network here about conductors, because of the distances involved.

The League of American Orchestras has for many years tried to make a singular assault on that issue, by offering what is now called the Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview (named thanks to a grant from the Bruno Walter Foundation). Once every two years, through a quite thorough process of screening video recordings and seeking recommendations--and through the use of an independent panel that always includes orchestral musicians and experienced conductors--the League presents, for anyone interested in seeing emerging conductors, a group of eight of them over two days in one place. The idea is that if people can observe eight conductors instead of just one, they are more likely to take the trip

The Preview is aimed at both small and mid-sized American orchestras seeking music directors or guest conductors, and at larger orchestras that are looking for younger guest conductors and, perhaps, assistant or associate conductors. Anyone interested in getting a glimpse of a group of gifted conductors with promising careers ahead of them is welcome to attend. The Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview will be held March 31 and April 1 with the Nashville Symphony. Information on the participating conductors can be found here.

Immediately preceding the Preview is a two-day seminar (March 29-30) specifically designed for orchestras that are engaged in or contemplating a music director search. For details on this Music Director Search Seminar, click here.

Lest you think that this is a shameless plug for League projects, I will point out that while the League requires advance registration for the Preview, it does not charge a fee for attendance--it welcomes anyone who is interested in seeing these conductors. And the League has negotiated a good rate at the Nashville Hilton. Details are available on the League's website by clicking here.
February 6, 2009 1:23 PM | | Comments (2)



While you are right that the League does not charge a fee for those attending, it DOES charge a $50 fee for any conductor wanting a chance at this sort of exposure. It also seems, from the profiles of those chosen in the past, to be a program mainly to give young conductors exposure as opposed to older conductors who have not been able to rise from the lower levels of orchestras. So, in principle, it is very much like a conducting competition. They both have general age limits (stated or implied by past choices), charge a fee to apply, and offer the prize of exposure (with concerts or showcasing to searching orchestras). While this is a good start, we need something even better and it would be nice if the League could find a more comprehensive and regular way to address the discovery of hidden talent, regardless of age or conducting history (remember Klaus Tennstedt?), and promote these talents to the orchestra world at large.
There also needs to be a series of proper channels to feed these conductors to search committees, sort of like a full-time Exxon program but for all orchestras.

The League does charge what I believe can be called a nominal fee, which helps offset the costs of the program. As far as the issue of older conductors, your assumption is simply wrong. The problem has been that mostly younger conductors have applied - possibly because older conductors have not thought that it was for them. This year's preview includes Jonathan McPhee, who has been principal conductor of the Boston Ballet for many years now. I think that there is a mis-perception out there that this is only for younger conductors, but it is absolutely not.

The League's predecessor to this was a program that chose three conductors to direct a concert each June at the League's annual conference, to give them exposure to the field. I remember well one year when James Paul, then about fifty, conducted the Baltimore Symphony at the Kennedy Center in a galvanizing performance of the "Enigma" Variations, a performance that did, in fact, result in a number of guest conducting engagements for him.

Those involved with these programs (myself included) have always intended them to exist for one purpose - to call attention to conductors that we (and the independent panel we assemble each time) feel are deserving of the exposure. Age has never been a factor, and I hope that discussions like this will serve to clarify that, so that perhaps some more experienced conductors will consider applying in the future.

The principle problem you are discussing, and the comparison with Germany, is not primarily due to the geographic separation of America’s cities. It’s that Germany has roughly about 23 more times more fulltime, year-round orchestras per capita than the USA. If we had similar funding for the arts, there would be many very good regional, fulltime, year-round orchestras within an overnight trip from Chicago.

Since you mention Munich, let’s remind ourselves that it has 7 fulltime, yearound orchestras for 1.2 million people: The Bayerishcer Rundfunk, The Munich Philharmonic, The State Opera Orchestra (with about 140 orchestra members), The Gaertner Platz Opera Orchestra, The Bavarian State Radio Entertainment Orchestra (gradually being phased out), the Munich Chamber Orchestra, and the Munich Symphoniker (the city’s only private orchestra which works mostly in the film industry.) All of the musicians in these orchestras have fulltime positions with full benefits. By the same per capita measure, Chicago with 2.8 million people would have at least 20 orchestras in the area.

And then there is Augsburg, which is forty-five minutes from Munich and which has its own year-round opera house. They perform the entire Ring every year as well as numerous symphonic concerts.

To stress the point, let’s take a closer look at Albuquerque, since you mention it. The orchestra only pays its solo chairs about 15k per year. The tutti strings are amateurs (or maybe in some cases semi-professionals) who make from 5 to 7k per year. The orchestra can’t tour even around the state because almost the entire string section is comprised of people who have day jobs they can’t leave.

America is the only industrial country in the world without a comprehensive system of public arts funding. Until this problem is solved, our conductors better continue to look to Europe to develop their careers. The League’s visitation program will never make up for the systemic problems created by a lack of funding.

Please do not block this post. People need to hear about these things.

We hardly ever block posts. I do not disagree with the points Mr. Osborne makes. The system of major public funding of the arts in place in Europe (and elsewhere) is certainly something to be envied in many ways, and I agree that the arts are simply in a different place in American society. But we live where we live, and we try to make the best possible set of conditions for where we are. I certainly agree that the League's programs cannot make up for the proliferation of orchestras in Europe. But they are an attempt to deal with our reality as best as we can.


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