Barenboim’s announcement — that he’ll leave the Chicago Symphony when his current contract expires two years from now — demonstrates two things. First, that music directors really are expected, in this new era for classical music, to do more than conduct. “After much soul-searching and reflection,” Barenboim said (in the orchestra’s official press release), “I have come to realize that the position and responsibilities of a music director in America are changing in that they require many non-artistic activities and I feel I have neither the energy nor the time to fulfill them.” These “non-artistic activities” include fundraising, and going out into the community. Orchestras really do want their music directors to do these things. Eschenbach was an attractive choice for Philadelphia precisely because he likes to go out into the community. That, in fact, is why (or so I was told at the time) he was put on the orchestra’s shortlist. His musical strength was taken for granted; it was his community interests that made him stand out.
(Of course, he’s now forged a blazing musical bond with the Philadelphia musicians, something I hope will be confirmed when I hear him conduct them in the Mahler Third tomorrow night. From what I’ve heard from them so far, this may very well be the )orchestra we’ll soon all be raving about.)
But the second thing the Chicago announcement demonstrates is Barenboim’s honesty. Or at least that’s how I see it, without knowing what might have gone on behind the scenes. “This is what music directors will have to do,” he says, in effect, “and it isn’t me.” So bravo for him. He knows what he wants. Each spring, when I teach my Juilliard course on the future of classical music, I tell my students that selling classical music — much as that’s needed in the current era — wasn’t what they might have signed on for when they decided to become musicians. It’s a different set of skills. Anybody good at marketing will have a better chance in today’s classical music world, but plenty of wonderful musicians aren’t good at it, and might not even be interested. We have to honor and respect that.
Here, though, is another wrinkle. One of America’s most famous composers sent around an e-mail, saying that the date of Barenboim’s announcement should become a national holiday. That’s because Barenboim’s taste in new music is strongly modernist, something reflected in his Chicago progamming, though it never got nearly as intense as what Levine will do in Boston. This composer objects to Barenboim’s modernist emphasis, and because he’s so successful — so widely performed — I wouldn’t for a minute say he’s angry just because he himself might be excluded. (Besides, I know him; he doesn’t operate that way.)
So the battle over modernism continues, even as modernism ebbs. It will ebb more, I imagine, after Barenboim leaves.