A word about music directors

As long as I’m talking about the press, I might as well say something about how music critics write about music directors. Or, more specifically, the way they write about how music directors are chosen. Often, critics suggest their own choices for these positions, reasoning, as far as I can tell, something like this: “I like the way X conducts. And if one concert by X is good, a whole season would be even better. I also like the kind of repertoire X conducts, and would like to see my local orchestra do more of that repertoire. So they ought to choose X as their music director, and let him [or her] plan their entire season.”

Which sounds completely reasonable, though it’s surprising how often music directors don’t plan their orchestras’ seasons, but instead take responsibility only for the concerts they themselves conduct. They also might, in practice, play only a small role in the choice of soloists and guest conductors. I’ve even heard about one top orchestra whose music director — one of the most famous conductors alive — wants nothing to do with choosing guest conductors, because he doesn’t have time to hear other people conduct, and therefore doesn’t think it’s right to have an opinion about which conductors ought to be engaged. This may be common, for all I know.

But what’s more important are all the things orchestra managements think about, when it’s time to pick a music director, that music critics often don’t mention. Orchestra managements want to know, for instance, whether a conductor will be effective having authority over the musicians, not just on the podium, but in deciding when people go on vacation, who gets to play concerti with the orchestra, and how string players are going to rank in the hierarchy of their sections. Because of these responsibilities, managements are often wary of hiring young music directors, especially at major orchestras; they want a conductor to have years of experience doing these things in Atlanta, let’s say, before they consider him or her for a music director’s job in Chicago or New York.

Next, managements want to know how a prospective music director conducts the standard German repertoire. For better or worse, that’s at the core of most orchestras’ programming. It’s the music ticket-buyers — and donors — most want to hear. So it’s rare for an orchestra to take a chance on a conductor who doesn’t have this music firmly under his or her belt, or who specializes in something else. Not long ago I had a long talk about orchestral matters with someone very influential in the field, and we talked about music director choices. I ran some names by him. Yan Pascal Tortellier? Not a good choice; conducts the French repertoire, not the German. Antonio Pappano? Best known for opera, hasn’t yet done the symphonic repertoire enough. I’m not saying these judgments are correct, but they’re an example of how orchestra managements often think.

Finally, managements want to know how prospective music directors accompany soloists. Are they good at doing this? Do soloists like to play with them? If not, the orchestra will have a problem. Choose a music director soloists don’t like, and they’re less likely to play with the orchestra. Or, maybe, they’ll ask for a higher fee. Or they won’t make themselves available on those occasions, which pop up every season, when a soloist cancels, and a replacement has to be found, often at the last moment. (When the Cleveland Orchestra did the Verdi Requiem at the end of this past season, two of the soloists cancelled a day or two before the performance.) So it’s in an orchestra’s interest to have a music director that soloists like to work with.

And now there’s something else — how effective will a prospective music director be in the community? That’s going to be a factor in future choices.

I’d like to see critics take these things into account when they speculate about who’s going to get a music director’s job, or when they offer their own choices. They don’t have to agree with all this conventional orchestra wisdom, but they ought to be aware of it, and when they offer their own choices for music director posts, they ought to score each candidate on each of the factors orchestras look at. Then, if they like, they can explain why they think someone should be picked, even if he or she doesn’t meet all the conventional requirements — but at least they’ll be talking about the same things orchestra managements talk about, and thus might be listened to.

(There are more factors than I’ve named, by the way; I don’t claim to be an expert. One rather deep consideration can be how a prospective music director might help the long-range development of an orchestra. The San Francisco Symphony, according to one account I’ve heard, was in terrible shape after Edo de Waart’s reign as its music director. Herbert Blomstedt then was chosen to succeed de Waart, not because he would make exciting music, but because his solidity would help the orchestra restore its discipline. After Blomstedt, they were ready for Michael Tilson Thomas, who could build on what Blomstedt had done, and bring the orchestra to its present height.)

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