Philharmonic follies

I’ve enjoyed the attacks Susan Elliott of Musical America has made on The New York Times, for its coverage (and critical remarks about) the New York Philharmonic’s recent conductor excitement. We need debate, for God’s sake. Music critics — excuse me, classical music critics — are far too polite.

But I don’t quite get why Susan says the Times is “slanted.” The critics there don’t like Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic’s music director. Susan does like him. But that doesn’t make the Times critics “slanted,” no matter how often they repeat their view. They just don’t think the same thing Susan does. And their opinion is pretty common, out there in the music world. So it doesn’t need any special explanation. To dislike the way Maazel makes music is, right or wrong, just (as far as I can see) what most musical people in New York tend to think.

Maybe that’s why the Philharmonic made its move — extending Maazel’s contract, but also bringing in Riccardo Muti as a regular guest conductor (he, remember, was the music director the Philharmonic originally wanted, choosing Maazel after Muti turned them down), and then also bringing in two much-liked younger conductors, David Robertson and Alan Gilbert for steady guest-conducting gigs. That certainly got the Philharmonic talked about, and created an impression that something’s going on there. What that something might be, I wouldn’t try to say. I don’t claim any special insight into what goes on inside that institution.

Though one thing did strike me. Maazel conducts for many weeks each season. Add Muti for four weeks, Gilbert and Robertson for two, and maybe a couple of weeks of Colin Davis, who up to now has been the Philharmonic’s principal guest conductor. (Weird! The Philharmonic’s press release about the conducting changes didn’t say a word about what Davis future with the orchestra might be.) What you’ve got is more than half the season committed to a regular stable of conductors, leaving, perhaps, precious little time and flexibility to engage other guests the Philharmonic might like to consider as future music directors, after Maazel finally steps down in 2009. Or maybe I’m wrong about this; maybe the Philharmonic has plenty of flexibility in the remaining half of the season. But I wonder if they’re limiting their options, and how they’ll proceed if neither Gilbert nor Robertson wants to succeed Maazel, or if the orchestra doesn’t want them.

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