About Alan Gilbert leaving the New York Philharmonic: Rightly or wrongly, he wasn’t perceived — at the very least by influential people in the orchestra field, and (from what I’ve heard) by many of the Philharmonic musicians — as someone with heft enough to be music director of such a big orchestra.
Here’s an insider’s word about that. A few years ago, before the Philharmonic hired Matthew VanBesien to succeed Zarin Mehta as the orchestra’s CEO, I talked to someone who runs another major US orchestra. Hiring Zarin’s succeessor, this person told me, was difficult, because the job came with a built-in problem: How to ease Alan out in a way that would save face for everyone.
Sounds cruel, I know. But that’s how big institutions work in any field you care to name.
And one thing ought to be clear, even without inside information. Normally the music director of a major orchestra would be in great demand. And so wouldn’t leave (as Alan did) without another music directorship lined up, or without a prominent, regular guest conducting job.
So then why…
…would Alan have been offered the Philharmonic job? Here’s a not very pleasant, again rather cruel answer, supported by talk on the inside: The choice was made at least in part to please the New York Times.
Tony Tommasini, the Times chief classical music critic, had long been writing that he wanted a music director who’d be young, American, and friendly to new music. Now, that’s just one opinion, you might reasonably say. But it’s a crucial one. What other view of what the Philharmonic does reaches so many people? Or even comes close? And, above all, reaches the Philharmonic’s audience, board, and donors, current and potential?
That’s the Philharmonic’s most crucial constituency. So if the man writing what these people read doesn’t like what the orchestra does…
I’m not saying, by the way, that the orchestra should go so far to please the Times. Better it should generate so much interest and excitement (as producers of Broadway shows have learned to do) that the Times’ opinion doesn’t matter.
But — and this no small things, quite apart from how you choose a music director — the Philharmonic hasn’t created much excitement, not since the long-ago days of Bernstein and (at least in some quarters) Boulez. Its post-Boulez music directors – Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel – these weren’t music directors who set New York on fire. Not the way Marin Alsop does in Baltimore, and Yannick seems so happily to be doing in Philadelphia. Or as Osmo Vanska may have done in Minnesota, or as MTT might do in San Frsncisco and Miami
And the Philharmonic needs excitement
All US orchestras now need it. They need a buzz that goes beyond their core audience. They need that, because the core audience has been shrinking for quite a while, and because funding (broadly speaking; there are exceptions) has been falling short.
And the Philharmonic may especially need some buzz right now, first because of the years it faces in the wilderness, while its concert hall is renovated. Which, of course, could be years of opportunity! I remember (to cite just one example, because I happen to know about it) when the Richmond (VA) Symphony had to move out of its concert hall. It got a new and bigger audience, because it played in new neighborhoods, creating buzz where not so much had been there before.
If that happened in Richmond, think what could happen in New York! Add the possiblities for new concert formats that an imaginative choice of new venues might bring — and new ideas of all sorts — and nomad life could be a bonanza for the Philharmonic. But it would help a lot to have someone exciting as the orchestra’s new face.
And then there’s something not usually talked about in public, but which I’ve heard from nonprofit insiders outside the Philharmonic. The Philharmonic, for all its virtues, hasn’t ranked as an A1 player in New York’s nonprofit life. It hasn’t been a first choice for the most desirable people who sit on nonprofit boards. Those people might rather go to Lincoln Center, or to the Met Opera and the two big museums.
I’m sure the Philharmonic would like to turn that around, but they can’t do it just with New York Times reviews praising — in terms that mostly classical music insiders understand — some new music performances, no matter how worthy these might be. It needs widespread buzz, of the kind Peter Gelb created when he first came to the Met. Prospective board members, the best-connected, most influential ones, want to know they’re going to ride a winning horse, that they’re joining an institution that’s going to do big things, things that matter to New Yorkers who don’t know Stockhausen from Ligeti.
Not that new music can’t be a part of that. When Alan programmed exuberant semi-staged performances of Le grand macabre (Ligeti’s opera, never done before in New York), subscribers turned in their tickets. But new people showed up, and whooped with happiness. (I was there; I saw it.) From what I’ve heard, more than half of people buying single tickets for that show had never been to the Philharmonic before.
But you have to keep that up, keep doing things like that, with similar success. And you have to do some of it with standard rep, because one reason many people get attracted to an orchestra is because they love Tchaikovsky. So you’d better do something exciting with Tchaikovsky, too, while you’re wowing a different crowd with Ligeti.
In my next post: More on the music director the Philharmonic needs, and why some apparently plausible names might not fill the bill. Plus some things to keep in mind about how orchestras make these choices.