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Boston Symphony announces $7.5 million gift and no new conductor

In what amount to a near-parody of neanderthal Big Five conduct, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has found more money for less purpose.

There are 17 conductors in its season, none much different from before nor any available and likely to step up to the music directorship, vacant since James Levine’s collapse.

Riccardo Chailly, who was last season’s white hope before he fell ill, has not been re-engaged. No point speculating about the rest. Read them all here.

It’s too dispiriting to warrant further comment, though I guess the Globe will try to raise a cheer or two.

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  1. James Brinton says:

    Notably missing from the list is Susanna Malkki.
    She has conducted the BSO on several occasions in rep ranging from the 1700s to 2010, and some of the performances were exceptional by anyone’s standard.
    She was very well received by both the audience and the orchestra, and had good things to say about her experience.
    Now, even though musicians are booked well into the future, but surely the BSO could have secured her for at least one appearance. I can only conclude that for some reason, they didn’t wish to.
    If that means she is not on the list as a potential music director, the BSO is missing a great opportunity. Everything I’ve seen and heard tells me that she and the BSO would be very good for each other.

    • agree

    • The Seattle Symphony is just completing a very successful week with Susanna Mälkki as Guest Conductor; she’s an extraordinary conductor in every way. Dutilleux Symphony No. 1, Ravel Concerto in G (w/ Simon Trpceski), and Dukas Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

    • She is MY fist choice as new BSO Music Director and Principal Conductor. Brilliant, adventurous, and young enough to breathe energy back into the Great Orchestra, recently having to endure playing for…whoever. Susanna!

  2. Fergus Macleod says:


  3. It’s a dull season to be sure, but Nelsons or Jurowski are possible candidates. There were high hopes for Nelsons this year before he was forced to cancel. I’m sad Chailly is not going to make an appearance.

  4. Marc Bridle says:

    I believe she is conducting the Philharmonia at their one Prom concert this year. I’ve not heard her before, but the music on offer looks very identical to a Salonen program. Bartok and Prokofiev.

  5. Daniel Farber says:

    I have been attending BSO concerts since 1958, and my parents were subscribers (and story-tellers) since the early 1930′s. The Ozawa years were truly awful; he wasn’t ready, didn’t grow in office, and refused to abdicate. Levine was certainly the only top-of-the-line music director since Koussevitsky and, until crippled by injuries, was able to revitalize the Orchestra’s playing standards and its repertory in astounding ways. I find myself needing to move from the Boston area for several years, but after looking at next year’s programs, have decided that the timing couldn’t be better, for there is absolutely NO concert, possibly excepting the one led by Thomas Ades, that I’m sorry to be missing. Unfortunately I disagree with Norman about the possibilities of leadership–at least as seen by a BSO management hell-bent on “selling the product”. Giving Gatti three weeks of show-stoppers means to me that they are actually giving this guy a very serious look. Ditto: the young, handsome, and marketable Andris Nelsons. Conspicuously missing from management’s list of possibilities are two gifted Americans, Robert Spano and David Robertson. The only possible good news is that Salonen was in town last week and gave a brilliant concert that included his own very uneven but often interesting Violin Concerto and an excellently-done complete Firebird, for which he was accorded the longest and loudest ovation I’ve heard in years, an event that could not have been entirely lost on the powers-that-be. It’s possible he wouldn’t come, even if asked, but Salonen is in a different league from the folks they’re parading next year.

    • Nelsons and Gatti both have longterm commitments in Europe. They are unlikely to be available any time soon.

      • Daniel Farber says:

        The BSO’s track record indicates that if they want someone, they’ll be willing to wait out longterm commitments. Levine was named three (or four–can’t remember) years before he was ready to assume the directorship. Still he managed three or more “guest” appearances during the wait-out years.

    • James Brinton says:

      The word on the street here is that Salonen was approached but is unable to come to Boston except as a guest. His obligations to the Philharmonia and the LA Phil take time, and his guesting schedule is also packed, as you might expect.
      I was in Symphony Hall for Salonen’s Firebird, and thought the ceiling would collapse. He definitely had the audience by the heart strings. The violin concerto wasn’t as well recieved; first, Boston audiences tend to be conservative, and second, it was (frankly) a little uneven. On the other hand, Leila Josefowicz did a star turn as the soloist. One expected the strings to smoke.
      Personally, I hope BSO managment comes to a decision fairly soon. I realize that these things take time, but any orchestra needs a consistent hand on the tiller lest it lose its edge. The BSO is a thoroughbred orchestra, but even thoroughbreds need to stay in training.
      And, again, it worries me to see no mention anywhere of Malkki, a relatively young conductor with great potential and, obviously, a spectacular career ahead of her. One has to wonder if there is some sexism at work. If so, it’s misplaced; the orchestra members I’ve talked to like her a great deal, and the BSO plays like champions for her.

    • Daniel Farber wrote: “Levine was certainly the only top-of-the-line music director since Koussevitsky”

      William Steinberg, though stylistically more in accord with the Pittsburg SO (and, earlier in his life, before exile, with the Frankfurt Opera), was certainly a top-of-the-line music director. as were Munch and Leinsdorf. Koussevitsky’s status is increasingly questioned. While he was a substantial musician as a contrabass soloist and that helped build rapport with the orchestra’s musicians and he did indeed do a great service to music through his commissioning and premieres, his musicianship as a conductor was very much limited, relying, for example, on a series of pianists (Nicholas Slonimsky was one) who could score read well, to prepare himself for concerts.

      • Daniel Farber says:

        GW’s estimate of what constitutes “top-of-the-line” is considerably wider than mine. Although I have deep affection for Munch, he was not really a first-rate conductor, and the years of his tenure were marked by an increasing coarsening of his sensibilities. Leinsdorf’s brief tenure, despite an impressive expansion of the repertory to include works by local composers (Schuller and Berger) and the Second Viennese School, was in other ways a disaster. (When Bernstein and the Philharmonic came to town, the great critic, Michael Steinberg, in an otherwise “mixed” review, remarked on how nice it was to hear standard repertory works with sixteen sixteenth notes to the bar, an allusion to his criticisms of Leinsdorf’s nervous, driven, rhythmic “cheating”.) Steinberg was a serious musician of huge integrity and worthy of enormous but was already quite ill when the BSO hired him and well past his best days. Koussevitsky had well-known limitations when it came to deciphering complex scores. His way of achieving great performances–through lengthy, back-breaking rehearsals–would not have been possible with a unionized orchestra, but achieve them he did. The orchestra of those years, “man for man” not as good as the current BSO, gave staggering performances, many of which are documented on recordings. RCA’s advertising them as “the Aristocrat of Orchestras” was hardly false!
        I note that so far, nobody has questioned my basic premise: Levine was at the top of the heap; the parade of possibilities the BSO is setting forth isn’t CLOSE to being in his league; those who are seem not to be in the running.

        • James Brinton says:

          I agree that most of the names being floated for BSO music director should sink, but then I’m backing Malkki as much for her potential as her current abilities. She combines precision and expression in an unusual way; normally a conductor leans in one direction or the other, but with Malkki you get both–and she is still quite young. But that’s just my opinion, FWIW.
          As to Munch, Steinberg, Leinsdorf, there was a period of adjustment after Munch for both the orchestra and the audience. Munch hated to rehearse and the audience was used to a randomness about Munch-era performances. Some were just OK, others could blow you out of the Hall. It often depended on the rep, and Munch was definitely at his best with French compositions.
          With both Steinberg and Leinsdorf, things tightened up a lot. There was a good deal more rehearsal time, ensemble discipline improved, and the orchestra’s performances of Middle European rep improved greatly. Generally, once used to it, the musicians appreciated the new discipline, especially Steinberg’s, though he could be a task master; they realized that their sound was improving.
          Audiences, used to the somewhat free performances under Munch, took a while to catch up, but once they did, liked what they heard.
          Then came the long desert years of Ozawa. It’s notable that when Klaus Tennstedt came to town, the starving audience practically rushed the podium to crown him music director.
          And finally Levine’s brief shining tenure. He was the orchestra’s Henry V, ripe for exploits, but unfortunately not in the May Morn of his life. If only…

  6. Laurence Glavin says:

    Uh-oh…this could signal more bad economic times. You know, it’s not only Presidents of the United States who can have a doctrine; I have a doctrine too, the Glavin Doctrine, that in tough economic times, musical organizations turn to Beethoven to sell tickets and fill those seats. So the BSO (Massachusetts version; in Maryland, when they say BSO they’re referring to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; I assume other cities with a ‘B’ as their first letter in their names do the same) is giving an all-Beethoven Concert on opening night, plus “The Creatures of Prometheus” in full later on. Wait until listeners find out that LvB cribbed the final movement of the “Eroica” Symphony from himself. Undoubtedly, if the Boston Symphony management felt that the economy was turning up, they would have scheduled an all-Berg (Alban, not Natanael) concert for opening night!

  7. Mark Stryker says:


    Your post is simply baffling to me. By what logic does a remarkably generous multimillion dollar gift translate into more money for less purpose? As you know, it takes a lot of money to maintain an orchestra and $7.5 million earmarked for operations and endowment will support musician salaries, artistic initiatives, education programs and all of the other daily expenses keeping the Boston Symphony alive. Are you really suggesting that because the Boston Symphony has yet to select a successor to Levine, it has ceased to have any purpose at all? Really? For someone so attuned to the ill-effects of the maestro myth there’s an extraordinary irony in in your inability to define the entire symphonic organization in no other way than as the simple instrument of an all-powerful, infallible music director.

    As a separate issue, your obsession with Riccardo Chailly as the only hope for the Boston Symphony seems equally naive. There are other conductors on the face of the earth who could do the job and, moreover, Chailly may not even be the right fit. Choosing a music director is not about picking the conductor who delivers the best Mahler 5, though delivering a great Mahler 5 might certainly be a high priority. But it is by no means the only requirement. But a music directorship — especially in America at the start of the 21st Century, when classical music is increasingly seen as irrelevant to common culture and civic life — is about vision and leadership. It’s about finding ways to help reinvent these large and lumbering arts institutions, which were created in the flush of late 19th and early 20th Century prosperity and civic aspirations, into contemporary institutions that can weave classical music back into the fabric of everyday cultural life. That takes skills that transcend the podium — a broad field of vision, the ability to come up with creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems, a marriage of idealism and pragmatism, the ability to build political coalitions and relationships, a knowledge of American culture (or a willingness to learn), a desire to truly commit to your chosen city as, say, Esa-Pekka Salonen did in Los Angeles or MTT has done in San Francisco). A passion for making the orchestra a center for music education broadly defined ought to be a requirement, and if you have ideas about leveraging new technology for the cause of the orchestra and classical music let’s hear ‘em.

    Of course, we expect the conductor of the Boston Symphony to be a profound interpreter of the standard repertoire who can inspire musicians and audiences (even as we recognize that not every candidate will be aces in every single idiom from Mozart through Stravinsky.) But even here we need to be careful, because an orchestra is not just about HOW it plays but WHAT it plays. What contemporary music are you interested in? What American music? What 20th Century repertoire? What music from the past hasn’t received the exposure it deserves? What music is overrated? What connections do you see between the music of the past and the music of today? What are your ideas for commissioning music? Festivals?

    The Boston Symphony needs to take all the time it needs to chose the right man or woman for the job. It might be somebody well known or it might be somebody that seems to come out of nowhere. But the risk of choosing poorly out of haste far outweighs the risk of an extra couple of years without a music director. Of course, transition periods are always difficult, and orchestras always have to be careful about maintaining artistic standards and discipline and a sharp artistic profile during protracted searches. But I’ve seen no evidence that the Boston Symphony’s 131-year-old tradition as one of the world’s great orchestras is on the verge of collapse. Nor have I seen any evidence that the immediate appointment of Riccardo Chailly (or anyone else) is the only way to stave off the destruction.

  8. Mati Braun says:

    They should try to Giselle Ben Dor who conducted the NYPhilharmonic. She was teriffic. She has a lot of temperament, knoledge of the scores and a nice person.

  9. I’m with Daniel’s assessment of the conductors. Although I’ve never heard Spano’s work live, I have caught Robertson more than once with the CSO. He is the real deal and well deserves consideration outside St. Louis.

  10. Mr. Stryker touches on some salient thoughts concerning the Boston Sym. The Boston group does not need time
    as much as to recognize that time is running run out .The orchestra does not hold the same proud Boston position it
    had a generation or two back . That the days of a deficit was often attended to by the odd Boston Brahmin
    and many friends is long past , the orchestra now has to scrounge for the buck as any other US orchestra .
    And as in all managements the sucking up to money is a daily adventure first to save managements over salaried
    positions and then to the saving of the orchestra . It is not conductors that should be talked about as much as
    how the orchestra might be saved if it is not to go the way of the Philadelphia Orch. You first need new management
    that has the intelligence to assess where they are and what truly can help , which is missing here. For those
    living in some odd fantasy , the saving cannot be done by getting a conductor of their choice , there is
    the fact that this is a new world and the world that brought symphony orchestras to being in the US is a world
    long gone . Nor does education as such do much good – of course in response to any negative point of music education
    there is always some poor kid dragged to say how a visiting “classical musician ” changed his dreary life while
    the rest of the class were bored to oblivion . In the past many households had a piano of sorts and the poor
    kids had to do that daily half hour to hour of playing the piano, like it or not , at least they got to know
    a little of what music making was about -now the majority of kids play computer games , not quite the same thing nor the same connect to a symphony orchestra . That Asians have seemingly become a dominant force and often
    are what saves a music conservatory from going under due to their large enrollment but does little to
    help the symphony orchestra survive since most use “classical” music as a stalking horse hopefully to some respectable employment otherwise the general Asian populace show little interest . It is obvious that
    Philadelphia has not enough people that consider the symphony orchestra of value to the city nor does it
    seem to have people with deep pockets who feel differently, so from the glorious Stokowski days it has come to its present sorry state — Boston is not far behind , and while it may not end up as badly as Philadelphia it
    no longer has the esteem it once held, you can wait for the messiah conductor just so long before even the
    most faithful won’t care who arrives since they have other more important things to do .

  11. Don Ciccio says:

    One conductor who is absent and who could be a serious candidate is Vasily Petrenko. As for Susanna Malkki, her conducting seems to be too restrained for my taste, though she’s always musical. My favorite BSO music director is by far William Steinberg, though he was indeed past his prime when he arrived in Boston. Still, his Hindemith recordings are a treasure, and so is the live Bruckner 8 – and a Bruckner 6, issued in Japan is no slouch either.

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