Perhaps “good riddance” would be an appropriate bicoastal response to the slaps in the face that culture-lovers in New York and Los Angeles suffered this month at the hands of fickle artistic leaders. Amsterdam-born Jaap van Zweden‘s unexpected announcement on Sept. 15 that he would terminate his relatively brief tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic at the end of the 2023-24 season came just five days after Klaus Biesenbach‘s similarly surprising revelation that he would decamp from MOCA Los Angeles to his former home city, Berlin, to direct the Neue Nationalgalerie and the future Museum of the 20th Century.
“The timing is not great,” Biesenbach admitted to the NY Times, in a deadpan understatement. He said he had “received the offer early in the morning on Friday and said yes on the spot.” Perhaps he felt blindsided and diminished by the board’s recent decision to create a two-headed MOCA monster, with Johanna Burton, executive director of the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, designated to become LA MOCA’s “executive director,” sharing power with Biesenbach, serving as “artistic director.” With Klaus gone, Johanna will become MOCA’s sole director, with both administrative and artistic matters under her purview.
As CultureGrrl readers may remember, I was lukewarm about Klaus’ MOCA appointment in 2018, saying that “the shows he organized in Manhattan, with the exception of this one (for me, a nostalgia trip), were not among my MoMA favorites”:
I also noted that he had wrong-footed his California appointment by blurting this to the NY Times‘ Robin Pogrebin:
I really think LA is turning into the new Berlin.
There’s no surer way to alienate your new neighbors than to imply their inferiority to your old neighbors. I think it’s fair to assume that Angelenos have no interest in emulating Berliners.
Infamous for its unfortunate history of administrative turmoil and turnover, MOCA has been down this road before, with a revolving-door directorship that included Jeremy Strick, Jeffrey Deitch and Philippe Vergne. The one constant has been Maria Seferian, an attorney who became the museum’s counsel in 2008 and briefly served as interim director after the 2013 departure of dealer-turned-director Deitch. She is now the museum’s board chair.
As for the NY Philharmonic (where I am a long-time subscriber), the artistic head’s abrupt exit strategy was similarly eyebrow-raising and ill-timed, coming when the orchestra is trying to generate enthusiasm for its “Triumphant Return” to live performances (albeit not at its home auditorium, which currently being renovated and reconfigured at Lincoln Center):
Here’s Jaap lapping up the audience’s enthusiasm at a curtain call for one of the highlights of his NY Phil regime (a performance that I attended and savored):
I admired van Zweden’s willingness to explore new music and his ability to bring new life to old warhorses. But the seeming difficulty that the NY Phil has in winning the hearts and batons of top foreign-born conductors (Riccardo Muti in Chicago and Gustavo Dudamel in LA come to mind), should perhaps suggest that it’s time to focus on the candidates more likely to be attuned to this country, if not to this city. New York’s premier orchestra was at its most energetic under Lenny (yes, I heard him live, including the loud thuds when he leapt on the podium) and it was at its most mellifluous under the under-appreciated Lorin. Perhaps a key to Bernstein‘s and Maazel‘s successes in melding NY Phil musicians into seamless ensembles was the knowledge, insights and contacts they had gained as composers, not just conductors.
Is it a very outdated sense of America’s cultural inferiority (a legacy from our colonial past?) that causes our leading institutions to look so often to other countries for artistic leadership? It seems that the pandemic may have now triggered an impulse among peripatetic foreigners to return to their roots. At the risk of sounding xenophobic (and covid-phobic), I think it may make sense for major American museums and orchestras to look within their own borders in seeking new directors during these uniquely challenging times.
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