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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Rumours at NYPO


By Norman Lebrecht / October 4, 2000

HERE are the latest additions to my forthcoming Dictionary of Musical Euphemisms and Factual Economies. A couple of weeks ago, a well-placed source in New York warned me that things were warming up at the Philharmonic. "You'll know the foreplay's over," he said, "when Kurt Masur cancels a bloc of concerts for some flimsy reason and the candidates to succeed him are lined up for audition."

Barely had his words crossed cyberspace than it was announced that Masur was dropping out for a fortnight at the end of this month to undergo an unspecified minor surgical procedure (UMSP). While he is at the chiropodist, or wherever such UMSPs take place, Mariss Jansons of Pittsburgh will conduct a Leonard Bernstein memorial concert, while Christoph Eschenbach, formerly of Houston, covers a subscription week. Masur, you may be relieved to learn, will receive his full hundred-grand weekly salary for the cancellation period.

Truth to tell, Masur has not looked at all well of late and there are suggestions that the surgery might not be as minor as stated. In a world of half-truths, rumours abound.

Why the New York Philharmonic, which has been in business man and boy since 1842, could not bring itself to level with its customers about its head-hunt procedures must be a mystery to anyone unfamiliar with the way the music industry conducts its affairs, which is behind cupped hands and closed doors. It would, say the cuppers of hands, be undignified for two artists to be seen competing for a post they cannot both win. Moreover, the NYPO is already smarting from a public rebuff by Riccardo Muti and cannot afford further embarrassments.

Undignified, however, is a useless euphemism in this instance, since one conductor hardly seems to be competing. Jansons, who is tied to Pittsburgh until August 2003, has made discreet plans this winter to test-drive the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, a stately band that might be better suited to his fragile state of health.

If Jansons passes up the golden opportunity, Eschenbach may still miss out. The 60-year-old German has worked happily at Chicago's Ravinia Festival with the NYPO's new executive director, Zarin Mehta, but New York, with its heterogeneous populace, might not react well to seeing one German follow another at its helm. Mehta, brother of a previous music director, has a stopgap maestro called Lorin Maazel whom he will call in if all else fails.

Poor Eschenbach, not the most prepossessing of conductors, may be on a triple loser. Philadelphia, where he was heavily fancied, is falling in love again with its septuagenarian music director, Wolfgang Sawallisch, whose work has gained in passion and depth since his wife's recent death. The orchestra now seem prepared to wait for a compelling successor, rather than settle for available talent.

Boston, meanwhile, is eyeing James Levine, whose millionaire maestroship in Munich is coming predictably unstuck. Levine could conceivably take on a US concert season alongside his duties at the Metropolitan Opera, but whoever inherits Boston will have to embark on a major overhaul of manpower, working methods and morale, which have slackened under the past decade or two of Seiji Ozawa.

These are the realities of orchestral life in the richest country on earth, where the big bands have more than $200 million in the bank and still cannot attract a credible conductor. These, as I say, are the fascinating realities - but that is not how you will find them reported in the freest press on earth.

For reasons I have never fathomed, US coverage of serious music seldom delves below the veneer of stability and tends to reiterate every last euphemism and half-truth without so much as a cocked eyebrow. Such complacency nurtures a system rich in abuses and absurdities.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra last month struck a new deal with its turbulent musicians, making them the world's highest paid players. Overtaking rank-and-filers in the Met and NYPO who barely survive on $85,000for a 20-hour week, the Chicagoans kick in at $92,040, rising to a hundred grand the year after next.

The deal was hailed as "fiscally responsible" by the CSO president, Henry Fogel, regardless of its inflationary impact on weaker orchestras, some of whom will founder. Chicago has slipped from its pedestal since the ferocious Solti era when it was the loudest, most exciting force on earth. Under Daniel Barenboim, the orchestra plays well but is no longer a standard-bearer. The musicians, however, earn more than twice as much as Berliners or Viennese. That's fiscally responsible - one more term for my dictionary.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999