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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Baton handover

By Norman Lebrecht / January 17, 2001

Three American maestros are about to inherit the world's richest orchestras

THE Great American Maestro Chase has reached its climax amid scenes of wild indifference and dismay. Three of the world's finest orchestras have spent the past two years seeking new music directors who might lead them into the new Millennium.

Since these are also the world's richest three orchestras, they had the field to themselves. Every upwardly mobile conductor from Roberto Abbado to David Zinman awaited an audition call for what should have been a searching test of talent in a haze of high excitement. Instead, the process has turned into the usual string of million-dollar safety deals, fixed in smoke-free backrooms.

Philadelphia led the way last week, naming Christoph Eschenbach as successor to the 77-year-old Wolfgang Sawallisch. Eschenbach, 60, is an accomplished German pianist who acts as a kind of primus inter pares - a classical novelty to US musicians. He is charming, single-minded and keen on living composers, but he has not conducted Philadelphia for more than five years, for the simple reason that players did not think much of him last time round.

News of his appointment was mutely greeted. A nervous search panel explained that Eschenbach had achieved wonders over 11 years in Houston and was highly regarded elsewhere. To true Philadelphians, however, Houston has more bucks than brains and elsewhere is the heart of the problem.

Eschenbach loves orchestras so much that he cannot get enough of them. He is presently music director of the radio orchestra in Hamburg, of the temperamental Orchestre de Paris, and of two summer festivals at Schleswig-Holstein and Ravinia, near Chicago. He has promised to make "a major commitment" to Philadelphia and is thrilled about its new hall, which is due to open in December, but he has specifically not agreed to give up any of his other posts.

What the most celebrated orchestra of the recording era is about to acquire is a glorified part-timer whose value was inflated by well-placed reports that both New York and Boston were after him. Philadelphia signed him in a hurry, only to learn that Eschenbach was no longer in the reckoning for either of its rivals.

The New York Philharmonic has made up its mind, but will make no statement for a fortnight until the orchestra gets back from a tour of Spain. After inconclusive auditions by Eschenbach and a rehearsal-starved Mariss Jansons, the board got an attack of the jitters and demanded a household name to succeed Kurt Masur, who is being pensioned off at 73.

Lorin Maazel, who happened to be passing, has been conducting orchestras since he was eight years old. He has headed Berlin's Deutsche Oper, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, the Vienna State Opera and, latterly, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra in Munich, where he draws DM6 million for 12 weeks' work. He has spent his 70th-birthday year touring the pinnacles of his life, with the notable exception of Cleveland, which refused to have him back.

Maazel is arguably the most gifted conductor alive. No man can make an orchestra spring more swiftly to his bidding, yielding a glassy wall of sound as his personal hallmark. Players say he is brilliant at the first rehearsal, bored by the second. Advancing years have added no warmth to his icebox interpretations, or human relations.

But Maazel is a name that New Yorkers recognise. He is also a convenient stop-gap who can top the bill for three years until Zarin Mehta, the NYPO executive director, can wheel in Daniel Barenboim at the end of his contract in Chicago. That, at least, is the plan that Mehta has confided to colleagues. Maazel, meanwhile, is retiring from Bavarian Radio, which last weekend delightedly signed up Mariss Jansons as its music director from 2002.

As for Boston, after 29 seasons of Seiji Ozawa, talks are well advanced with James Levine, 57, who will advertise his eligibility in two weeks' time with a sold-out Mahler Third. Levine has created a tremendous orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera but has faltered in the concert hall. His part-time job at the Munich Philharmonic almost brought down the city council when his tax-free, seven-digit salary came to light. Levine has done little in two seasons there to justify the investment. Boston would mark an honourable retreat.

America, entering inauguration week, can look to its musical future and see that renewal has been ruled out and the past is about to be relived. Two of the three music-director deals have been brokered by Ronald Wilford, 73, the super-agent who rules the rostrum. America may have the mightiest orchestras in the world, but its concert life may soon become duller than Belgium's.

7 May 1999: Epic journey from the depths of despair to the peaks of elation [Christoph Eschenbach]
26 February 1999: Maazel entrances with bow and baton
15 November 1997: Maestros and their millions

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




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999