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America plumps for seniority. Over the past year, its orchestras have shunned the risk of renewal and settled for familiar names. The New York Philharmonic appointed Lorin Maazel as music director, Boston James Levine and Philadelphia Christoph Eschenbach, all of them tried, tested and over 60.
Europe, on the other hand, is in a mood for adventure. The door swung open to a new generation when Glyndebourne chose Vladimir Jurowski as its next music director, aged 29. The BBC went one better, turning over its Scottish Symphony Orchestra to a 25-year-old Israeli, Ilan Volkov. The BBC Philharmonic is on the verge of engaging an Italian neophyte, Gianandrea Noseda.
Daniel Harding, 26, dubbed "ein Shootingstar", is in charge at the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie in Bremen. Jonathan Nott, 36, a British baton in Bamberg, has a high-profile role at next summer's Lucerne Festival. Mikko Franck, a fresh-faced Finn of 22, is conducting his first concerts this week as music director-designate of the Belgian National Orchestra.
The virtues of youth were best demonstrated last month when Emmanuelle Haim, a thirtyish slip of a French girl, stepped up to conduct Handel's Rodelinda at Glyndebourne and won more critical bouquets than any of her singers. Haim had previously plied her trade as a harpsichordist with William Christie's Les Arts Florissants. She now has her own ensemble, Le Concert d'Astree, and is in demand as a guest conductor with symphony orchestras.
Youth can, however, flatter to deceive. Many a bright new baton has been broken by orchestral intransigence or premature promotion. The sudden rush of young bloods is no proof of a podium renaissance. Europe's neophilia is but a reverse symptom of America's sclerosis, indicating that musical organisations on both sides of the Atlantic have simply forgotten how to pick 'em.
Historically, the union of conductor and orchestra is like a marriage, starting with courtship. In rare cases - Rattle and Berlin, perhaps - there is instant infatuation. In others - Ormandy and Philadelphia - both parties settle for domestic contentment. Some, like Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic, grow together. Others - Seiji Ozawa and Boston - wear each other down.
But, as the institution of matrimony has been weakened by sexual pluralism and unblessed cohabitation, so too has the pivotal musical relationship. The signals by which musicians recognise the right conductor have blurred. There is no sure way of telling if a new man is a one-night stud, a loving partner or a born loser.
Proof of this confusion is attested by the different ways in which the new contenders were selected - for no two of them were picked by the same means. Jurowski, son of a Russian conductor working in Berlin, wowed critics at the 1995 Wexford Festival. He spent the following years assisting Yakov Kreizberg at the Komische Oper and Daniele Gatti in Bologna before Glyndebourne came beckoning with a step up: music director alongside a strong-minded administrator, Nicholas Snowman. Barely had Jurowski signed than Snowman was gone, leaving him artistically in sole command.
Will he cope? Judging by his quiet authority at English National Opera, where he conducts a new Rake's Progress tomorrow, Jurowski has got most of what it takes. Clear in objectives and technique, he was unflustered by rehearsal hitches and appears admirably well equipped for a powerful career.
Ilan Volkov has more to prove. Nurtured as a cub conductor with the Northern Sinfonia and London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, he left no lasting mark on English professional players. What impressed the BBC Scots was his disinclination to go for broke. He conducted Schubert, not Stravinsky, and did so with rare serenity. Groomed by Osmo Vanska to appreciate musical integrity, the orchestra admired the young man's spirit and resolved to give him a chance.
Gianandrea Noseda, 37, will reach Manchester after four years as the world's busiest understudy. A Milanese who won two international competitions without getting much of a start, he was taken on by Valery Gergiev in St Petersburg and found himself conducting epic operas at five minutes' notice. In last summer's Kirov let-down at Covent Garden, Noseda held several shows together on little or no rehearsal.
He will be the first Italian since John Barbirolli to take a stick to Manchester - an augury, perhaps, of excitements in store. The players like what they have seen of him in five mixed-bag concerts, but Noseda has yet to give an account of himself in a full symphony.
Those who maintain that conductors are born not made point to Mikko Franck, who gave his first professional concert at 16. Since hitting the world circuit, he has cancelled several dates at short notice, pleading a bad back or personal frictions. His debut discs have been interesting, not overwhelming. His period in Belgian purdah will prove whether the Finnish pretender can apply himself to the nitty-gritty of musical development.
Natural ability is not enough. Mark Wigglesworth, who had his hour of glory on winning the 1989 Kondrashin Competition in Amsterdam, is now without a post since leaving BBC Wales. At 37, he has time on his side. Conductors come in all shades and tempi, and the slow burners are often the best of all.
Yet the waters of talent have been muddied to such an extent that the music industry persists in sustaining public circuses that produce nothing more than flashes in the pan. The London-based Donatella Flick Competition, backed by the LSO, has been running for 10 years without yielding a mainstream contender. Wigglesworth and Noseda might testify that the illusion of victory can actually delay a conductor's progress.
The only contests that work are those where a maestro commits to take fledglings under wing and nurse them to maturity. Herbert von Karajan founded an event of this sort in Berlin. The winners - Kamu, Kitaenko, Chmura, Tchakarov, Oren - failed to make the big time, but runners-up such as Jansons and Gergiev benefited enormously from Karajan's attention.
This weekend, Lorin Maazel will attempt to revive the method in Bloomington, Indiana, where he is auditioning eight Americans - whittled down from 362 applicants - for the finals of the Maazel/Vilar competition. The winners will receive "an intensive conducting fellowship" lasting two or three years with Maazel, who is eager to pass on six decades of experience.
Age, at one extreme or other, should not be an issue when choosing a conductor. What counts is the gift, and the urge to succeed. What fails is formula - hiring a music director for looks, fame, form, age or gender.
The new incumbents in Europe and America may well flourish, but the confusion at the heart of the process does not augur well for continuity. What is needed is a fresh set of criteria for choosing conductors who will lead a diminished art into a dangerous era. There is very little margin for error. If the new maestros fail, the fall will be precipitate.
30 May 2001: At last, I've made my father happy [interview with Lorin Maazel]
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]