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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Exit the maestro

By Norman Lebrecht / January 23, 2002

WHY would a man walk away from the best job in the world? Last week, Riccardo Chailly stunned the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, saying he no longer wanted to be its chief conductor. He was off to Leipzig instead to head the Gewandhaus.

No big deal, you might think. Both are fine orchestras with glorious pasts, well stacked in the record racks. On professional form, however, there is a qualitative distinction. While the Concertgebouw has consistently maintained its status among the world's top five - beside Berlin, Vienna, New York and the next best US band - the Gewandhaus has been shuttlecocked through the 20th century between East and West, tyranny and market forces. It remains a proud ensemble, improving under Herbert Blomstedt; but even the most ardent local patriot would not rank it pre-eminent.

The gulf between the great and the good on the orchestral race-course is vast and elusive. If it were down to money, Dallas would win hands down. If it were to do with maestros, Helsinki might nudge ahead. The odds, though, are stacked against outsiders. Separating the best from the rest is a question of class - an invisible ethos that is neither to be bought nor achieved overnight. For a conductor to abandon a top mount voluntarily for a lesser one is without precedent in 150 years of podium history. Conductors are creatures of hunger and habit. Once they reach the top, they cling on for life.

So the shock that Chailly sprang was felt not just in Holland, where it made the front pages, but in the nervous system of an already nervous concert industry. It was the equivalent to George W Bush becoming governor of Nebraska, or Bill Gates quitting Microsoft to run Aeroflot.

Chailly, let it be clear, was under no pressure to go. On the contrary, the orchestra was offering to renew a contract he had held since 1986, when he succeeded a disgruntled Bernard Haitink. Chailly proved himself by mastering the guttural vernacular and shedding Italian sunshine on the tulip fields. Nuzzled by US orchestras, he walked away from a million dollars saying that America could only replicate what he had in Holland. Just short of 49, Chailly looked happy in his post and confident that the best was yet to come.

So why walk away? The causes are more disturbing than they appear at first blush. Chailly, an engagingly transparent man, explained that he had conducted the Gewandhaus in Salzburg in 1985 and they kept asking him back. He finally accepted last month, liked them even more than before, and agreed on the spot to head the orchestra and opera house, a combination unavailable to him in Holland.

The inside story is that Chailly was irked by delays in his contract renewal. There was no dragging of feet, but the Dutch are phlegmatic at the best of times and seeing him fret did not make them move faster. Leipzig has a sparky young administrator, Andreas Schultz, who applied dollops of the star balm that Chailly craved.

At times like this a good agent earns his keep, sending the artist on holiday and the orchestra a rocket. Chailly, however, has no agent. "If I'd had one," he told the Volkskrant newspaper, "I could never have done the deal with Leipzig in a month."

The extraordinary outcome is that a city which lost half its industry and its trade-fair role when the GDR collapsed has acquired one of the most sought-after talents on the circuit - a man wooed by the LSO, among others, as its next music director.

It leaves Amsterdam in a desperate baton chase for 2004. Christian Thielemann is front-runner, though the Wagnerian tramlines of his repertoire and political outlook might work against him. Others in the frame include Mariss Jansons, Sir Colin Davis and Michael Tilson Thomas. An interim solution would be to ask the emeritus Haitink to mentor a youngster like Sakari Oramo or Daniel Harding for a couple of years.

None of this resolves the mystery of Chailly's move. He would not be the first man to walk out on a relationship in a fit of mid-life Wanderlust, but Chailly is neither impulsive nor disloyal. He must simply have felt, after 16 years, that a world-class orchestra had no more to offer in the modern era.

Conductors used to be kings of the city, recognised wherever they walked. As concerts lost out to flashier entertainments, their fame waned and their prestige wilted. Better, perhaps, to be a big catch in a provincial city than just another best-supporting character on the metropolitan cakewalk.

It is a realisation that will soon strike Sir Simon Rattle in Berlin and Lorin Maazel in New York. Times have changed. A maestro is no longer much of a lion on Broadway or Unter den Linden. In Leipzig, or Liverpool, he can walk taller than in Amsterdam - or London, for that matter.

Top ROH seats for 'Tosca' were not, as reported last week, £250; they cost £175.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001