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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Conductors drop their batons

By Norman Lebrecht / June 19, 2002

This was always going to be a seminal year in the history of conducting, but few imagined it might prove terminal.

Europe's top orchestra and four of America's Big Five are changing hands, the biggest baton handover in memory. In September, Sir Simon Rattle, a lone light in the gloaming, will inherit the Earth - or at least that impressive part of it parked upon by the Berlin Philharmonic whose musicians powerdrive, on average, two Mercs and a racing yacht.

England expects the tousle-haired Liverpool striker to administer a dose of humility, along with a sense of social responsibility. He has pledged to make the snob mob play in run-down immigrant areas; he might also consider, 12 years after reunification, admitting a player or two from East Berlin. Destiny rests on Rattle's reforms. If the Berlin Phil fails to address 21st century realities, German music can kiss its subsidies goodbye.

A parallel tremor pervades the United States. The New York Philharmonic deposed 74-year-old Kurt Masur on grounds of age, only to replace him as music director with Lorin Maazel, who is 72. The orchestra sorely needs recharging and Maazel can beat most men half his age over three sets of tennis.

But creative concerns played little part in his appointment. Maazel was chosen because he was a name that blue-rinsers would recognise when resubscription time comes around. No consideration was given to new talent, or to the role that a superannuated pack of penguin suits steeped in the music of dead Europeans ought to be playing in a multicultural, traumatised Manhattan.

Other US institutions went much the same way. The Philadelphia Orchestra chose Christoph Eschenbach, 62, formerly of Houston, to succeed Wolfgang Sawallisch, 78. Boston finally terminated 30 bland years of Seiji Ozawa, 66, by hiring James Levine, 60 next year and in apparently fragile health.

The only US orchestra to plump for renewal is Cleveland which recruited the impressive Franz Welser-Most, 42, from Zurich Opera to follow Christoph von Dohnanyi.

With conservatism in full cry, musical America is entering an epoch of dullness that one would hardly cross the road to experience, let alone the Atlantic. The slow decline of symphonic concerts has taken a sharp downturn with the shunning of the next generation. This sorry outcome could have been foretold, and has been.

What could not have been foreseen, however, was the knock-on effect of these transitions on the executive class of maestros who draw a million bucks for 10 weeks' work, twice as much in New York. If most major oil companies, Hollywood studios or insurance firms were to install new bosses within six months, it would provoke market turbulence, perhaps outright panic.

In the nebulous art of conducting, where a man's worth cannot be measured by anything he physically does but only by the effect he has on the workforce, the mass movement of maestros has seriously destabilised the art's central relationship. The bond between music director and orchestra is often likened to marriage: born of passion and persisting beyond the point of mutual irritation into an eventual golden contentment.

For conductors, 20 years with an orchestra is the norm; anything less amounts to failure. As often as not, conductors have clung like barnacles to a sinking craft, struggling to restore equilibrium. But in the past few months, as the big sticks changed hands, we have witnessed a phenomenon without precedent - conductors abandoning their bands without so much as a backward glance or a good reason. "I've had it," is about all they say.

The latest to quit is Mariss Jansons who, having raised Pittsburgh to world esteem over the past six years, has just jacked in the job with no better excuse than an upcoming 60th birthday. Before that, Charles Dutoit huffed out on Montreal on the eve of his silver jubilee season, offended by something a union boss said about him. Leonard Slatkin declared that five years was enough for him with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Edo de Waart has gone walkabout in mid-season from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Most stunning of all was Riccardo Chailly's resignation last winter from the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, which he had led for 14 years. Chailly felt the Dutch were dithering over his contract renewal. Instead of slashing the air with his stick and fighting for the integrity of marriage, he dropped the baton and moved to Leipzig where the manager made sweet eyes at him.

Slatkin has given the BBC new areas of repertoire and a record deal that is the envy of other UK bands. But when relations frayed with some players, he did not stand and fight but just gave up, staying on as a lame-duck leader at the Proms.

Dutoit's demission was acrimonious, provoking a boycott of Montreal by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mstislav Rostropovich and Yo Yo Ma. The conductor had right on his side; he was cruelly and unjustifiably abused by a musical jerk who accused him of "unrelenting harassment, condescension and humiliation".

No maestro can stand insubordination; but where Toscanini would have kicked butt halfway around Quebec, in the present climate a music director simply waves goodbye.

Jansons's decision will hurt musicians who felt the Pittsburgh sound warm perceptibly beneath his expressive hands. He has no cogent reason for going beyond a mild dislike of air travel, despair at audience indifference and general mid-life ennui. Not enough, surely, to walk out on a relationship. But that, sadly, is what things have come to in the podium world, and where they are going.

The mystical bond between conductor and orchestra has been broken. It remains to be seen whether Rattle, of all the Queen's men, can manage to put it together again in Berlin.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001