The Gramophone blog

With Valery Gergiev, Sir Simon Rattle and Alan Gilbert on the move, who will replace them?

James JollyMon 9th February 2015

The LSO, NYPO and Berlin Philharmonic have some tough decisions ahead...

Alan Gilbert’s announcement at the end of last week that he plans to step down from the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic, leaves three of the world’s great orchestras hunting for a new boss (the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra are the other two). It begs the question ‘What kind of chief conductor should a major ensemble be looking for today?’

The New York Times, rather unhelpfully, has published a list of potential candidates for the NYPO job – unhelpful in that it lists just about every conductor who might even vaguely be in line for the job. Slightly more helpfully the article suggested a quartet of ‘types’ the orchestra might be looking for: the Wunderkind, the éminence grise, the American and the Insider (all viewed from a particular Stateside position).

Once upon a time, a recording contract was a fairly powerful weapon for any conductor to have in his (yes, it still is most likely a ‘his’) armoury – the last conductor to arrive at a major orchestra, complete with such a contract, was Riccardo Chailly, a cornerstone of the Decca catalogue. Of course the LSO was one of the first ensembles to flip that on its head by making its own recordings – so Sir Colin Davis, always a prolific recording artist, bucking the downward trend in the industry proper, carried on as if nothing much had changed thanks to LSO Live. It’s a situation that must have considerable appeal to Sir Simon Rattle should he confirm the rumours and alight in London. The Berlin Philharmonic has not only a record label of its own, but also its Digital Concert Hall, something that must appeal to anyone being offered the top job there.

For years, the default of major American ensembles was to go down the éminence grise route, and usually a European-flavoured one at that (Sawallisch in Philadelphia, Masur in New York, Muti in Chicago to name three), though Boston went for Levine, but sadly at a time when Levine’s health was in poor shape (MTT in San Francisco was a seriously good move and I can’t really see why either orchestra or conductor would want to change things – and it’s hard to imagine another orchestra showing the courage to support a conductor’s enthusiasms so passionately or an audience as receptive as San Francisco’s). With Nézet-Séguin recently tied to Philadelphia till 2020 and Andris Nelsons not long in the job in Boston (and if I were to put my money on a single conductor who will make it to the top of the heap, it’s Nelsons), that’s two major figures out of the running. There aren’t many éminences gris left – only Barenboim might be tempted to head another major orchestra (and presumably would leap at the chance to lead the Berlin Phil, should they coming calling). Wunderkinder, too, aren’t that abundant and do we really want to watch a young conductor learn his craft in quite such a public arena? The American, for which we should read Native, does have an appeal – MTT in San Francisco, as already mentioned, was a perfect fit; Rattle in London would be the same. Would David Robertson or Leonard Slatkin have the charisma to lead the New York Phil? Does, many people outside the Big Apple still ask, Alan Gilbert? 

In John Bridcut’s recent documentary on Karajan, that old quote of Toscanini’s (‘In life, democracy; in music, aristocracy’) was given another airing and the long-serving Principal Flute of the Berlin Phil, Andreas Blau was asked to comment on what made for the greatest music-making. He said that democracy makes life so much easier, but he tailed off with the suggestion that music-making scaled greater heights in the Karajan era (autocracy, rather than Toscanini’s aristocracy, perhaps). The age of the Maestro is perhaps over: few orchestral musicians would stand for it, but that’s not to say there’s no alternative. Bumping into the city’s chief conductor at the farmer’s market or the basket-ball game doesn’t make him any less able to create magic on the podium (I recall having a drink after a concert with Vasily Petrenko in the hotel opposite the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, and the number of people who waved at him through the window was proof enough that you can connect on a human level with the local maestro). 

The ability of a conductor to connect with an audience is vital and once that has been achieved the ability to lead that audience on a journey is also necessary – MTT is a perfect example here, as was Rattle during his Birmingham years. Inspiring the players is also a must – seeing Chailly and his Gewandhaus players, or Jansons and his Bavarians, proves that when players not just admire their conductor but also enjoy working with him magic can happen. (In an earlier age, sheer terror also seemed to get results – Szell in Cleveland and Reiner in Chicago both achieved miracles.) 

London has the added challenge that with five symphony orchestras of international standing (LSO, LPO, Philharmonia, BBC SO and RPO), there is no top dog. Maybe the time has come for the LSO to surrender some of its democratic principles and appoint a Music Director with the powers that such a job description entails. Berlin has a more intriguing decision to make: its last two principal conductors have handed in their notice which must have dented the corporate ego a little. Can an orchestra have a powerful ‘brand’ without a conductor? The Vienna Philharmonic sort of manage it, but in their guise as the pit orchestra of the Vienna State Opera they do have a musical boss. I’m sure the Berlin Phil would like to think so. Perhaps the time has come to turn the clock back to when Karajan joined them – an established figure, undoubtedly, but someone, as history proved, willing to put in the time and energy to build one of the most powerful partnerships the world of classical music has ever known.

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