Two of the world’s great orchestras – the Berliner Philharmoniker and the London Symphony Orchestra – are looking for new chief conductors. (Whether the departing boss of one will fill the vacancy of the other has become one of those ‘It’s just a question of time’ rumours that, unless announced soon, will be something of a damp squib when it finally happens.) Just what impact either appointment will have beyond the realms of classical music aficionados is hard to tell these days. By coincidence, I was in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Berlin when, respectively, Michael Tilson Thomas, Christoph Eschenbach and Simon Rattle were appointed to those cities’ major ensembles. And each time it was a Big Deal - banners hung from every lamp post in the US cities and in Berlin posters welcomed Sir Simon (in English) from every billboard. It was a moment of considerable civic excitement (and as a Brit, I set foot in Berlin’s Philharmonie for Rattle’s first concert with not a little pride). But does the role of chief conductor of the world great orchestras have any kind of wider resonance these days?
I’ve just been to Amsterdam where Daniele Gatti has been announced as Mariss Jansons’s successor at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with effect from the start of the 2016 season. Gatti gave three performances of Mahler’s Third Symphony, something of a party piece for an orchestra which has, after all, recorded it with each of its past three chief conductors - Jansons, Riccardo Chailly and Bernard Haitink – and the Mahler line goes right back via Willem Mengelberg to the composer himself as his music has formed a thread throughout the RCOA’s history in the last century. (As the conductor takes his bow in the Concertgebouw the name ‘Mahler’ is the first to meet his gaze, as the hall is decorated with the names of the great – and occasionally not so great – composers running around the ceiling and balcony.)
When Gatti’s appointment was announced it provoked different reactions in different countries, with surprise the common emotion – the Germans were frankly astounded, the French quietly impressed (Gatti has headed the Orchestre National de France since 2008) and we in the UK were sympathetic (Gatti was one conductor who could raise the RPO to considerable heights during his 10 years, 1996-2005, at its helm) and on reflection thought it was a good choice (Tom Service, writing in The Guardian at the time of the announcement, suggested that Gatti ‘will bring his natural charisma, authority, and energy to the late-romantic and early 20th-century repertoire on which his reputation as a symphonic conductor has so far been built.’ But he asked, ‘how will he extend the Concertgebouw’s artistic culture?’). On the evidence of last week’s Mahler Third, it was a good choice – the great Amsterdam orchestra themselves made the decision and they played their hearts out for their boss-to-be.
The surprise surrounding Gatti’s appointment (and he’s a conductor who works regularly in the world’s great opera houses and with the leading orchestras – the Berlin Phil apparently adore him) is more, surely, related to the profile that recordings still give a musician. Gatti has not made many during his career (though those he has made have been generally very well received), and he does not immediately spring to mind if one is guided by media exposure alone. That is all set to change: the Royal Concertgebouw, like the LSO and Berlin Phil, has its own record label – all it needs to do is dissuade him, for the time-being at least, not to duplicate his two predecessors’ repertoire (as the powers that be at the LSO have failed to do with Valery Gergiev’s not particularly successful attempts to better the work of Haitink in Brahms and Sir Colin Davis in Berlioz).
The Gatti-Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra union is a partnership that I’m looking forward to, and having been reminded of the jaw-droppingly wonderful acoustics of the Concertgebouw last week, it’s one that we will experience growing in a way that is as yet completely unpredictable. And unpredictability is surely to be cherished in a musical world that is all too safe.