Breathless, baseless BSO speculation

[LATEST: Chailly gets several weeks of concerts in the BSO’s 2010-2011 season.  Looks like Lebrecht is on to something.  Meanwhile Jansons renewed in Munich until 2015, so he’s definitely out.]
[UPDATE: A fine think-piece on the BSO’s future from the Globe‘s Jeremy Eichler, who sustains his dislike for Maazel and Frühbeck and highlights Andris Nelsons, who will conduct the Mahler 9 at Carnegie next week.  And more thoughts from Norman Lebrecht, who sticks to his suggestion of Chailly, hints that Ronald Wilford still has the board’s ear, and also suggests doubts over managing director Mark Volpe’s future with the BSO.  Pinch of salt, anyone?  Tom Service of the Guardian blogs about his conversation with Volpe.  WGBH’s Brian Bell interviews Volpe here.  Some sad details about Levine’s rehearsals last week, and some tantalizing hints.  And the indispensable Lloyd Schwartz surveys Levine’s tenure here in the Boston Phoenix.]

As promised.

The Boston Globe got an early start with four names: Michael Tilson Thomas, Robert Spano, Mariss Jansons, and Riccardo Chailly.  Don’t know if there’s any insider tip behind these names, and I’m not sure that they are, or should, be at the top of the list.

With Jansons, the BSO would be setting itself up for another Levine situation; he won’t relinquish the Concertgebouw, he also directs the excellent Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Symphony) through 2015 at least 2012, and he’s had health problems of his own.

Norman Lebrecht offered up Chailly’s name in a blog post last July.  One negative is that Bernard Haitink (BSO conductor laureate, much loved in Boston) reportedly had some harsh words for Chailly after the latter took over the Concertgebouw, to the point of outright sniping.  Getting Chailly might mean losing Haitink.  His contract in Leipzig extends until 2015, though he recently resigned as director of the Leipzig Opera due to conflicts with the administration.

Spano was an assistant in Boston and also comes regularly.  But his contract in Atlanta doesn’t expire until 2014.  One other thing: both Boston and Atlanta have thriving choruses, institutions in their own right.   I once sang in a chorus directed by Robert Shaw, the founder of the Atlanta tradition, and also in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.  Amanda just sang under Spano and ASO Chorus director Norman Mackenzie a few weeks ago; her comments are here.  We agree that the Atlanta approach couldn’t be more dissimilar from John Oliver’s TFC.  I don’t know how much of this is Spano’s doing, and how much of it is the independently thriving Shaw tradition, but this would be a big change for Spano. [UPDATE: Spano just accepted music directorship of the Aspen Festival, and there’s no chance that he could keep that job and run Tanglewood during the summers.]

Like Spano, MTT might relish the idea of becoming chief where he used to be an assistant, but the San Francisco gig (with a much stronger recording program than in Boston–when are we going to fix that, people?) looks very comfortable and very hard to leave.

Other than these names, the commentary has been a scattershot game of “name your favorite conductor.”   So, how about naming people with some connections to the post?

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos comes regularly, is well-liked around Symphony Hall, and I heard a rumor that he lobbied hard for the job when Ozawa left.  But Eichler at the Globe regularly pans his concerts, and there’s a perception that he’s one of those conductors who’s been around too long without a top-rank post.  Fairly or unfairly, the verdict seems to be: if he hasn’t ascended the summit by this time, he’s not going to get there.  Plus, he will assume directorship of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra–a fine band–in 2012.

Sir Simon Rattle was apparently a contender to succeed Ozawa before he got the Berlin job.  But that’s the most powerful conducting job in the business, and the contract is renewed through 2018.  I don’t think he’s appeared in Boston since he went to Berlin.

For my money David Robertson–another regular visitor–seems like the best candidate on the merits.  He can sustain–and expand–on Levine’s commitment to high modernism, embrace the eclecticism of contemporary composition, and be compelling in standard repertoire.  He can also sustain Levine’s commitment to opera in concert.  He may not have the flashiness of Dudamel, but he is (I think) a more interesting interpreter with a much wider and deeper knowledge of the repertoire.  And his general demeanor allows him to connect with musicians and audiences.  He himself holds many of the pre-concert talks in St. Louis, and this could be a welcome change from previous BSO music directors, who have held themselves aloof from the audience.  And, best of all, he’s potentially available: his contract in St. Louis expires in 2012.  My first concert singing with the TFC and BSO was with Robertson conducting John Adams’ Nativity oratorio El Niño, and I was very impressed.

[UPDATE: I forgot Daniele Gatti, who filled in for Levine when the BSO played Carnegie Hall’s opening night gala in October 2009.  He’s currently at the Orchestre National de France, and I can find no information on when his contract expires.  Then there’s Lorin Maazel, who also filled in for Levine that month in Boston, but Eichler gave the concert a chilly review that bears out what I’ve heard from this conductor lately.  In any event Maazel has very little history with the orchestra other than those few concerts.]

But that’s just my $.02, nothing more.  So maybe instead of naming names, maybe it’s better to think through some general issues:

1. The front rank. The BSO doesn’t seem like a risk-taking organization; there isn’t a bigger name in the business than Levine, and why else would they have hung onto Ozawa for decade after decade after he lost his fire?   So they’ll probably look for an already-established, name-brand conductor.  Anyone significantly less prominent than Levine’s will seem like a gamble and a setback.

2. Two-timing. It seems like one job just isn’t enough for the biggest egos on the podium, but Levine’s concurrent conducting at the BSO and the Met ruffled a lot of feathers.  (Boston’s got a chip on its shoulder about comparisons to New York; ask any baseball fan.)  At the same time it’s hard to get any of the top talent without two-timing, since they’re already booked and want to enlarge their empires.  It would be better if the BSO got someone who would be single-mindedly devoted to Boston, and to get that kind of devotion, the board will have to make a very strong offer.

3. What do the players want? Based on their demeanor in concert, my guess is that if they could choose anybody, they’d choose Haitink.  But nobody can answer this question except the players themselves.

4. The elixir of youth. The Dudamel bandwagon rides high, but what Dudamel brings is not just youth; he brings a worldwide media phenomenon.  Some of the younger conductors out there–Vasily Petrenko, Daniel Harding–have the youth but not the marketability.  (Petrenko has made some excellent recordings of Russian music, but the BSO’s tradition is broader than that.)  Just appointing a relatively young person won’t unleash the Dudamel effect.  Anyway, the really beloved guest conductors in Boston–Haitink and Sir Colin Davis–are elder statesmen who seem to have decided on a freelance life, and you can’t blame them.  Both have already put their stamp on musical history with extended residencies–Haitink in Amsterdam, Davis in London–so they’ve got nothing left to prove.

5. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. In his notorious book The Maestro Myth, Lebrecht painted a picture of Columbia Artists Management chairman Ronald Wilford as a kind of puppet-master, shuffling conductors around at will.  Though newcomers in classical music management have punctured the aura, Wilford still has the biggest conductor’s list around, and the last two music directors–Ozawa and Levine–were both his clients.  Does Wilford still have sway with the BSO board?  Should we be looking at his client list?  (Chailly, Jansons, Rattle, and Spano are not on it; Frühbeck, Gatti, and MTT are.)

6. Pluses and minuses. The BSO has one asset no other conducting job has: Tanglewood.  To be head of the foremost summer music festival and training academy in America–maybe the world–must be enticing to any conductor who fancies himself a mentor (but doesn’t want to teach full time).  Even more so for former graduates; for anyone who has spent time on the Tanglewood campus when the audience isn’t around, the nostalgia is potent, even for this lowly former chorister.  But the BSO also has the Pops, and while I know nothing about how these various divisions relate to each other, Amanda and I often comment that the BSO must be the most overworked orchestra in America.  (The Pops is the essentially the BSO without the principals, with a few ringers.)  Sometimes, they look overworked–whoever told the players that they should turn towards the audience during applause also should have told them to take that prison-camp look off their faces!  I have no real idea what this does for morale–the players could be having the time of their lives–but it’s worth flagging the issue.

Meanwhile, there will be an interregnum, and some like Chicago’s idea of naming a principal conductor (not a music director) for the years between Barenboim and Muti.  (It was also Philadelphia’s idea, naming Dutoit as principal conductor while hedging on the music director question; they eventually appointed Nézet-Séguin).  Of course, this man should be Levine.  (Maybe also Dutoit–the players seemed to like him in the last concert I saw him conduct in Boston–but he must be tired of being a caretaker and probably wants to invest more time in the RPO, which needs it to compete against Jurowski’s LPO, Gergiev’s LSO, and Salonen’s Philharmonia.)  Even better: how about Levine as principal conductor (or conductor emeritus) and Haitink as conductor laureate.  If these two had six to eight weeks of subscription concerts between them, this interregnum might turn into one of the better periods for the BSO.  Levine could have a specialty in presenting operas in concert (these have been highlights of his BSO tenure), and he could bring the big names from the Met, as he has done in the past.  One can only hope!

Anyone have any tips?  Unsubstantiated rumors?  Strong opinions?  Why not–makes no difference for the outcome.  Or should it?  Should the BSO reach out to the audience this time for suggestions?  Should it–quelle horreur!–run a Facebook poll?


About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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2 Responses to Breathless, baseless BSO speculation

  1. What about Marin Alsop, the present conductor of Baltimore? She would meet/and or exceed expectations?
    Also with Riccardo Muti leaving La Scala, you would have a conductor who has left a post, and being named another; remember Daniel Barenboim starts his role as music director at La Scala on December 1st; he was the first conductor I EMailed as soon as James Levine retired.You can see I wished Daniel Barenboim being selected, but that is not to be with his appointment!

  2. Marin Alsop? Interesting idea. I must shame-facedly admit that I don’t know her work well (the Brahms symphony recordings with the LPO on Naxos got some good reviews, but I was underwhelmed). But we’re going to hear her and the Baltimore SO play Honegger’s “Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher” at Carnegie Hall the weekend after next. Certainly an example of inspired programming. I would love it if the Boston Symphony made an appointment that enhanced the orchestra’s cultural profile among people who don’t follow classical music, and Alsop would certainly do that. As for her current schedule, her Baltimore contract runs to 2015 and she just took a position in São Paulo.
    Regarding Barenboim, I remember reading that when he left Chicago, he was frustrated with the fundraising activities that come with a music directorship in the US. He apparently refused Alan Gilbert’s job for that reason, so sadly it appears that he’ll probably return here only as a guest. Unless he changes his mind, of course.
    Thanks for your comment!

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