By Norman Lebrecht
LONDON, 4 December 2001 - The art of appointing a chief
conductor is a subtle, semi-osmotic process that survived the
publicity glare of the late 20th century, only to come unstuck in the
21st. Europe and America can no longer agree on what it takes to make
America plumps for seniority. Over the past year,
its orchestras have shunned the risk of renewal and settled for
familiar names. The New York Philharmonic appointed Lorin Maazel as
music director, Boston James Levine and Philadelphia Christoph
Eschenbach, all of them tried, tested and over 60.
on the other hand, is in a mood for adventure. The door swung open to
a new generation when Glyndebourne chose Vladimir Jurowski as its next
music director, aged 29. The BBC went one better, turning over its
Scottish Symphony Orchestra to a 25-year-old Israeli, Ilan Volkov. The
BBC Philharmonic is on the verge of engaging an Italian neophyte,
Daniel Harding, 26, dubbed "ein
Shootingstar", is in charge at the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie in
Bremen. Jonathan Nott, 36, a British baton in Bamberg, has a
high-profile role at next summer's Lucerne Festival. Mikko Franck, a
fresh-faced Finn of 22, is conducting his first concerts this week as
music director-designate of the Belgian National Orchestra.
virtues of youth were best demonstrated last month when Emmanuelle
Haim, a thirtyish slip of a French girl, stepped up to conduct
Handel's Rodelinda at Glyndebourne and won more critical
bouquets than any of her singers. Haim had previously plied her trade
as a harpsichordist with William Christie's Les Arts Florissants. She
now has her own ensemble, Le Concert d'Astree, and is in demand as a
guest conductor with symphony orchestras.
however, flatter to deceive. Many a bright new baton has been broken
by orchestral intransigence or premature promotion. The sudden rush of
young bloods is no proof of a podium renaissance. Europe's neophilia
is but a reverse symptom of America's sclerosis, indicating that
musical organisations on both sides of the Atlantic have simply
forgotten how to pick 'em.
Historically, the union of
conductor and orchestra is like a marriage, starting with courtship.
In rare cases - Rattle and Berlin, perhaps - there is instant
infatuation. In others - Ormandy and Philadelphia - both parties
settle for domestic contentment. Some, like Mariss Jansons and the
Oslo Philharmonic, grow together. Others - Seiji Ozawa and Boston -
wear each other down.
But, as the institution of matrimony
has been weakened by sexual pluralism and unblessed cohabitation, so
too has the pivotal musical relationship. The signals by which
musicians recognise the right conductor have blurred. There is no sure
way of telling if a new man is a one-night stud, a loving partner or a
Proof of this confusion is attested by the
different ways in which the new contenders were selected - for no two
of them were picked by the same means. Jurowski, son of a Russian
conductor working in Berlin, wowed critics at the 1995 Wexford
Festival. He spent the following years assisting Yakov Kreizberg at
the Komische Oper and Daniele Gatti in Bologna before Glyndebourne
came beckoning with a step up: music director alongside a
strong-minded administrator, Nicholas Snowman. Barely had Jurowski
signed than Snowman was gone, leaving him artistically in sole
Will he cope? Judging by his quiet authority at
English National Opera, where he conducts a new Rake's Progress,
Jurowski has got most of what it takes. Clear in objectives and
technique, he was unflustered by rehearsal hitches and appears
admirably well equipped for a powerful career.
has more to prove. Nurtured as a cub conductor with the Northern
Sinfonia and London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, he left no lasting
mark on English professional players. What impressed the BBC Scots was
his disinclination to go for broke. He conducted Schubert, not
Stravinsky, and did so with rare serenity. Groomed by Osmo Vanska to
appreciate musical integrity, the orchestra admired the young man's
spirit and resolved to give him a chance.
37, will reach Manchester after four years as the world's busiest
understudy. A Milanese who won two international competitions without
getting much of a start, he was taken on by Valery Gergiev in St
Petersburg and found himself conducting epic operas at five minutes'
notice. In last summer's Kirov let-down at Covent Garden, Noseda held
several shows together on little or no rehearsal.
He will be
the first Italian since John Barbirolli to take a stick to Manchester
- an augury, perhaps, of excitements in store. The players like what
they have seen of him in five mixed-bag concerts, but Noseda has yet
to give an account of himself in a full symphony.
maintain that conductors are born not made point to Mikko Franck, who
gave his first professional concert at 16. Since hitting the world
circuit, he has cancelled several dates at short notice, pleading a
bad back or personal frictions. His debut discs have been interesting,
not overwhelming. His period in Belgian purdah will prove whether the
Finnish pretender can apply himself to the nitty-gritty of musical
Natural ability is not enough. Mark
Wigglesworth, who had his hour of glory on winning the 1989 Kondrashin
Competition in Amsterdam, is now without a post since leaving BBC
Wales. At 37, he has time on his side. Conductors come in all shades
and tempi, and the slow burners are often the best of all.
the waters of talent have been muddied to such an extent that the
music industry persists in sustaining public circuses that produce
nothing more than flashes in the pan. The London-based Donatella Flick
Competition, backed by the LSO, has been running for 10 years without
yielding a mainstream contender. Wigglesworth and Noseda might testify
that the illusion of victory can actually delay a conductor's
The only contests that work are those where a
maestro commits to take fledglings under wing and nurse them to
maturity. Herbert von Karajan founded an event of this sort in Berlin.
The winners - Kamu, Kitaenko, Chmura, Tchakarov, Oren - failed to make
the big time, but runners-up such as Jansons and Gergiev benefited
enormously from Karajan's attention.
This weekend, Lorin
Maazel will attempt to revive the method in Bloomington, Indiana,
where he is auditioning eight Americans - whittled down from 362
applicants - for the finals of the Maazel/Vilar competition. The
winners will receive "an intensive conducting fellowship"
lasting two or three years with Maazel, who is eager to pass on six
decades of experience.
Age, at one extreme or other, should
not be an issue when choosing a conductor. What counts is the gift,
and the urge to succeed. What fails is formula - hiring a music
director for looks, fame, form, age or gender.
incumbents in Europe and America may well flourish, but the confusion
at the heart of the process does not augur well for continuity. What
is needed is a fresh set of criteria for choosing conductors who will
lead a diminished art into a dangerous era. There is very little
margin for error. If the new maestros fail, the fall will be
An Interview with
Top Conductors for the 21st Century
Interview with Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Interview with Riccardo Chailly
Interview with Eduardo Lopez Banzo
Lebrecht is a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph and the author of
several books on culture. His most recent book, Covent Garden, The
Untold Story: Dispatches From The English Cultural War, 1945-2000,
was published by Simon & Schuster.