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Riccardo Chailly
Riccardo Chailly

The Top Conductors for the 21st Century

By Norman Lebrecht


LONDON, 1 January 2001 - Ten years ago last month, I finished writing a book called The Maestro Myth, which argued that the 'Great Conductor' was a thing of the past. A reckless pursuit of power and wealth had destroyed the mystique on which their authority was founded. Easy-come, easy-go maestros with posts on three continents and a chalet in Gstaad no longer commanded the awe of musicians or the spiritual aspirations of dwindling audiences. The fame of a Leonard Bernstein and the fortune of a Herbert von Karajan would never be seen again; conductors, in future, would occupy a more modest niche on the margins of cultural awareness.

Barely had the book appeared than a crisis of confidence smashed the shop window through which conductors displayed their abilities. With the deaths of Karajan and Bernstein, major labels slashed their schedules.

The cry went up from industry chiefs and ignorant hacks that things ain't what they used to be, the talent was not up to the mark. The more painful truth is that the past decade has produced a prodigiously gifted set of conductors who are struggling to break through a nimbus of media rejection.

There are at least a dozen maestros under the age of 50 who have the ability to lead music into the new millennium. Most (or so they tell me) have read The Maestro Myth and taken the point, working assiduously with one orchestra or opera house, avoiding one-night stands and Caribbean tax-havens. Their idealism is refreshing and their ideas original, but will they - without regular recording and broadcasts - ever get the opportunity to make an impact on the world at large?

Sir Simon Rattle
Sir Simon Rattle

Ask players in the top European orchestras for their conductors of choice and three names crop up with clockwork regularity: Simon Rattle, Mariss Jansons and the whirlwind St Petersburg director, Valery Gergiev. Rattle is 46 and Gergiev 47. Both have displayed single-minded devotion to a cause. Rattle spent 18 years nurturing Birmingham from post-industrial wastage to cultural eminence before capturing the Berlin Philharmonic. Gergiev seldom spends more than a week in any one spot, but every foreign foothold he gains is used to sustain the Kirov Theatre, which he has headed since 1988. Jansons, 56, is a late developer with a dicky heart who has imprinted his own distinctive sound on the Oslo Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony orchestras - ever the mark of a remarkable conductor. These three made the grade before recordings receded.

Two others - Riccardo Chailly, 46, in Amsterdam, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, 42, at the Los Angeles Philharmonic - share their plateau. Chailly's technique is sharp as a brain-surgeon's; Salonen, when head-hunted by a Big Five Us orchestra, clarified his position by making a personal 100,000-dollar donation to the new Los Angeles concert hall - a token, he said, "of gratitude towards my orchestra." Such gestures, along with other resurrected values, are providing the ground-rules for the new generation.

German conductors

In Hamburg, for example, Ingo Metzmacher, 42, has taken charge of both opera and concert seasons, spending seven months a year at his post. "My father played cello in the orchestra at the end of the 1930s when Eugen Jochum was music director," he says, "and Jochum conducted everything. That's the way it should be." Metzmacher has set a contemporary agenda, which includes new operas this year by Thomas Ades and Peter Eotvos.

He startled some older Hamburgers by wearing a silver-lame jacket and jumping up on stage in the middle of Weill's Mahagonny to join in the mayhem. For younger citizens, he has imported an education scheme from BBC Wales to help them get more out of music. His zeal has caught the attention of the London Philharmonic, Philadelphia and several other crack outfits which he regularly guest-conducts, mostly, he says, "to bring back home the higher standards that I find elsewhere."He has pledged himself to Hamburg for another five years. "Both I and the players have a long way to grow," he says.

Christian Thielemann
Christian Thielemann

Among German specialists, Metzmacher is matched by the bluntly ambitious Christian Thielemann and the silkily ascendant Franz Welser-Möst. Thielemann, 41, quit Berlin's Deutsche Oper after a row with its next administrator but was hailed as 'a young Karajan' by an influential senator and is now blue-eyed boy at Bayreuth, entrusted with the next Ring. Only his penchant for reported right-wing indiscretions can stem his vertical progress.

Franz Welser-Möst, 40, survived turbulent beginnings at the London Philharmonic to manifest a massive competence at Zurich Opera. Next year he takes charge in Cleveland, the only Big Five orchestra so far to have settled its future. Welser-Möst will spend at least 18 weeks a year in Cleveland, twice as long as his predecessors.

The Italian podium is also hotting up. Daniele Gatti, 39, has in three years raised Bologna almost to La Scala standards. Equable and studious, Gatti is the antithesis of the ragaing-bull maestro personified by Toscanini and Riccardo Muti, yet his music lacks neither passion nor precision. When I asked him recently about long-term ambitions, he looked down from his hill-top villa and laughed. "I live here, I walk 20 minutes to my opera house, I dedicate myself to Bologna."

More devotedly, he has stood by the struggling Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, winning them this year's pre-Last Night of the Proms, playing Verdi's Requiem. "The RPO was helpful to me at a certain time in my life," says Gatti, "now I can help them."

London also awaits Antonio Pappano, who was pressured by his record company, EMI, into becoming music director at Covent Garden. Pappano, 41, earned his spurs at the Monnaie, in Brussels. Few conductors are better at handling divas, having helped his father from the age of ten to coach recalcitrant sopranos. Should the ROH flounder, Pappano is valued at Bayreuth and coveted in America.

Finland: source of new conductors

The most fertile source of new batons is Finland, where Jorma Panula's course at the Sibelius Academy has yielded - apart from Salonen and the less-settled Jukka-Pekka Saraste - a diversity of talents. Sakari Oramo, 35, has proved an intriguingly intense successor to Rattle in Birmingham, enriching the string sound and playing virtuosically with Symphony Hall's adjustable accoustics. He hardly ever visits London, let alone the US. "This orchestra is all I want right now," says Oramo, "I won't bother to conduct opera until I'm 40."

Sakari Oramo
Sakari Oramo

His fellow-Finn Mikko Franck, still only 21, set a buzz around when he conducted in Stockholm three years ago -"like an old master," the players said. His temperament remains unproven. This season he cancelled English National Opera after a production disagreement and a New York Philharmonic concert on grounds of ill-health. His debut recording - Sibelius, naturally -reveals precocious tempo controls, but Franck has yet to deliver on a major stage. Ahead of him, by several strides, runs Rattle's diminutive protegé, Daniel Harding, who at 25 has scored notable successes in Berlin and on record. At Bologna, Gatti has nurtured Vladimir Jurowski, newly named music director at Glyndebourne.

Across the Baltic, shoots of the St Petersburg hothouse are striking new roots. Yakov Kreizberg, 41, formerly of Bournemouth, should soon land his first US orchestra; the Estonian-born Paavo Järvi, son of the Detroit conductor Neeme Järvi, recently captured Cincinnati. Järvi, 38, declares that he has no time for the star soloists that stultify American programmes. He aims to introduce young artists in off-beat repertoire. His kid brother Krystjan Järvi, only 28, is even more iconoclastic, forming the 18-member Absolute Ensemble in New York, that plays Schoenberg alongside Carla Bley. If the Järvi boys get their way, Middle America is in for a good ear-wigging.

Americans and women absent

The notable absentees from the conducting future are Americans and women. Kent Nagano, 50, has moved furthest ahead, claiming an orchestra in Berlin and the Los Angeles Opera, without convincing everyone of his head for greater heights. Robert Spano, a muscular Brooklyner, has landed Atlanta. As for women, the path to podium glory is still impeded by prejudice; Simone Young, 39, at Australian Opera is the only holder of a prominent position.

Kent Nagano
Kent Nagano

These, then, are the conductors on whom the musical future depends. Not all have the stardust of charisma and some may take another decade to develop leadership skills. But their innate ability is acknowledged by some of the world's toughest musicians and their outlook is engagingly outward looking.

The new conductors know that it is no longer enough to announce a season and expect the public to attend. They need, like unknown restaurant chefs, to awaken an appetite and catch the eye. They want to engage with social and political issues, and they long to break down the barriers between aging concerthall patrons and their own generation which seldom crosses the threshold.

These are enormous challenges - a universe apart from the ecology inhabited by Karajan, Bernstein and Solti in the era that ended with the 20th century. In effect, every new conductor is required to reinvent his profession.

But the more I meet the new generation, the more I find that they are putting the podium to rights. A simple litmus test demonstrates the distance we have travelled in the past ten years. A decade ago, most conductors liked to be addressed as "Maestro". Today's conductors dismiss the title and deride the sycophants who utter it. No more "Maestros" is not a bad omen for a new millennium.




Norman 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.

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