On Music

And the band played on…

The appointment of a chief conductor little affects the general performance of an orchestra

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It never fails to amaze me how little the appointment of a chief conductor affects the general performance and perception of an orchestra.

Take, as a case history, the New York Philharmonic. America’s premier gateway for musical talent, founded in 1842, the Philharmonic has not picked the right conductor since Leonard Bernstein threw himself under its wheels in 1957 and came up with enough razzle-dazzle to magnetise a new generation. People are going into care homes these days still singing the themes from his Young People’s Concerts. Lenny welded an orchestra to a city and its rising teens.

The Philharmonic plays on. It sounds more or less the same and its patrons continue to cough up the dough

After he left in 1973, the bond frayed. Pierre Boulez brought six years of modernist chic, followed by decades of torpor with Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel, Alan Gilbert and the incumbent Dutchman Jaap van Zweden (yes, who?). None of these baton wagglers grabbed the city by the love-handles the way Bernstein did, or tuned into its rhythms.

Yet the Philharmonic plays on. It sounds more or less the same and its patrons continue to cough up the dough. The orchestra’s endowment currently stands at $225 million, enough for it to give away all its tickets to the poor for years to come (not that it ever will). So who’s the conductor? No-one on the Staten Island Ferry can tell ya.

Same goes for the Boston Symphony, where 30 waning years of Seiji Ozawa gave way to James Levine and the absentee Andris Nelsons. Elsewhere, the Philadelphia Orchestra went from dull Eugene Ormandy to provincial Germans, Sawallisch and Eschenbach, and now to a French-Canadian triple-jobber, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is also music director in Montreal and at the Metropolitan Opera. So how’s the Philadelphia Sound? Stronger than ever, thanks for asking.

This is not to say a chief conductor is unnecessary. He or she supplies content, fine tuning and public profile, though the last of these is much diminished. During Covid, when music directors were parted from orchestras for a year, some questioned whether the maestro was still worth his/her hire. The truth is that an orchestra needs a music director slightly more than a fish needs a bicycle.

Like a captain on the football field, a conductor is there to stonewall in moments of crisis and to represent, in spectators’ minds, the notion that someone out there knows what is going on.

Which brings me to the restoration comedy known as the London Symphony Orchestra, where one music director has just gone German and another has been hustled in despite being passed over twice before. If you are a Netflix fan of Turkish soap operas, you will love this unbelievable serial.

Like the New York Phil, the LSO (est. 1904) is the senior service in a great city, a Cockney mob with ideas above its station. It was the first orchestra to trade punches with a conductor — twice, actually, the last being a red-faced British Sir — and the first to nail a residency in New York. Ever since André Previn put it on TV with the cheeky comedians Morecambe and Wise, the LSO have been a swagger band, up for anything and a cut above other London orchestras, who often play a lot better.

Previn made way for the Bernstein protégé Michael Tilson Thomas, who was followed in turn by the muted Italian, Claudio Abbado, and the sensitive Englishman, Sir Colin Davis.

Recoiling from these sobrieties the LSO swung, in 2007, to the post-Soviet maestro, Valery Gergiev, a man with so much going on he was often so late to rehearsal that he never showed up at all, allowing two LSO players to take up the baton. Gergiev, impossibly gifted, instilled bravado at the expense of precision and prestige. If the LSO was hoping for an inundation of oligarch rubles, what it got was a leader who knee-jerked to Putin’s order to perform in occupied Syrian territory.

When Gergiev opted for Munich millions in 2015, the LSO tried to erase the human stain by repatriating Sir Simon Rattle with the promise of building a new concert hall. Rattle is the most famous living English conductor and the City of London seemed happy to reward him with a world-class hall.

Rattle is the most famous living English conductor and the City of London seemed happy to reward him with a world-class hall

But Rattle, 66, has young kids in Berlin and was never going to relocate. When Brexit dried up the City’s cash and Covid-19 closed the airports, he took German citizenship and a Munich orchestra. Panic-stricken, the LSO went on bended knee to Sir Antonio Pappano, music director at Covent Garden who, like the girl next door, had always been available to marry our hero but never got asked until now.

So, happily ever after? Made in heaven, gushed the British press. Business as usual, say the players. Pappano, 61, will be more attentive in rehearsal and more impassioned than his predecessors, but in 2021 the changing of a chief conductor signifies no more of a renaissance or revolution than the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. It’s the same old names in the same torn tails; and the band plays on. In the past two years London’s three other orchestras have replaced music directors without fuss or bother. This is just the LSO again, making a headline out of a soap opera.

But beyond the drama, there’s an own goal. This was a golden opportunity for an orchestra, with not much to lose, to shed the Sirs and advance the lads. They needed to think local, to green shoots in their 30s — Kerem Hasan, Duncan Ward, Alpesh Chauhan, Marta Gardolinska, Harry Ogg, Ben Gernon, Jessica Cottis, Jonathan Heyward, many more. This was the LSO’s moment to take a leap of faith in new talent that might regenerate its ageing audience. Wretchedly, they blew it.

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