Sir Simon Rattle rehearses with the London Symphony Orchestra for the first time since March

No direction from directors

Covid-absent maestros mean musicians are openly asking if a music director is necessary

On Music

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Half a year into Covid-19, the music director has joined the at-risk list. The role has been losing prestige for years as maestros split their time between two or three jobs, but the position remains nonetheless the central pivot of orchestral activity, a hedge against chaos.

When a soloist cancels at the last minute or a principal oboe is no longer up to the job, or the bills can’t be paid, it falls to the music director to make an instant, delicate decision. When the budget turns red, the music director is the one who has to call ministers and donors for a bailout.

Assuming he is around. In Covid, music directors were nowhere to be seen. The moment lockdown loomed, maestros took flight, leaving musicians confused, anxious and, in America, generally unpaid.

The New York Philharmonic’s fat-cat chief Jaap van Zweden has been absent throughout. It’s no comfort to New York musicians to know that the Dutchman last month took the considerable personal risk of flying to riot-torn and virus-ridden Hong Kong, where he collects a second salary.

The breakdown of trust between musicians and maestros will lead to a downgrade or downfall of the music director

When the Metropolitan Opera went dark, not a peep was heard from its Canadian music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has other jobs in Philadelphia and Montreal. Met players told me they felt abandoned. The Boston Symphony last month renewed its Latvian music director Andris Nelsons for five more years despite hardly remembering what he looks like. “I have been shocked at the lack of artistic statements by those that head up orchestras,” says the former Detroit chief Leonard Slatkin.

The disconnect is less immediately evident in Europe where music directors tend to live just around the corner. Daniel Barenboim got music restarted in Berlin. Riccardo Chailly was never far from La Scala. Antonio Pappano, waiving his salary, was often at Covent Garden giving morale-raising recitals.

On the dark side, by contrast, Munich Philharmonic players stood well back from Valery Gergiev, whose Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg reported 60 per cent Covid infections. There was also scorn for stick-wavers who kicked up a fuss on being quarantined as they flew in between gigs.

What we are seeing is a breakdown of trust between musicians and maestros, a schism that will lead, post-Covid, to a downgrade or downfall of the music director. There has been, over half a century, a tremendous evolution in the role from Toscanini-like autocracy to a chummy collegiality in which maestros achieve harmony by consensus and drink beer after concerts in the musicians’ bar.

But when the chips are down, as they often are, it is still the music director who makes key decisions and leads the fights for extra funding, a new concert hall and social justice. For this, he or she is richly rewarded. In major US orchestras where players earn $120,000-$250,000 a year and the concertmaster twice as much, the maestro makes two million plus, and for diminished returns.

Where Eugene Ormandy spent 50 weeks of the year in Philadelphia, Yannick manages barely a dozen weeks between his other two jobs. In business, an executive can sit on the boards of three multinationals without much stress. In concert, where every error is audible, the only way for a maestro to multi-task is to eliminate risk and conserve energy — “phoning in a performance” as the jargon has it.

Not all conductors do this and no one does it all the time but dissatisfaction with maestro performance, which was rising pre-Covid, has now reached the point where musicians are openly asking if a music director is necessary.

Reduced by Covid rules to Mozart size and playing to a virtual audience, orchestras are being reshaped. “None has ever experienced such a gap in rehearsal and performance,” says Slatkin. What was formerly unthinkable has now become the new possible.

Mark Wigglesworth, lately of English National Opera, told the Guardian: “It is about connecting with a community, a community of musicians and a community of listeners. Take those communities away, and the purpose of the role, debatable at the best of times perhaps, is non-existent.” It looks as if the music director has run out of credit in the last-chance saloon.

Musicians, advised by politicians to retrain for non-existent “useful” jobs, put their precious instruments on eBay

Through the pandemic, let it be recorded, some maestros showed strong leadership. Simon Rattle, living in Berlin, was in daily contact with the London Symphony Orchestra, supervising digital output and reuniting with LSO players at an early opportunity. Gustavo Dudamel spent lockdown in Los Angeles, training kids in his youth orchestra.

Franz Welser-Möst got the Austrian government to secure a special US permit for him to rejoin the Cleveland Orchestra, telling the musicians he was keen to work with them for the constricted present and a radically altered future.

These, however, are the exceptions, the honourable, romantic exceptions. Most maestros took a sabbatical until the first Covid wave blew over and they could rejoin the business-class on a plane, unaware that the ground beneath them had cracked wide open. What was once the world’s biggest classical artists agency, Cami, went out of business. Opera houses were selling off assets. The older, wealthier audience left New York and London. Musicians, advised by politicians to retrain for non-existent “useful” jobs, put their precious instruments on eBay and left the profession.

Students fresh out of Juilliard are in no condition to replace them, lacking experience under pressure and spin-on-a-dime adaptability. Like Premiership football clubs, orchestras are tentatively adjusting, week by week, to life under Covid. They are playing differently, less confident and cohesive, without a crowd to cheer them on and a music director to offer a vision of a viable future.

There has never been a worse time to be a musician, and musicians have long memories. When the plague is over in two or three years they will look upon music directors and find them wanting. What will happen then is an unwritten scenario that several famous conductors have told me recently they really, really don’t want to contemplate.

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