Passing on the batons

The future of conducting is looking bright — everywhere except in Russia and America

On Music

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

The German critic Jürgen Kesting caused a flutter at Salzburg this summer by calling out one maestro for “a shameless ego trip” and claiming none of the rest had box office pulling power. He was right on the second count, at least.

While a few old-timers — Muti, Barenboim, Thielemann, Gergiev, Rattle — remain headline names, the middle generation would not get more than a flicker of attention if they danced naked down Vienna’s Ringstrasse.

Thirty years ago, I ended my book The Maestro Myth with the words, “the great conductor has paved the way to his own extinction”. That prediction has now come to pass. The Great Conductor is defunct.

The ingredients of a good conductor include ability, intelligence, charm, good physique, a lot of luck and, crucially, ambition

What we are left with is a slew of featureless Finns, toothy young women, rigged competition winners and outright wannabees. The future of conducting has never looked so bleak. With the exception of the sleeveless Greek, Teodor Currentzis, who dresses one generation too young for his age, and the media-savvy Gustavo Dudamel and Nézet-Séguin, the middle-aged shelf is bare.

That said, I do not share Kesting’s existential gloom. Two nurseries are starting to produce golden sticks. Dudamel’s fellowship scheme at the Los Angeles Philharmonic has given promising youngsters a year’s old-fashioned apprenticeship in a unionised shop where the players take no prisoners. Graduates of this school of hard knocks include Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (Lithuania), Elim Chan (Hong Kong), Gemma New (New Zealand), Kahchun Wong (Singapore) and Marta Gardolinska (Poland). All have now landed good first jobs around the middle of the orchestral snakes and ladders board. That’s promising, but there’s more.

In Salzburg, the annual Nestlé competition has yielded the dominant Mirga, plus three Brits — Kerem Hasan, Ben Gernon and Joel Sandelson — a Swiss one-to-watch (Lorenzo Viotti) and a prodigiously gifted Uzbek, Aziz Shokhakimov. We are seeing the making of a future talent pool. Viotti, 31, is now in charge at Dutch National Opera; Hasan, 29, has an Austrian orchestra; while Shokhakimov, 32, is starting with the philharmonic orchestra of Strasbourg.

Bruno Walter used to say that conductors are not born, they have to be made. The ingredients include ability, intelligence, charm, good physique, a lot of luck and, crucially, ambition. Legends such as Furtwängler, Carlos Kleiber and Celibidache all knew when to go in for the kill. Many fine prospects have fallen short for lack of ruthlessness.

I believe the six under-40s I am about to present have got what it takes, and half a dozen talents is a bigger line-up than we have seen any time since the last century. These, in no determined order, are the big sticks of the future:

Alpesh Chauhan, 28, works a bus ride from where he grew up. The music director of Birmingham Opera Company was spotted by the late opera director, Graham Vick, and has overwhelmed Midlands audiences and musicians with a prodigious Wagner Rheingold and Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. He was under consideration to take over the city’s symphony orchestra when Mirga leaves next year, but may have outgrown Birmingham. He has already landed a part-time link with the orchestra in Düsseldorf.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, 35, needs no hype. Major bands have been bidding for her practically from the moment she arrived, five years ago, in Birmingham. The New York Philharmonic has made no secret of its interest. Salzburg, where she lives, sees her as a fixture at its summer festival. A mother of two, she is putting family first — but her ambition is fierce, engagement total and energy inexhaustible. She likes to have a private sing-song with her musicians after a good concert.

Elim Chan, 35, is making waves as a music director in Antwerp as well as guest dates. Slightly built, sweetly personable and with a hint of steel about her in rehearsal, she has not missed a beat since winning a contest at the London Symphony Orchestra.

I would be sacked by my insurers if I guaranteed all of these talents will come good

Santtu-Matias Rouvali, 35, newly installed at London’s Philharmonia, is one of the rare conductors able to change the sound of an ensemble just by entering the rehearsal room. Naturally gifted, he is short of words even for an inexpressive Finn. There’s already a buzz about him.

Fellow-Finn Klaus Mäkelä, 25, is already head of the Orchestre de Paris and the Oslo Philharmonic, with whom he is recording the seven Sibelius symphonies for Decca. Too much, too soon? We await the first release. He poses for portraits in double-breasted suits to look more like a grown-up.

Lahav Shani, 32, has succeeded Zubin Mehta as music director at the Israel Philharmonic and Nézet-Séguin at the Rotterdam Philharmonic. A Daniel Barenboim protégé, he lives in Berlin and continues to accept festival dates as a piano soloist. At the Israel Phil he has been both decisive and diplomatic, changing repertoire and reputation in a very short space of time.

I would be sacked by my insurers if I guaranteed all of these talents will come good, but my instinct is that most will last the course. If they don’t, others are coming up behind. The German Joana Mallwitz, 35, gave up her Nuremberg job this summer to have a child. She was quickly snapped up by one of the Berlin orchestras. The former Rattle assistant, Duncan Ward, 32, leads a Dutch orchestra and a rare American Ryan Bancroft, 32, conducts the BBC national orchestra in Wales. The Russian, Maxim Emelyanychev, 32, is making a name for himself as a Mozart specialist.

Where the middle generation has failed, the new batons are quivering with opportunity. The future of conducting is looking bright — everywhere except in Russia and America, where political concerns have clogged the arteries that ought to be pulsing with talent. But that’s a topic for another day.

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