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Thoughts on Music Directors

In my article in yesterday's paper, I discuss briefly the effect that a new music director can have an an orchestra, pointing out that a couple of unknown Europeans have recently done very well in Dallas and Pittsburgh; that traditional elder statesmen may not have the same appeal they once did; and that even the dynamic Gustavo Dudamel doesn't appear to be a guarantor of increased ticket sales, at least for subscriptions.

As I intimated in the piece, I have real questions about how much the audience even notices the music director. I wonder, for example, how many Washingtonians, even those who follow classical music, actually know what Iván Fischer's current role is at the National Symphony, and know when Leonard Slatkin left. (I had an exchange this summer with a smart reader who says he follows classical music in the Washington Post, but who was certain that this fall marked the start of Iván Fischer's first independent season, post-Slatkin, at the National Symphony Orchestra. For the record: it's Fischer's second season, and his last before Eschenbach takes over in 2010.)

So I'm throwing it open to the floor. What difference does a music director make to you? Do you think a music director really affects ticket sales? Do you make decisions about ticket buying based on an orchestra's music director? Are you more likely to go hear Iván Fischer at the NSO than another conductor? How much do you think the average listener really notices?
(read more after the jump)

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that a music director comes and works with the orchestra for decades and develops a distinctive sound with them. But I think that model has changed since the days of Szell and Ormandy, partly because of the way that the jet age has transformed the nature of the job -- though there are still long reigns like Michael Tilson Thomas's in San Francisco or Esa-Pekka Salonen's, just ended, in Los Angeles. I'm interested in hearing other peoples' thoughts.

By Anne Midgette  |  September 28, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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I am more likely to go to Ivan Fischer's NSO concerts because he gets the NSO to step up its playing (or the NSO steps up its playing for him, or something). Anyway, it's more likely to be a quality concert. I think the average listener feels it when an orchestra is playing better, although they may not actively notice or, if they do notice, make an attribution.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | September 28, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

The Richmond Symphony is currently in a search for a new Music Director and I have witnessed (as a staff member) first hand the huge difference that a Music Director can make in the performance and artistry of an orchestra - and in the audience experience. Some candidates obviously have a great rapport with the musicians and audience alike; with others the orchestra sounds completely different and YES the audience notices. In audience surveys, patrons are quick to point out the differences and their impressions of each candidate. Previously, our audiences may not have been able to put their finger on what made their experience different, but I think that through the Music Director search we have all become more aware of the direct impact the personality and artistry of the MD has on the performance and over all concert experience.

A lot of what makes the difference for audiences is how the director interacts with them. Does he/she speak from the podium? Do they give a pre concert talk? Do they mingle? Are they personable? All of these things bring the audiences' experience to the next level and create a more positive experience over all.

I think the answer to the question "Does anyone even know that Fischer is the new MD of the NSO?" is that because of the very long drawn out search process, it is hard for people to keep up with where things are. Also, with an orchestra such as the NSO, there are many guest conductors all the time and the Music Director position may not be as "important" to the audience because they are used to seeing so many different people on the podium. In an orchestra with a Music Director who conducts 80% or more (if not all) of the season concerts, the different becomes more evident to patrons if someone else steps in.

Posted by: gmusicchic | September 28, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Lindemann777 that Ivan Fischer projects a sense of [conservative] quality.

We look forward to hearing the NSO and Mr. Fischer perform Beethoven and Bartok’s The Wooden Prince, this week.

On the other hand, I did not find the NSO and Mr. Fischer’s careful recent performances of Mahler symphonies as remarkable as perhaps others did, including, I recall, the Washington Post. (That is the nature of the subjective experience of live performances.)

Also missing with Mr. Fischer is the sense of artistic engagement and relevance that was present when the NSO under Antal Dorati alternated performances of Haydn, Mahler, and Bartok, with performances (and subsequent recordings) of mature masterpieces of Olivier Messiaen and Roberto Gerhard; and when Mstislav Rostropovich alternated performances of the classic repertoire, especially Russian and Soviet works through Prokofiev and Shostakovich, with mature masterpieces by the finest of then living classical composers from around the world, such as Alberto Ginastera, William Walton, the Polish Requiem by Kristof Penderecki, Witold Lutoslawski, Henri Dutilleux, Tōru Takemitsu, Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Luciano Berio, Cristóbal Halffter, and Vyacheslav Artyomov

One certainly hopes that Christoph Eschenbach will be able with the NSO, despite his jet-setting schedule, to combine the conservative quality of Mr. Fischer, the adventure of Oliver Knussen, Kent Nagano, Alan Gilbert, and Joana Carneiro, and the deep musical insight and relevance of Antal Dorati and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Posted by: snaketime1 | September 28, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

As a long-time subscriber to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, I can attest to the impact that Marin Alsop has had on audiences since her arrival. Alsop is an engaging personality who introduces new composers and provides commentary without condescension. In these challenging financial times the players have offered huge sacrifices to continue to grow the audences that had become sadly depleted. We had cancelled our subscriptions for the last few years of Tchermenikov's tenure because we were tired of limited programs and the director's habit of blowing off performances. Now the once half empty hall is swelling with listeners again. Of course it helps that a new pricing system makes it possible for more people to participate in the symphony experience, too.

Posted by: rabbfamily | September 28, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I agree that Alsop seems to be making a big difference with the BSO. She seems to really have her finger on the pulse of her audience and intuitively know far she can take her listeners without losing them. I'm a big fan of Temirkanov's and loved watching him conduct, but he's more of a traditional conductor as opposed to a "full service" MD. Alsop seems to love it all, including the community outreach, education, crossover-oriented programming, schmoozing with the audience, etc. I have been and remain skeptical of her at times, but you have to admire her hard work, great energy and willingness to think outside the box.

These days most orchestras probably need a MD with Alsop's approach in order to stay competitive and keep putting tushies in the seats.


Posted by: shovetheplanet | September 28, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

I'm a huge fan of Alsop's because of the down-to-earth way she takes the time to communicate with the audience, particularly the post-concert Q&As.

And I agree that the era of one MD putting their stamp on an orchestra is gone, mostly because they don't spend nearly as much time with their "home" orchestra as they used to. Alsop specifically says that she had to fight to get her contract with the BSO up to 13 weeks, which still doesn't seem like a lot.

Posted by: kevinwparker | September 28, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

MDs have lots of impact - see all of the above responses, or think about Leonard Bernstein's NYPO tenure versus, say, Maazel and Masur. And speaking of those two, if the San Francisco Symphony lost MTT and hired one of their ilk for MD, I'd buy fewer tickets.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | September 28, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

I definitely attend more Fischer concerts and in fact I wanted him as music director. And there's no doubt that a music director can make a difference; cases are too many to list.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | September 28, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

It seems clear from the above comments that audiences are seeking a Music Director who is personable, skilled, accessible,creates greatly varied programs with some, but not too much contemporary music. Alsop comes close. Thematic programs sometimes work, but get old quickly and the war-horses no longer satisfy by themselves. There are no more hometown heroes with the staying power of Cal Ripken and the titanic personality of Von Karajan. Too frequently we see "hit and run" conductors who do not know how to ingratiate themselves with the locals. Where are the new heroes?

Posted by: whiterhino | September 28, 2009 11:24 PM | Report abuse

I thought Cal Ripken was a terrible conductor. The BSO sounded way better under Temirkanov.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | September 29, 2009 8:36 AM | Report abuse

To me, music directors make a huge difference. I recognized that when I heard Eschenbach in Philly (conducting from the keyboard, Mozart's p cto no. 23). Since then, I have paid attention to who is conducting at the next concert that I am interested in going (Brits, probably no, although there is an exception to that).
What is the definition of an average listener? I think we draw the line at subscriber v. single-ticket buyer. Subscribers do worry about who is to conduct the concerts they are buying. A one-time recreational purchaser? Most likely not.

Posted by: crismassine | September 29, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. What generally seems to emerge is that a music director's non-musical activities can count as much as the purely musical quality.

But there is a certain je ne sais quoi. It's interesting to me that Alsop is doing so much better in Baltimore than Slatkin did at the NSO by doing many of the same things Slatkin did: unusual programming, down-to-earth approach, talking to the audience.

As to musical quality, I'd like to think that the audience notices. I always say that anyone can and will hear the difference between a dynamite performance and a so-so one. But I've also frequently heard people after concerts discuss what they just heard as if their reaction was occasioned by the piece alone, rather than the conducting of it. Never mind that the conductor may have done something amazing in illuminating a routine piece, or in rendering boring a more dynamic one. (I'm not saying people are wrong to react this way; I'm just interested in tendencies in audience perceptions.)

As to the question of whether subscribers are more aware than non-subscribers, an anecdote: I once asked an orchestra to locate for me someone they, the orchestra, thought was representative of their average long-time subscriber. They put me in touch with a patron who had been subscribing and giving money for more than two decades. Asked about the music director, the patron confessed that she didn't really keep track of who was conducting, and in fact didn't differentiate between the symphony and the opera, which she also attended: it was all just beautiful music.

I only tell this to back up my assertion that it's very hard to tell what audiences actually want, and that our assumptions aren't always borne out.

Posted by: MidgetteA | September 29, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

I'll point out an irony. Temirkanov is a better conductor than Alsop, but Alsop is a better MD - for Baltimore at least because Temirkanov is doing a good job as MD in St. Petersburg.

Then of course, one of the NSO's greatest mistakes was getting rid of Dorati.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | September 29, 2009 5:30 PM | Report abuse

I agree with all of the above. It think it makes a great difference. Look what happened to the NSO under Dorati which is when I began subscribing. A number of years ago, I heard a single performance led by Sinopoli and it was an eye opener for me as to how much a single conductor can enhance the performance of the music. I have been very, very pleased with Fischer and with no disrespect for Eschenbach, I was disappointed that Fischer was not made music director. I am not well versed enough to put into words the sense I have of each of Fischer's performances. I only know that I look forward to them and am never disappointed.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | September 29, 2009 7:26 PM | Report abuse

With all due respect, Lindemann777, you are way wrong. As conductors go, Cal Ripkin was one of the great ones.

Seriously, though...

At the end of the day, it's the relationship between conductor and orchestra that matters musically. Even if a MD fills the season with programs exactly to your liking, pulls in a larger, younger audience, shmoozes millions from the glitterati, tours the group to Antarctica, and talks to God -- it won't matter a bit if s/he hasn't got the "rapport" thing going with the players.

Here's a clue as to how things are going at any given moment...

When the conductor walks out on stage, forget him or her and focus instead on the orchestra's reaction to the conductor's presence. This is your chance to see this relationship naked -- before the instruments come up. Look at the players' individual faces, their posture -- watch their body language. The performance often begins well before the music.

Posted by: Steve37 | September 30, 2009 8:44 AM | Report abuse

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