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Of new beginnings

New beginnings. The fall season is full of them. In the classical music world, none is better than the infusion of energy that comes with a new director -- music director, general director, you name it. In Washington, the National Symphony Orchestra (taking a leaf from the Metropolitan Opera’s playbook) has emblazoned the city buses with the image of Christoph Eschenbach – on balance a refreshing thing to see, giving an iconic image to an institution that could use some more prominence in the city profile.

The music world has gotten hooked on that new-conductor high. Last year it was Gilbert (New York Philharmonic) and Dudamel (Los Angeles Philharmonic). This year it’s Muti (Chicago Symphony) and Eschenbach (NSO). When your town gets a new conductor, there’s an instant mood of hope. Ask the players in Chicago and Washington right now. Orchestra players are famously divided in their opinions, yet the optimism is striking: Maybe this guy is going to be the one who helps us reach the next level, secure our proper place in the national pantheon (that elusive, eminently subjective ranking).
(read more after the jump)

Scanning the history of the NSO, I was struck by how many promising new beginnings the orchestra has seen since it was founded in 1931. Nearly everyone improved it. Kindler founded it, taking the first step; Mitchell took over and failed to improve it much; but then, in 1970, Antal Dorati arrives. Great new beginning! Professional standards! After 7 years, he leaves and Mstislav Rostropovich taks over, our beloved Slava: world class musician! International caliber! But Slava is really not all that great as a conductor, despite his great abilities in the Russian repertory, so in 1996 Leonard Slatkin steps in and suddenly, the orchestra has never sounded so good! But then Slatkin lost his way, standards declined, things were underrehearsed. Ivan Fischer, promising as he was, was not here long enough to be more than a stopgap. So now: everyone is ready to be wowed by Eschenbach. After so much improvement, you'd think the orchestra would be astounding. But there's plenty of room, again, to get better.

The rhetoric of welcoming a new music director seems to grow more and more elaborate at the same time as the the tenures are getting shorter. Like baseball players, music directors are no longer expected to play for the same team for more than a few years. It happens sometimes, but not often; and in any case they're generally on loan, since they usually hold several posts at the same time. Ormandy’s 44 years in Philadelphia are a thing of the past; rare, too, is the kind of 24-year tenure George Szell had in Cleveland, during which he put such a stamp on the ensemble that the orchestra is in some senses still identified with him. There are some long and distinctive tenures out there now: Esa-Pekka Salonen definitely left a mark in LA; Michael Tilson Thomas has done notable things in San Francisco. Still, despite all the comparisons of this relationship and a marriage, these days it isn't even serial monogamy, given that both parties have lots and lots of other regular partners.

All this transition is not necessarily bad for the health of the field. Music, after all, is a living art, and it is good for an ensemble to remain open to new currents, new influences. Change at the top helps keep conductors and musicians from burning out. But it could also be taken as a sign of artistic paucity. If a relationship dies away after seven or ten years, does it simply mean that the conductor and ensemble have run out of things to say to each other -- that it wasn't as profound a connection as it seemed at first? Certainly the new beginning is a quicker fix than the challenge of getting excited about making music together for the sixteenth or twentieth or thirtieth year -- and it's an easier way to sell tickets. You didn't see Slatkin on many buses in the last few years of his tenure. But the old-fashioned side of me thinks it would be nice to see more of the long-term marriages -- the ones where both sides know what the other is about to do or say, and can finish each other's sentences, figuratively speaking -- work.

By Anne Midgette  |  September 9, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , random musings  
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There is yet another important begining in the music world: that of Dominique Meyer as the Intendant of the Vienna State Opera, with Franz Welser-Möst as music director. They are succeeding Ioan Holender, the longest serving director in the history of the institution - he served more than Karajan and Mahler combined!

Still, in spite of what other comentators have said as far as inovations are concerned, the new season could well have been planned by Holender, except of course for Alcina (though baroque opera wasn't *entirely* "banned" by Holender as some have said.) Indeed, all the new productions (again, except Alcina) are of operas that were part of Holender's repertoire, including Cardillac, perhaps the most interesting offering of the new season. And I could argue that Holender had the more interesting singer: Franz Grundheber vs. Juha Uusitalo now.

Some changes by Meyer are in the choice of conductors, for example inviting more "HIP-sters" for Mozart and Rossini (Spinosi, yuk!)

Whatever Franz Welser-Möst's problems are in Cleveland, he seems to be a successful opera conductor. By any measure, his tenure in Zurich was a success. And even in the Holender era, he conducted many of the most important premieres - Wagner in particular. In fact, the first opera of the new season is Holender's last production: Tannhauser with most of the same cast.

The most important change by Meyer may perhaps be in the ballet, by appointing - perhaps for the first time at least in the post-war history of the Vienna State Opera - a former world class ballet star to lead the corps: Manuel Legris. Certainly former leaders such as Gerlinde Dill, Anne Woolliams, Renato Zanella, or Gyula Harangozó were not nearly as big stars as dancers.

But there is a catch. As others have pointed out, unlike his predecessors, Legris was never a coreographer. But he may have good eyes in choosing the ballets.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | September 9, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

"new season could well have been planned by Holender"

Well... it would've been, right? Not sure how the handover in Vienna works, but I imagine there won't be a clear Meyer stamp for a while.

I know its the way the business works now and to change it would be wildly impractical, but I often wonder how much an orchestra really benefits from a 12 week a year artistic leader, as opposed to someone who can committed full-time, or at least 50% of the time.

Posted by: ianw2 | September 9, 2010 10:40 PM | Report abuse

Well, it certainly was a smoother transition than the previous one when Claus Helmut Drese was succeeded by Eberhard Waechter - Ioan Holender was Waechter's secretary-general if my memory is right, and succeeded Waechter after his unexpected death. Interesting thing: Waechter's first season contained no premiers, though there were major revivals of some Janacek (plus ca change...) - Katya Kabanova if I remember well - and of Friedrich Cerha's Baal.

But speaking of the Vienna State Opera, I should mention that the latest edition of "Chronik der Wiener Staatsoper" has appeared a few months ago. Unlike previous editions, which covered only the period after WW2, this new edition goes all the way back to 1869, the year in which the "House on the Ring" was built.

My copy hasn't arrived yet, but I should mentioned that, based on the older editions that I have, a more correct title should have been "Statistics of the Vienna State Opera." Because the book - at least the old editions - tells for example how many times a work has been performed or how many times a singer has sung a role, but not who sang in what night. The casts of the premiers and major revivals are however given. The book also includes the directors, but nothing about the ballet.

Yes, one should not have to pay for such information. It should be stored in a database like the Met has (or, closer to the Staatsoper, the Musikverein and Konzerthaus have) but until then, I still consider this an essential book, and this is why I can't wait to get the new edition.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | September 10, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your interesting Post.

The comment by another reader on the Vienna Philharmonic is also fascinating. Clearly each of these symphony orchestras have their internal relationship issues and petty disagreements that occur so oftern among human beings. Think about the Mahler years at the Vienna Opera. He was an innovator there, yet for many other reasons the Viennese public and the artists ultimately could not deal with his methods.

Posted by: hank19 | September 11, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Hank,

Could you please point to the comment of another reader of the Vienna Philharmnic that you mention?

A few more things to add. First of all, a transition is perhaps easier in Vienna, if it goes smoothly, since a lot of the castst are made from the permanent ensemble. Of course, it is the job of the new intendant to hire new members of the ensemble.

Second, I was wrong to say that there were no new productions in Eberhard Waechter's first year. There was one in fact: Boris Godunov, conducted by Abbado with Robert Lloyd in the title role. This was the last premiere that Abbado conducted in Vienna, since he assumed the directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Also, in the last few months, there was a notorious conflict between Ioan Holender and the Vienna Philharmonic. Holender declared in the Austrian press that he was displeased by the fact that the orchestra's number of tours has trippled since he started his directorship, and the number of concerts in Vienna has doubled. As a result, Holender said, the orchestra is often tired and unmotivated. And indeed, in my experiences in Vienna, I heard both marvelous and sloppy playing from the pit of the Staatsoper, often under the same conductor. As someone said: the Vienna Philharmonic can be the world's greatest orchestra - when it wants to be.

Clemens Hellsberg, the VPO chairman replied that the VPO works with the Staatsoper directorship so that it schedules operas that do not need a large orchestra (by Rossini or Mozart for example) when the VPO is on tour. Yet, I do seem to remember once when the VPO was in New York, the Staatsoper played Lohengrin and Rosenkavalier; Lohengrin under a A-list conductor: Semyon Bychkov.

Of course Dominique Meyer tried to smooth things out, but he has his hands full already. To his advantage, Franz Welser-Möst is liked by both the public and orchestra. Good luck to them; they will need it.

And, speaking of Vienese gossip, I would love to read one day Claus Helmut Drese's memories, since he belives that he was unfairly treated and that he deserved his directorship to be extended. But I digressed enough already.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | September 14, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

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