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Hooked On That New Conductor High

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). 
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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