American-born conductors still seek prestige


October 31, 1990|By Donal Henahan | Donal Henahan,New York Times News Service

When Leonard Bernstein was named music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, many optimistic observers saw the 40-year-old conductor's appointment as the dawn following a long night.

At last, an American-born and American-trained musician stood at the head of one of the nation's five greatest orchestras.

Here was a living, often leaping, testimonial to the worth of native conductors and to the growing sophistication of symphony trustees who in the past had looked exclusively to foreign shores for leaders.

Even to bring up this subject risks the charge of chauvinism or provincialism: talent, experience and achievement, ideally, should be the only criteria for choosing one conductor over another.

Jingoistic prejudice has no place in music, the most international of all the performing arts. But, of course. No sensible American would argue otherwise.

Is there another major nation that has so persistently and so humbly placed its music in the hands of foreigners? Perhaps the polyglot nature of American culture actually encourages the mass importation of talent.

Particularly in the World War II period, when refugees flooded into this country to escape European Fascism, the United States not only tolerated foreign conductors but came to rely on them almost exclusively for guidance. Native talent, where it was encouraged at all, had to develop in the shadow of Europe's most renowned masters.

By now, however, with most of those displaced artists either dead or long since back in their homelands, the picture ought to have shifted. Has it? Perhaps here and there, but the change seems glacial, if not illusory.

It is clear that the Philharmonic's choice of Bernstein, which in 1959 seemed something of a gamble, paid off richly for both the orchestra and its galvanic leader.

For other native-born conductors, however, it is not yet morning in America. The Bernstein sunburst turned out to be a false dawn, one that has brightened the orchestral scene only at the fringes.

When the Philharmonic was casting about recently for a music director to succeed the Indian-born Zubin Mehta, the leading candidate was an Italian, Claudio Abbado, and ultimately the post went to an East German, Kurt Masur.

Of a dozen or more conductors whose names surfaced in print as possible candidates, the only American who figured even peripherally in speculations was Leonard Slatkin, the St. Louis Symphony's music director.

Despite the glow shed over the scene by the Bernstein phenomenon, his meteoric coming and going has left only a trail in the sky. In fact, he stands alone among the U.S. orchestras traditionally described as the Big Five -- New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago -- as the only American-born conductor to hold the music directorship.

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