Moonlighting maestros not good for orchestras

November 27, 1998|By Jacob Weisberg

IN many fields, growing old means cutting back on your professional responsibilities. But for orchestra conductors, figures of mythic virility and longevity, advancing age seems only to entail taking on more obligations.

Consider Kurt Masur, the 71-year-old music director of the New York Philharmonic. Last week, it was announced that, beginning in 2000, Mr. Masur would become the principal conductor of the London Philharmonic. In London, The Guardian reported that the German maestro would, naturally, be resigning his New York position, which pays him $1.3 million a year. But the paper was forced to print a correction: Mr. Masur is not leaving New York. He will be conducting in both cities until at least 2002, when his New York contract expires.

With just two big jobs, Mr. Masur is far from the busiest of the big guns. The title probably belongs to Placido Domingo, the globe-trotting tenor. In 1996, he was appointed artistic director of the Washington Opera. Nov. 1 it was announced that he would also be replacing the retiring director of the Los Angeles Opera.

Mr. Domingo intends to run both institutions without cutting back on his performance schedule at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, his "Three Tenors" concerts with Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras, his recording calendar or his bookings as a guest symphony conductor.

Rich and famous

Mr. Domingo's helicopter-to-rehearsal lifestyle is now the model for conductors whose salaries often match those of star athletes and chief executive officers. Norman Lebrecht of the London Daily Telegraph, perhaps the only music critic with much of an instinct for sleuthing, has unearthed some of the closely guarded salaries.

In 1996, conductor Lorin Maazel earned $4.5 million, including $1 million as the chief conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and an additional $2.7 million from the Bavarian State Radio Orchestra. The pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim earns $3 million or more as music director in Chicago, artistic director and general music director of the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, and as a touring conductor with both the Berlin and the Vienna philharmonics.

Perhaps most amazing is Charles Dutoit, who serves as artistic director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, musical director of the Orchestra National de France and the artistic director and principal conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra's summer season in Saratoga. In his spare time, Mr. Dutoit likes to guest conduct.

The great American orchestras were built by conductors who by today's standards would be hopeless homebodies.

The Boston Symphony was honed and polished by the Russian exile Serge Koussevitsky, who conducted 100 concerts a year ** for 25 years until 1949 and was midwife to the creation of great works by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Aaron Copland.

The Philadelphia Orchestra was led by Leopold Stokowski, who reigned supreme for 26 years until 1938, when Eugene Ormandy succeeded him -- and stayed for 42. George Szell had a similar role in shaping Cleveland into a great musical city, as did Fritz Reiner in Chicago.

These men might travel to Europe for the summer festival season, but they lived in the cities in which they played. They auditioned musicians personally and knew them well. If a guest conductor visited Philadelphia, you would probably find Ormandy backstage or in the audience.

Today, by contrast, conductors tend to have a much more tenuous relationship with their home cities. Rather than live in some backwater, they jet in and out for rehearsals and conduct 30 performances a year there instead of 100. For nine months at a stretch, they are somewhere else.

There are a few honorable exceptions to the orchestra-collecting trend. Perhaps the most admirable is British conductor Sir Simon Rattle, who took the insignificant Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and, over a period of 16 years, developed it into a distinguished ensemble. Despite many lucrative offers, Mr. Rattle has been loath to even spend much time visiting elsewhere.

Mr. Rattle has stepped down from the podium at Birmingham and is weighing offers. It is expected that he will again choose to work with one orchestra rather than several.

Michael Tilson Thomas, who in 1995 became the music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, draws praise for doing more than hanging his hat there. Esa-Pekka Salonen gets high marks for his commitment to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as does Leonard Slatkin at Washington's National Symphony.

Commuting conductor

Why would an orchestra prefer an overpaid, absentee landlord to a dedicated resident, especially given that the latter is likely to come much cheaper? Partly, it's the battle for prestige. A provincial orchestra with an off-brand conductor seems doubly provincial.

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