Passing the baton, but to whom?

Several major American orchestras are searching for new directors, but the talent pool is limited

Classical Music

July 11, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The great game of musical chairs -- or, more accurately, of orchestral podiums -- has begun again. And everyone's guessing about who's going where.

The classical music world buzzes with expectations every 10 or 12 years when the music directorships of one or more of the world's major orchestras becomes available. The last round in this sweepstakes occurred in the 1980s when the orchestras of New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Berlin and Chicago were up for grabs. This time the stakes seem even higher, partly because several job searches are taking place simultaneously and because the number of qualified contenders is smaller than ever.

The game began about two years ago, when the music directors of the New York Philharmonic (Kurt Masur), Cleveland Orchestra (Christoph von Dohnanyi), Philadelphia Orchestra (Wolfgang Sawallisch) and Berlin Philharmonic (Claudio Abbado) all announced that they would resign their posts between 2000 and 2002.

But the action only began early last month when the Cleveland Orchestra named Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Most, 38, as Dohnanyi's successor. This was a surprise. Welser-Most is talented, but his status is not commensurate with leadership of one of the world's great orchestras.

Less than three weeks later, two more salvos were fired.

On June 21, Berlin named Sir Simon Rattle, 44, to succeed Abbado.

Two days later, in the biggest surprise of all, Seiji Ozawa announced that in 2003, after a 28-year tenure in Boston, he would leave to become music director of the Vienna State Opera. Ozawa had been in Boston so long that people were beginning to believe that he was music director for life. (As recently as June 20, New York Times music critic Bernard Holland had called Ozawa an "immovable incumbent.")

Another reason for the surprise, however, was that the music prognosticators had failed to factor in the Vienna State Opera as part of this podium Olympiad.

This might seem an extraordinary oversight. With the possible exception of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna State Opera is classical music's pinnacle. Past music directors have included Gustav Mahler, Herbert von Karajan, Karl Bohm and, most recently, Abbado, who had resigned the post in 1991 to devote more time to Berlin. But it was exactly because the State Opera had been without a music director for eight years that the musical oddsmakers had overlooked it.

Ozawa's appointment ratcheted up the shock factor.

The 63-year-old Japanese-born conductor had been condescended to so often by the American (and particularly the New York) press, that music lovers on this side of the Atlantic seemed to have forgotten that Ozawa is regarded as one of the world's great conductors in most places where classical music is revered.

Now, three great orchestras -- the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra -- are in intense competition for the few remaining conductors with the stature and talent for such prestigious posts. The two names that come up most frequently are James Levine, 56, music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Munich Philharmonic, and Christoph Eschenbach, 59, music director of the Chicago Symphony's summer Ravinia Festival, the North German Radio Orchestra in Hamburg, the Orchestra of Paris and past music director of the Houston Symphony.

Cleveland's decision

Cleveland almost certainly made a mistake in choosing Welser-Most over Eschenbach. Eschenbach -- who most likely would have accepted the post -- is a stronger, more experienced conductor. But Cleveland has a tradition, dating back to its appointment of George Szell in 1943, of choosing music directors with conservative, central-European tastes. With his deep interests in Russian and contemporary European and American repertory, Eschenbach may have seemed too strong a figure for an orchestra and board accustomed to the civilized and courtly Dohnanyi.

As it has in past years, Cleveland will probably look to guests such as Eschenbach and Pierre Boulez to provide occasional spice for the regular diet of bratwurst and Wiener schnitzel provided by its regular music director. But Eschenbach's powerful podium personality, his imaginative conducting and off-the-beaten-path repertory (as well as his track record in Houston as a successful American music director) make him most attractive to the three big East Coast orchestras.

As well as the 63-year-old Abbado, there has been speculation about Riccardo Muti, 60, the current music director of La Scala and former music director in Philadelphia; Esa-Pekka Salonen, 40, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Robert Spano, music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and a former assistant in Boston; and even David Zinman, 62, the current music director of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and former music director of the Baltimore Symphony.

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