Europeans have the edge -- for good reason

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

With the exception of James Levine, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, each of the most sought-after contenders for the music directorships in Boston, New York and Philadelphia is a European.

This is always the case in such high-level searches, and for years many voices in the classical music world -- mostly those of American critics and conductors -- have decried this state of affairs. They have maintained that American orchestra boards continue to shortchange home-grown talent for what they perceive as "foreign glamour."

This argument -- like others that appeal to patriotism -- is almost entirely specious.

European conductors run most of the world's important orchestras because most of the important conductors are European. And the reason is simple.

The best training for aspiring conductors is the opera house. The training a conductor receives in the theater resembles what interns and residents receive in the best teaching hospitals. It's a night-after-night, around-the-clock job in which emergencies are the normal state of affairs.

An opera conductor must be prepared to master a complicated score -- as well as an orchestra and dozens of singers -- at a moment's notice. He must be prepared to coach a replacement for an indisposed singer. He must command the authority to deal with hundreds of artists, including choreographers, stage designers and directors, all of whom may be as temperamental as a prima donna.

Conductors who receive their training in the opera house are battle-hardened and tested. And with few exceptions, the great conductors of the past -- almost all of them European -- learned their trade in the opera house. Unlike the United States, in which there are only three full-time opera houses, nearly every city in Europe has its own opera company. Aspiring conductors start as rehearsal pianists, become assistant conductors and then, if they are good enough, achieve permanent posts at small houses, from which they hope to work their way to bigger ones and eventually achieve enough prominence to conduct symphony concerts.

It's no accident that the greatest American conductor of his generation and the only one who turns up on every short list in music director searches is Levine, who has spent his entire career at the Met.

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