Arts - Summer 2013

Musical Chairs

A veteran cellist with the National Symphony takes a close look at the entrances and exits of world-famous conductors

By Janet Frank | June 10, 2013


When the National Symphony Orchestra appointed Antal Doráti music director, the Hungarian-born conductor brought with him a distinguished musical pedigree that included years as head of the BBC and Stockholm orchestras as well as a series of heralded recordings with the Minneapolis Symphony (now known as the Minnesota Orchestra). As his tenure in Washington wore on, however, Doráti’s relationship with the NSO board of directors deteriorated. Doráti exuded Old World serenity and reserve (he was always elegantly coifed and dressed, sometimes in a Bela Lugosi cape), but when the board refused to go along with yet another project he had initiated, Doráti would vent his frustration without subtlety. “We’ll show those shitheads!” he once cried out to us orchestra players in his high-pitched voice (around F above middle C). For seven years his bravado worked—until it no longer did and he was suddenly going to be out of a job. Soon thereafter, he was appointed music director of the Detroit Symphony.

That was in the 1970s, a decade after the era when leading American orchestras and a conductor’s name were inseparable—George Szell meant Cleveland, Eugene Ormandy meant Philadelphia, Fritz Reiner meant Chicago, and Leonard Bernstein meant New York. Today, most music directors have multiple orchestras, and turnover is frequent. Everyone wants to hire a perfect superstar who will revive all fortunes, and when one disappoints, another arrives fast.

These past few years have seen an unusual amount of churn in orchestra leadership. The recession has played a role, having brought some organizations—including the Philadelphia Orchestra—to or near bankruptcy. But most of it has had to do with comings and goings. Several major orchestras, including those in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston, are, or are about to be, led by someone new on the job.

The NSO, in which I play cello, has had six music directors, and I have played under five of them. Each arrived under different circumstances. The two most recent hires, Leonard Slatkin and Christoph Eschenbach, were chosen on the recommendation of search committees that included board members, management staff, and musicians, the last having veto power. Slatkin’s selection in 1996 was the first time NSO musicians were involved in such a search. No one wanted a repetition of what happened in Cleveland in 1972, when the majority of the players did not want Lorin Maazel and made its displeasure known to the press. In a vote, all but two musicians were against him, and board members also expressed dissatisfaction with the choice. In his book, The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None, Donald Rosenberg describes the unrest at the hiring of Maazel. He quotes Berton Siegel, a violinist: “We do not like his music-making. It doesn’t fit in with the legacy of the Szell tradition.” More recently, in 2005 in Baltimore, the musicians resented not being part of the hiring process and publicly complained about Marin Alsop’s appointment. Since then things have quieted down, and her contract has been extended to 2015.

The title conductor is often used interchangeably with music director, but they are not synonymous. A conductor waves the baton, but a music director must also hire and fire, decide what to perform and what to commission, launch special projects, and raise funds. Whether anyone can play all these roles well has sometimes been a topic of controversy. Erich Leinsdorf, long a freelance conductor and a one-time music director of the Boston Symphony, was an outspoken skeptic of the post of music director, telling New York magazine in 1988, “No one can handle an administrative post these days and be an active performer,” adding that most musicians “aren’t temperamentally suited to it anyway.” Orchestra boards, however, tend to feel otherwise.

The NSO’s most recent searches began with a set of needs, some listed and some just understood. Among the requirements were renown, fundraising ability, reputation as an “orchestra builder,” and availability. Unstated was that the new music director should be a superb musician with new insights into the standard repertoire and an understanding of every instrument in the orchestra. Candidates should also have the ability to discern the quality of a new piece of music and, better yet, commission new compositions from great composers. Sometimes the NSO list included a reaction to the previous music director. After the 17-year tenure as music director of Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, a significant requirement was that candidates should be American. After Los Angeles-born Leonard Slatkin’s 11-year tenure, during which he programmed pieces on subscription concerts that normally would be played on pops concerts as well as new music considered difficult to listen to, a main requirement was that his replacement should be a person of renown with a strong background in traditional repertoire.

The first music director of the NSO, Hans Kindler, had a talent for evaluating new works. As a cellist he had performed the modern works of the day, pieces by Arnold Schoenberg and Maurice Ravel, who were his friends, and he advised Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a famous patron of music who sponsored Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, and other composers. It was in premiering such a commission, Stravinsky’s ballet Apollon Musagète in 1928, that Kindler first appeared as a conductor in Washington, with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Deciding to devote his time to conducting, he founded the NSO in 1931. I suspect that his relationship with Mrs. Coolidge went beyond ordinary friendship, but I admit to having no good evidence. Certainly, though, Kindler exerted a strong influence on Coolidge’s choices for commissions.

Kindler saw to it that many new works were performed by his fledgling group. Our NSO library numbers each piece of music on file according to the chronological order in which it was acquired. In Kindler’s repertoire, Richard Strauss’s Don Juan is number 19 in the library, ahead of most of the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. Brahms’s Second Symphony is number 77. Because of Kindler’s desire to champion the works of modern composers, the NSO owns many works by Aaron Copland from the 1940s. That means that when the NSO wants to perform works by Copland, it doesn’t pay rent for orchestral parts and conductors’ scores.

Sometimes music directors may be composers themselves, and since they select what’s played, they can often perform their works with their own orchestras. The New York Philharmonic has had three such men at the podium: Gustav Mahler (1909–1911), Bernstein (1958–1969), and Pierre Boulez (1971–1977). The National Symphony has had one such leader, but his skills as a composer were not appreciated. A performance in the early 1970s of Doráti’s 95-minute-long cantata, Le Chemin de la Croix (The Way of the Cross), was one of the most unpopular concerts in NSO history. From the cello section I kept seeing the concert hall doors on all sides opening and shutting as more and more people left. By the time we had finished, hundreds of audience members had fled. We in the orchestra nicknamed the piece “Exodus.”

The concept of orchestra builder, aside from developing an orchestra’s overall sound, is a tricky one: it is considered by some an excuse for firing people so that the seats can be filled by players of the conductor’s choosing. Doráti was considered an orchestra builder, but ironically, soon after his arrival in Washington, the great clarinetist Harold Wright left to be principal in Boston. Firings are rare, and most people who leave orchestras do so for more attractive jobs (like Wright, to work in one of the so-called Big Five orchestras with more salary), or to retire.

As an effective orchestra builder, Doráti did increase the NSO repertoire to include many works that were standard elsewhere. Two such “new” pieces, both by Bartók, who had been one of Doráti’s teachers when in Budapest, were The Miraculous Mandarin and Bluebeard’s Castle. Doráti also arranged for the NSO to record La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus Christ, a gargantuan, 14-movement work for choir and orchestra by Olivier Messiaen. Though the conductor may have deserved accolades for idealistic effort, the board was unimpressed with the sales totals after the first several months—rumored to be 88 copies.

Rostropovich, the NSO’s music director immediately following Doráti, was hired by Martin Feinstein, who was executive director of the Kennedy Center, the orchestra’s home. Feinstein had arranged for Rostropovich to conduct the NSO in a phenomenally successful concert that included Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Backstage after the show, Feinstein was saying to anyone who would listen, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have him as music director?” My answer—the perspective of a cellist—was yes.

Timing was perfect for the NSO board, whose members, feeling that they had tangled enough with Doráti, jumped at the opportunity to grab the world-famous Rostropovich. During that late-1970s Cold War period, the prospect of hiring a Soviet exile to lead the orchestra in the nation’s capital must have been hard to resist. The news was delivered to Doráti right before he was to conduct Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. He gathered the musicians before the concert and said he was so upset that he would be unable to lead the performance. He could only conduct such a difficult work from memory, he explained, and relying on the printed score that evening would do him no good. We in the orchestra urged him to go ahead with the program and promised to do everything we could to assure a fine performance—no matter what happened on the podium. We made good on our promise, and that night the Rite was a memorable success.

Before taking control of the NSO, Rostropovich had almost no track record as a conductor. But he easily overcame this potential handicap in other ways. His concerts were exciting, and creating excitement is certainly one of the crucial, if unspoken, qualities of a successful musical leader. He had friends who regularly dropped by to perform: artists such as flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, trumpeter Maurice André, tenor Peter Pears, violinist Isaac Stern, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He could count great composers as his friends: Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, and Bernstein all wrote pieces for him because, as one composer put it to me, “Rostropovich has the knack of getting the notes off the page and into the ear better than anyone.”

Boards in search of a conductor of renown naturally look for a mature musician. Orchestras in Chicago (Riccardo Muti) and Washington (Eschenbach) have chosen older conductors who made their reputations elsewhere. Some selection boards, however, are more adventurous. In Los Angeles, the most recent two choices, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel, were young (34 and 28, respectively) when appointed. Now East Coast orchestras are following the trend toward youth on the podium. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is 38, and Andris Nelsons, named music director designate of the Boston Symphony on May 16, is only 34.

A candidate’s country of origin may play a role in Chicago and Philadelphia, where boards have yet to pick a native-born American. The New York Philharmonic, on the other hand, is already on its third American conductor, Alan Gilbert.

Fundraising ability is also a big part of the pedigree that boards of directors look for, but not all music directors do it well. Daniel Barenboim couldn’t stand the fundraising and socializing component of his job and eventually felt he had to leave Chicago. By contrast, Slatkin has said that he enjoys the development part of being a music director, and he’s happy socializing and talking about sports and movies. Last September, Nézet-Séguin was spotted at the box office greeting ticket buyers, which The Philadelphia Inquirer compared to an airline pilot taking beverage orders.

Orchestras themselves have personalities, too, and this plays into the choice of music director. Ensembles can be lumped into two types: those that play with an established identity no matter who is conducting, and those that change according to the conductor. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam falls into the first category. The American Symphony, when I was in it with Leopold Stokowski as music director, fell into the second. Many of the world’s greatest orchestras are in the first category, but the second category is increasingly common and, I fear, desired. Many boards want the orchestra to be a pure extension of the music director, and so do many conductors. This does, however, place heavy demands on the conductor. It takes a special musician and manager to work with a group of a hundred or so superb musicians, each with a point of view, and convince them that his or her interpretation is worthy of pursuing. But I have come to know that the best conductors inspire the players and are, in turn, inspired by them.

One consideration no one wants to acknowledge is what the music critics, and often just one powerful critic, will say. You might expect the influence of a critic on a daily newspaper to be nonexistent, and indeed most performers deny that they ever read criticism. But they all do, or they hear about it from someone else. Doráti had such a difficult time accepting the harsh criticism from George Gelles in The Washington Star that he refused to conduct if Gelles was in the hall. In a 1975 letter to Joe Albritton, owner of the Star, the conductor wrote, “Personally I have decided to distantiate [sic] myself from Mr. Gelles, because I do not wish to contribute to making him an ‘interesting’ figure. From Mr. Gelles’ vicious, abominable performance … it is clear that he is a pathological case. It seems to me that he belongs either in a hospital, maybe in jail, I do not know which.”

Rostropovich understood the political influence of critics, but his attempts to outmaneuver them were not always successful. Word at one point went around that he had made a false move and tried to persuade Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, to hire Ted Libbey (later the author of an NSO history) as the lead music critic. She refused. Rostropovich, however, did know exactly how to handle Paul Hume, the longtime Post music critic known to journalism students as the one who panned Margaret Truman’s singing and, as a result, received a furious letter from her father, President Harry Truman. (Hume sold the letter in 1951 for enough money—$3,500, according to the Truman archives—to cover the down payment on a house in an upscale section of Northwest Washington.) Once, we were rehearsing a piece with the University of Maryland Chorus, of which Paul Traver was the conductor. Traver was seated in the concert hall, and so was Hume. From the podium, Rostropovich turned around to ask, “Paul, how is the balance?” When Traver started to answer, Rostropovich interrupted, “No, no, not you. Paul Hume.”

Looking back over the tenures of the past four music directors of the NSO, I am convinced that Washington’s music critics played a large part in hastening the departures of each of them. Howard Mitchell, who preceded Doráti, was “provincial,” Doráti was “awkward and lax,” Rostropovich was “only good with Russian music,” and Slatkin was “uninvolved.” Never mind that Doráti went on to a successful tenure with the Detroit Symphony or that Rostropovich’s interpretations of non-Russian music seem to have been perfectly satisfying to Britten and Henri Dutilleux, both of whom wrote pieces specifically for Rostropovich to debut. In recent years, critics have, if anything, become even harsher. I sometimes wonder if perhaps they prepare for live performances by listening to recordings that have been heavily spliced together and balanced by engineers.

There is no science behind pairing an orchestra with a compatible conductor. Doráti once said that a conductor should not stay with an orchestra for more than seven years, although he seemed unhappy when the board wound up agreeing with him. And yet Zubin Mehta, who has held several concurrent posts in the United States and Europe, has been in charge of the Israel Philharmonic since 1969.

After all, if there were a formula, would it be art?

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