Conductors, their critics,♦
and their prima donna musicians
Several major American orchestras are in transition at the moment. Two of them have decided to go with youth: the New York Philharmonic, in replacing Loren Maazel with Alan Gilbert, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, taking its brave chance with the even younger Gustavo Dudamel. Then there’s the flap about the Chicago Symphony’s hire of Riccardo Muti, which the New York Phil seems to regard as a jilting.
It’s no secret that New York wanted Muti, not only in preference to Gilbert but also to Maazel, who served up chloroform during his tenure. The one orchestra that was obviously not in the running for Muti’s services was Philadelphia’s. On the other hand, Philadelphia didn’t need a conductor, having a quite satisfactory one in Christoph Eschenbach.
Why Eschenbach was shown the door remains, as my friend Dan Coren observes, a mystery (see “Eschenbach’s Mysterious Failure”). One local critic complained regularly about Eschenbach’s tempos and his rubato, and others may have shared this view. I can only say I found his performances refreshing, especially after the stodginess of the Sawallisch era.
Bernstein suffered too
It might be recalled that New York critics were merciless toward Leonard Bernstein during his tenure in New York, which is now regarded as a golden age, and that they made the same complaints about his predecessor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, that were leveled at Eschenbach: undisciplined rehearsals, erratic tempos and so forth. Mitropoulos, too, has been posthumously anointed a genius.
It also seems that Eschenbach and the Orchestra never got off on the right foot. The musicians felt management had imposed him on them. Modern orchestras like to achieve a comfort level with a conductor before they accept him, as if there were no more important qualification. Muti inherited an orchestra whose edge needed whetting after the last years of Ormandy, and he made it a leaner— not a more comfortable— instrument. Eschenbach may have wanted more spontaneity out of it than it was accustomed to giving, and perhaps that was his sin. I cannot say he never had a bad concert, but I heard plenty of good ones.
Treading water since Muti
The prima donna orchestra syndrome doesn’t afflict Philadelphia alone. The New York Philharmonic, by throwing a tantrum over Muti, has clouded the coming tenure of Gilbert. Philadelphia, which refused Eschenbach five more years, now finds itself committed for four to Charles Dutoit, a man it has passed over before and regards as no more than a caretaker. That’s progress?
Except for Eschenbach’s abbreviated tenure, the Orchestra has been treading water since Muti left in 1992 in a justifiable huff over the city’s failure to replace the antiquated Academy of Music. Muti knows well enough that New York’s Avery Fisher Hall is an acoustical disaster, and he knows as well that Verizon Hall is not terribly better. Philadelphia’s musicians may have voted with their feet against Eschenbach, but Muti voted with his ear for Chicago. He knows where the music he can make will be heard as it should be.
Dutoit’s forthcoming tenure is limited, but Verizon Hall’s deficiencies remain, and those who wish to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra as it can truly sound will have to accompany it to New York for its Carnegie Hall performances. Arguments about the ugliness and fragmentation of the Kimmel Center’s interior beg the real question: Why is one of the world’s great orchestras going to be led by a second-tier conductor in a third-rate hall?
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To read a related commentary by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
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