Friday, April 09, 2010

Golden Age for Conductors

Never in my lifetime have so many jobs for orchestra conductors been available at the same time. A maestro here and there has either passed away, is very ill or has retired for various reasons. There is such a shortage of capable conductors, with some name recognition and good reputation, that many of them have taken more than one orchestra under their wing. Yesterday we learned about Edo de Waart accepting a post in Antwerp, in addition to his present gig in Milwaukee. In his case this might have been a pre-emptive, calculated move, as the Belgian city will make sure its orchestra will exist, no matter how difficult times become. Milwaukee, on the other hand, suffers from the same ailments all American orchestras in this Capitalist system do. The former MD in that orchestra, Andreas Delfs, best known for his work with European youth orchestras, had also taken a second position in Honolulu. That obviously wasn't the smartest of moves as that group presently does not exist or at least doesn't function in its previous form. Mr. de Waart, a Dutch person, has also an advantage with the language: Antwerpen is in Flanders and its denizens speak a language which is almost identical to the one north of the border, in the Netherlands or Holland. My father's forefathers were Flemish Hansa merchants, so I have studied the region well.

Occasionally a well-published and much praised selection of a conductor and/or music director can go wrong. Christoph Eschenbach, a German conductor and a great musician, had a very successful tenure in Houston, but in Philadelphia matters were different. Relationship with both the orchestra and the city's critics turned less than amicable. As a result the orchestra has been without leadership, sailing without a rudder from one crisis to the next. Since the group was regarded at one time as one of the best in the world, it is difficult to comprehend why Philadephia is having such difficulty in finding a new leader. Another "marriage made in heaven", between James Levine and the Boston Symphony, has turned into a messy affair, mainly because of Mr. Levine's ailing health. Instead of being a presence in the local scene, he is seldom seen in the city as he has had to cancel most of his scheduled concerts this year, too. Mr. Levine has tried to assure us he'll be good as new after yet another operation; I am not the only one who doesn't buy this. Luciano Pavarotti kept on insisting he was going to beat his pancreatic cancer, yet a person with any medical training knew how slim his chances were, even to live for a couple years. Yes, Mr. Levine has also had cancer, although in a location where the prognosis isn't as grim, but his issues with back pain are serious, especially for a conductor. Back operations are often promoted by surgeons as using the knife makes them rich, but the outcomes seldom are what the patients envisioned. In Sweden some years ago a comparative study was done between two groups of patients with severe back pain. One group was operated on (Sweden has generally excellent hospital and the Karolinska Institutet is among the top globally speaking), the other received only physical therapy but long-term. The study concluded that the surgically treated patients fared worse at the end. Many in the other group would no doubt have undergone surgery here, yet with intense physical therapy they were able to return to work and normal life. Mr. Levine is quite heavy which cannot be helpful in his situations. He also has conducted sitting down for such a long time that his spine must have adopted an unnatural curve as a result. Not only do I see him saying his farewells to Boston, I also think that his days in the pit of the Metropolitan Opera are numbered. But he has had such a long career: isn't it time to retire and do something more enjoyable and less physically taxing? I'm sure he could manage to teach future conductors on the side a few hours a week. This would be a blessing as there is such a shortage of such teachers who know what they are doing.

If James Levine were to leave the Met or cut back on his work load there, the opera company would become yet another American institution looking for a musical figurehead. Conducting opera is a specialty field: one has to be an excellent accompanist as many of the vocally sensational stars on stage do not know how to count and anything can happen, yet possess strong and intelligent musical ideas of his own. Ideally a great opera conductor should be fluent in all the languages the repertoire calls for, at least Italian, German and French. A maestro barely literate in English simply won't do. A good singing voice doesn't hurt as it is an easy way to communicate with a soprano or a tenor whose English is nonexistent. Talking to them with a New Jersey accent and trying to sing but sounding like a crow with a sore throat can present problems. I'm sure Peter Gelb has his eyes open, although officially everything at the Met is on track. One thing is for sure: Leonard Slatkin won't be the next Levine after his disastrous experiment to the world of Verdi. Will Slatkin remain in Detroit? That depends on the orchestra surviving. Its members and the union are steadfast in their demands of continuing pay increases which, short of someone donating a few hundred million dollars to them, is an impossible scenario. General Motors is finally supposedly making money again. It took a trip to the land of bankruptcy and starting anew. Being an auto worker today is not what is used to be, that is for sure.

Presently just about any decent American conductor, or a foreigner with a work permit for that matter, has a  whole world of opportunities waiting. Boston, for instance, has had to hire guests to take Levine's place. Even Carlos Kalmar from the Oregon Symphony has been among those invited. The latter group may be stuck in a financial rut but at least they are all pulling together to get out. And in Mr. Kalmar they have a capable leader, a person who unites rather than tears his band apart. I would like to see them succeed, more so than a big-budget group full of self-importance. A maestro, who presently is in charge of a regional third tier group but who has the goods required, may well be discovered in no time at all as demand is at an all-time high. Yes, there must be quite a few truly talented people hiding out there. Board and search committees need to know where to look and also be brave to take a challenge, risky as it may seem at first.

I don't envy all the groups in need of leadership and financial stability. They need lots of good luck and foresight, but also to remember that the reasons for their present situation are often self-evident and should be dealt with. If an orchestra cannot afford to pay sky-high salaries to its musicians, conductors and soloists, then it shouldn't. The often-heard threat of people running to greener pastures is sheer nonsense. Did the GM workers pack their bags and move to Germany to build new Porsches and BMWs?
Carlos Kalmar, Oregon Symphony