Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Rating today's conductors

As we chatted during intermission at a recent concert, a friend asked me whom I would rate as the top conductors at work today. I blurted out a top five. Post-blurt, I always have misgivings and second thoughts. Does X really lead the pack? How could I have failed to mention Y? While Z has a huge repertory, breadth doesn’t trump depth. And so on . . .

So, after some time spent reflecting, permit me, as they say in Congress, to revise and extend my remarks.

There are more capable conductors today than at any time in the history of the modern orchestra. It’s not a very long history: The symphony orchestra as we know it, with a permanent roster of 75-100 professional musicians performing from nine to 12 months a year, didn’t exist outside a handful of large cities until well into the 20th century. Most American cities had radio stations, movie theaters and professional sports teams before they had professional orchestras. Richmond had a TV station before it had a symphony.

Orchestral conducting, as we now know it, is an even younger profession. Many of the early greats were composers (Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, Wilhelm Furtwängler), or ascended to the podium from the ranks of orchestras (Theodore Thomas, Arturo Toscanini, Pierre Monteux, Vaclav Talich), or had the means to organize their own orchestra and teach themselves to lead it (Serge Koussevitzky, Thomas Beecham).

Conducting was a craft learned through apprenticeship, typically starting with coaching singers at opera houses, followed by promotion to second- and third-string conducting assignments at the theater, followed by appointment as conductors of progressively larger opera companies and orchestras.

Most conductors of the past had limited repertories, concentrated on music of their generation and the one preceding it, or of their home countries, or of a specific musical period (typically, the romantic). A Monteux, fluent in every style from the baroque to the contemporary and every nationality, was the exception. Now, a conductor who can’t lead credible performances of, say, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Corigliano, isn’t considered ready for prime time.

Conducting as a profession, studied at conservatory and pursued full-time since graduation, is about two generations old. Many of today’s elder maestros, especially the Europeans, are products of the old apprenticeship system. And now, more than in the past, solo instrumentalists are likely to take up conducting in mid-career.

That’s the many-featured horizon to tour before attempting to identify today’s leading conductors. And, as always, a judgment of a conductor’s mettle should balance considerations of technical craft, artistic inspiration, stylistic fluency and charisma as a leader of musicians and a public performer.

Taking all that into account, I find my list topped by a name that probably will surprise you: Charles Mackerras, an 83-year-old Englishman (by way of America and Australia) who studied conducting with Talich and has been active throughout his career in both the opera house and concert hall. He was one of the first mainstream conductors to absorb the lessons of the "historically informed" movement in pre-romantic music and to apply them to the modern orchestra, and is one of the most scrupulous in purging scores of textual inaccuracies and clarifying articulation and dynamics. He is an authoritative and inspired interpreter of music ranging from Handel to Janáček.

Some other elders I rank in the first tier would come as no surprise: Claudio Abbado, perhaps the most inspirational force on the podium today; Colin Davis, another maestro of breadth (Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Dvořák, Elgar, Tippett) and depth; and Pierre Boulez, the composer-conductor who concentrates on music since Mahler but also is a distinguished interpreter of Mozart. My one contra-consensus choice among old-timers is André Previn, who has disappointed a succession of orchestras in the role of music director but consistently has achieved a natural, breathing quality in orchestral performance – something that eludes many of his more highly touted colleagues.

Among conductors in their prime years (say, 50 to 70), tops on my list would include the Latvian-born Mariss Jansons, chief conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (rated the world’s best in a recent Gramophone magazine critics' poll, thanks in large part to Jansons’ leadership); James Levine, who after decades of whipping the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra into world-class shape is now restoring the Boston Symphony to its old glory; Neeme Järvi, patriarch of the Estonian conducting clan, who probably has the most wide-ranging repertory of any conductor at work today and is accomplished, often distinguished, in all of it; David Zinman, who burnished his modernist credentials at home (principally with the Baltimore Symphony) and now is demonstrating mastery of the classical-romantic repertory at the helm of the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zürich; Osmo Vänskä, the Finnish maestro under whose direction the Minnesota Orchestra has vaulted past many more stellar U.S. and European ensembles; and Michael Tilson Thomas, who besides being the inimitable "MTT" who made the San Francisco Symphony something like a pop-cult phenomenon in its hometown has also grown into an interpreter of distinction in a wide range of orchestral music.

Among younger fry, my choices are Esa-Pekka Salonen, the composer-conductor who has transformed the Los Angeles Philharmonic into a virtuoso orchestra with ears keenly attuned to the present and future; David Robertson, who has achieved a similar updating of musical perspective at the St. Louis Symphony but is arguably more firmly grounded than Salonen in "core" classics and romantics; and Jaap van Zweden, the Dutch conductor who recently took over the Dallas Symphony, and makes a stronger case for mainstream Austro-German repertory than most of his contemporaries.

Gustavo Dudamel, who at 28 is the youngest player in the international first string, is a special case: clearly a conductor of high charisma and musicality, maybe the Leonard Bernstein of the 21st century, but still a blank slate in much of the orchestral repertory. We may infer what he would make of Ravel or Bartók, but what of Mozart or Brahms, not to mention Bach or Wagner? Dudamel takes over as music director of the LA Phil this fall; we’ll know more about his range and depth in two or three years.

Conductors of period-instruments ensembles are a collective special case, even though many – most notably, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner – have long since made the transition to conducting modern-instruments orchestras. Among those who still concentrate on baroque and classical repertory with period-instruments bands and early-music singers, I would rate William Christie, Philippe Herreweghe and René Jacobs as the standouts.

Have I omitted some high-powered, highly paid maestros recently, currently or soon to be in command of some high-prestige orchestras? Yep. On purpose? Yep.

POSTSCRIPT: One thing hasn't changed from the old days: Conductors – and classical musicians generally – still are most likely to be most fluent and engaged in music of their own time and of the previous generation (i.e., the generation of their teachers and other role models). This is why so many conductors who deliver white-hot interpretations of Stravinsky and Shostakovich obtain lukewarm readings of Brahms and Schumann. Pre-classical music would seem to be the exception to this rule; but most Renaissance and baroque works, other than a few pieces by Bach and Handel, were not widely performed before the 1950s. (This is also true of some late-romantic repertory, notably Mahler.) So, the two-generation rule holds up even when straight chronology suggests otherwise.