Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hope over experience?

"The triumph of hope over experience," Samuel Johnson’s quip about second marriages, could be the new courtship philosophy of orchestras in search of music directors.

This week, the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra tapped as its next maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a 35-year-old Canadian who previously had led the Philadelphians in just two programs. Nézet-Séguin has earned a lot of critical plaudits (notably for conducting a production of Bizet's "Carmen" earlier this season at the Metropolitan Opera); but up till now his principal podium has been at the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal, not the usual springboard to an orchestra of Philly's stature.

Nézet-Séguin is the latest in a succession of under-40 conductors to take over artistic direction of major orchestras in recent years.

The most stellar of the young guns, of course, is Gustavo Dudamel, 29, wrapping up his first season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Young conductors are making especially big waves at British orchestras: 33-year-old Vasily Petrenko at the Liverpool Philharmonic, 31-year-old Andris Nelsons at the City of Birmingham Symphony, 27-year-old Robin Ticciati at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, 38-year-old Vladimir Jurowski at the London Philharmonic. Other highly touted young Brits have recently taken over orchestras across the Channel: 34-year-old Daniel Harding at the Swedish Radio Symphony, 38-year-old Karel Mark Chicon at the German Radio Philharmonic Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern.

Alan Gilbert, completing his first season as music director of the New York Philharmonic, barely missed the under-40 cut when he secured that appointment. Another New Yorker, James Gaffigan, who turns 31 this year, has been named conductor at the Lucerne Philharmonic in Switzerland and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. Stéphane Denève, a 38-year-old Frenchman, is taking over the Stuttgart Radio Symphony.

Winner of the youthful-conductor sweepstakes – so far – is Alexander Prior, a 17-year-old Brit who scored a conducting fellowship with the Seattle Symphony.

Young classical musicians generally are rising faster – and ever-younger – these days, and the emergence of youthful conductors is accelerating naturally as illness sidelines some elders (James Levine, Seiji Ozawa) and advancing age has led others (Claudio Abbado, Kurt Masur, Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez, Charles Mackerras) to cut back on their commitments or go into near-retirement. (Lorin Maazel is the exception: At 80, he stepped down from the New York Philharmonic, and promptly launched a music festival at Castleton, his estate in Rappahannock County, VA, and took over orchestras in Munich and Valencia, Spain.)

As music-director vacancies open at major U.S. orchestras – Seattle, Cincinnati, Boston if Levine doesn’t recover – the grapevine of critics and patrons is buzzing with talk of renewing vitality with youthful leadership. Nézet-Séguin’s Philadelphia appointment surely will amplify such talk.

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Buzz notwithstanding, many orchestras have resisted joining the maestro youth cult.

The Chicago Symphony’s incoming music director is Riccardo Muti, who turns 69 next month. Christoph Eschenbach, 70, begins his first season as music director of Washington’s National Symphony in the fall. Edo de Waart, 69, and Leonard Slatkin, 65, are wrapping up their second seasons as music directors of the Milwaukee and Detroit symphonies, respectively.

Other major U.S. orchestras naming new music directors over the past decade have opted for middle-aged maestros with lengthy resumés: Osmo Vänskä in Minnesota, Manfred Honeck in Pittsburgh, Hans Graf in Houston, Jaap van Sweden in Dallas, Grant Llewellyn in North Carolina. Marin Alsop’s appointment in Baltimore four years ago sparked some sniping about supposed inexperience; but she was 50 years old and had been music director of five orchestras.

The music-director finalists auditioned by the Richmond Symphony over the past two seasons were markedly older than the conductors who vied for the post in the previous two rounds. The orchestra selected Steven Smith, who at 50 is its oldest incoming maestro since its founding conductor, Edgar Schenkman.

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Maturity doesn’t necessarily equate with musically conservative inclination. Smith, who is an active composer and well-known advocate of contemporary music, could turn out to be 50-going-on-30 in his programming practices – as Alsop proved to be in Baltimore.

Smith’s best-known predecessor in Richmond, George Manahan, turns 60 this year. This old-timer is music director of the New York City Opera, a company long known for staging modern and contemporary works, and is set to take over the American Composers Orchestra, the premier new-music orchestra in this country.

Muti, who is among the oldest fully active first-tier elders, marked his appointment in Chicago by naming two young composers, Richmond-bred Mason Bates and the English-born New Yorker Anna Clyne, as co-curators of a new contemporary music series. Slatkin, Vänskä, Michael Tilson Thomas, Simon Rattle and other gray-hairs are also active proponents of modern and contemporary music and active users of new media and new spaces for presenting it.

Passing the baton to a young conductor is not the only way, nor necessarily the best way, to propel an orchestra into the future.