Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Shocking And Depressing State Of Affairs

The Wiener Staatsoper announced today that Franz Welser-Most will assume the post of Music Director in 2010.

Exactly six months ago (December 6), I mentioned on my blog that Welser-Most would be the next Music Director in Vienna. A couple of strangers sent me email messages, telling me that I was wrong. I responded to the email messages, and I told the senders that Welser-Most's appointment had already been arranged, and that it was a mere case of waiting for the final details to be worked out and the public announcement to be issued.

Welser-Most is one of only two top-rank conductors who now regularly works in the United States with American orchestras (the other is Lorin Maazel). Welser-Most will be leaving the Cleveland Orchestra when his current contract expires in 2012, although this will not be publicly announced any time soon. After Welser-Most leaves Cleveland, and after Maazel ends his tenure with the New York Philharmonic, the United States--for the first time--will not have a single top-level conductor working with an American orchestra.

This is a shocking and depressing state of affairs.

I cannot blame Welser-Most for planning to leave Cleveland, as he is not happy with many aspects of musical life in the United States.

He is not happy, for instance, that the local critic in Cleveland, Donald Rosenberg, detests him. He is not happy that American music critics do not recognize the high quality of his work in Cleveland and carp about him, ceaselessly, while simultaneously and unaccountably lavishing praise upon such marginal and unimportant figures as Marin Alsop, Alan Gilbert, Kent Nagano, David Robertson and Robert Spano, none of whom as musicians or as conductors are remotely in Welser-Most's league (but all of whom are American). He is not happy that American listeners and American critics seem uninterested in hearing new European musical compositions, preferring instead to rest their ears with the unthreatening pop-derived music of John Adams. He is not happy that today's finest conductors--Abbado, Barenboim, Chailly, Gatti, Jansons, Rattle, Temirkanov, Thielemann--can no longer be enticed to come to the U.S. and work with American orchestras for any meangingful period of time (if they can be enticed to come at all).

I fear that American musical life is becoming more and more parochial, and I further fear that it is only going to get worse in coming years. This trend toward parochialism is being cheered on by young American music critics in New York and Los Angeles, critics who use their forums, aggressively, to lobby on behalf of third-rate American composers and third-rate American conductors, none of whom measures up to the finest of their European counterparts.

Fifty years ago, American orchestras enjoyed the services of Antal Dorati, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch, Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Reiner, William Steinberg and George Szell.

Today's list of American-born and American-trained podium figures in charge of North American orchestras--Marin Alsop, Keith Lockhart, James Levine, Kent Nagano, David Robertson, Gerard Schwarz, Leonard Slatkin, Robert Spano, Michael Tilson Thomas--is pretty depressing in comparison to a list of their predecessors from fifty years ago. At its best, this current list of American conductors is comprised of a couple of second-raters, with the rest all far worse than that.

Is it any wonder that America's musical public is staying away from concerts in droves?


  1. Dear Drew80 -- please spend some time in San Francisco and listen to what MTT and the SF Symphony have been doing. I must totally disagree with your statement that there is no "single top-level conductor working with an American orchestra." That is simply youthful, arrogant hyperbole. I would have suspected better from someone with your obvious sensitivity and cultural background.

  2. I have heard the San Francisco Symphony many times--in New York, in Washington, and in San Francisco--and I will hear the orchestra again in London soon.

    The San Francisco Symphony is a regional ensemble, nothing more. Its level of technical proficiency and musicianship is below that of the orchestras of Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Saint Louis.

    This signifies that the San Francisco Symphony is not even among America's top DOZEN orchestras.

    The San Francisco Symphony's current peer group is comprised of the orchestras in Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington, not exactly an exalted group.

    The chief deficiencies of the orchestra are its variable intonation, its low level of ensemble (lack of accuracy and lack of unanimity of ensemble, lack of uniformity of attack and release, a sound quality that varies considerably as dynamic levels vary, etc.), its string sound (woefully unsophisticated--opaque, thick, dull, undifferentiated, and incapable of rhythmic and coloristic nuance and subtlety), the lack of balance among different sections of the orchestra (perhaps the worst anywhere), and a brass section that is one of the poorest to be heard.

    Apparently the orchestra's level of ensemble improved considerably during the decade in which Herbert Blomstedt was the Music Director, but even Blomstedt--a very noted orchestra builder, and whose skills in that area were the reason why he was hired in San Francisco in the first place--could only do so much with the ensemble. Blomstedt succeeded in bringing the orchestra's quality up to a certain basic level, but he was not able to do anything beyond that. Orchestral musicians will tell you that the orchestra's current level of ensemble is slightly below the level at the very conclusion of the Blomstedt tenure. This can come as no surprise, because Tilson Thomas has never been regarded as an orchestra builder.

    One of the reasons that West Coast orchestras have never been able to surmount the regional level is because the very best orchestral musicians always have gravitated toward orchestral openings in the East, first and especially those in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia, where prestige has always been greatest. (This has been a long-term problem in Minneapolis and Saint Louis, too, where the very best musicians always seem to leave for Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia.)

    When the San Francisco Symphony appears on the East Coast, about half of the reviewers note how poor the orchestra sounds and how poorly the orchestra plays. The other half of the reviewers pointedly ignore the level of ensemble, perhaps because Michael Tilson Thomas is so popular right now.

    I recommend that you go back and read reviews of the San Francisco Symphony's New York appearances over the last decade at The reviewer is an idiot, but he DOES note the orchestra's profoundly serious technical deficiencies. I also recommend that you read the reader comments posted in conjunction with the December 2006 New York Sun article about America's finest orchestras. In those comments, a lot of regular New York concert-goers, who hear orchestras from all over the country and from all over the world, every year, took the San Francisco Symphony to the cleaners.

    Myself, I wish that your orchestra were better. San Francisco has a very large and a very enthusiastic audience, hardly any of whom realize that the local ensemble is not among the country's elite. There is a night-and-day difference between the Pittsburgh Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony, let alone an ocean-wide gulf between the Cleveland Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony, and casual concert-goers in San Francisco are completely unaware of this fact.

    However, I grant you that the San Francisco Symphony has a good marketing department, perhaps the best in the country. It relentlessly promotes the orchestra as "world class", which it most assuredly is not.

  3. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has had an unusual career. He never fulfilled his early great promise and he never emjoyed a happy orchestra position until he arrived in San Francisco.

    He was not successful in his only major orchestral appointment, when he was conductor of the London Symphony, London's finest orchestra, for seven years in the late 1980's and early 1990's. He was not a success with the orchestra musicians, he was not a success with the public, and he was not a success with the London critics. (It was poor attendance that ultimately cost him his London job.)

    He has never been successful in guest-conducting engagements with America's top-tier orchestras. The musicians of the Chicago Symphony, the musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra and the musicians of the New York Philharmonic did not think highly of him, and he was not invited back.

    He has never been successful with Europe's top-tier orchestras, either. The musicians of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic and the musicians of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra did not think highly of him, and he was not invited back. I do not believe that he has ever been engaged by the Dresden Staatskapelle or by the Vienna Philharmonic, but I might be wrong (he WAS engaged by the Vienna Symphony in the 1980's, but he was not liked and not invited back). He has never been engaged at La Scala, the Wiener Staatsoper, the Bavarian Staatsoper, the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, the Staatsoper Unter Den Linden or the Deutsche Oper.

    This is hardly a major career, by any stretch of the imagination, is it?

    Why is this so? I think that Herbert Von Karajan had the seeds of an answer.

    Karajan said that there were two kinds of conductors: those who were as good as they were going to get by the time they reached the age of 35, and those who were not any good at all until they reached the age of 35, at which point they got better for the rest of their lives. (Karajan, naturally, exempted himself from any such classification.) Conductors in the latter category, according to Karajan, were the good ones. Conductors in the first category, according to Karajan, were the "fill-ins", destined to work with second-tier ensembles (or worse) for their entire careers.

    American conductors (and English ones, too, for that matter), always seem to fall into category number one. Whether it be James Levine, Andrew Litton, Kent Nagano, Andre Previn, Gerard Schwarz, Leonard Slatkin or MIchael Tilson Thomas, these conductors were as good as they were ever going to be at age 35. They never got any better from that time forward. (British examples from this category are Andrew Davis and Mark Elder.)

    There are exceptions, of course, and I can think of two American conductors who were not good until AFTER age 35, but who are now better each time I hear them: Myung-Whun Chung and Antonio Pappano, neither of whom works in the U.S. any longer.

    Was Karajan accurate about his two categories of conductors? I have no idea, but I cannot help but observe that most conductors DO fall, clearly, into one category or the other.

    Karajan said that the reason for this phenomenon was because good conductors required lots of depth and spirituality, which demanded lots of time to develop, slowly and independently and organically. Conductors who were successful at age 35 were, according to Karajan, "facile" and were doomed to carry that quality with them for their entire careers.

    Whether or not Karajan was correct, I cannot help but notice that most of today's finest conductors are products of "Karajan's Rule": Claudio Abbado, Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly, Colin Davis, Ivan Fischer and Bernard Haitink were no good at all until AFTER age 35, at which point they all continued to get better and better and better with each passing year.

    Tilson Thomas is obviously not from the Abbado-Boulez-Chailly-Davis-Fischer-Haitink mold. He has had a second-tier career consistent with his second-tier talent.

    Is there a single composer, major or minor, whose music Tilson Thomas conducts at a profoundly high level? The answer is "No".

    Is there a single school of composers whose music Tilson Thomas has mastered better than any of his peers? The answer is "No".

    Tilson Thomas is today's prime, prototypical example of "Karajan's Rule", and his career fully reflects that.

  4. I am actually interested in your comments on James Levine, a conductor I have heard regularly since the mid-70’s. He is, most certainly, a talent who HAS improved a great deal in the last thirty-years. In Verdi and in French music, to my ear at least, he continues to refine and discover aspects in scores which prove to be consistently revelatory.

    His Boston concerts of almost any part of the repertoire take place at an extremely high level of accomplishment and throw in shadow the drudgery of the preceding Ozawa years (most assuredly NOT an interesting talent at all).

    I am curious, too, as to who the “orchestral musicians” you refer to might be? With whom, sitting the ensembles you mention, to you correspond regarding these issues?

    One can’t help put point out that Levine that he has enjoyed a notable international career.

    If you can manage to do so, I would highly recommend attending the annual student orchestra concert at Tanglewood each summer. The afternoon rehearsals and evening performance are often a primer in orchestral leadership. The performances are always fantastic as well; the kids play as thought their lives were at stake and it’s inspiring music-making.

  5. Well Andrew, you are certainly entitled to your opinion and I appreciate your taking the time to articulate it so thoroughly. I'm afraid we will just have to agree to disagree on this one. I have a much higher opinion of MTT and the SFS. While not a professional musician, I do have a degree in music (UC Berkeley), and I have seen and/or heard most of the world's great orchestras and conductors over some 30+ years of concert-going and record-listening. I am also a subscriber to the SFS and see them live many, many times each year, and am often thrilled at the level of musicianship and exciting programming.

    What does disturb me about your post is the certainty and arrogance with which you extrapolate your personal opinion as absolute undisputed fact. You also tend often to hyperbole (e.g., "the lack of balance among different sections of the orchestra (perhaps the worst anywhere), and a brass section that is one of the poorest to be heard"). To my mind, this kind of absolutism applied to the fluid world of performance is rigid and naive, and inappropriate for truly valid arts criticism.

    In this subjective world of arts criticism, it is always possible to find others to substantiate your own point of view. I must admit to having a chuckle over the fact that the one specific citation you offer is from someone you consider an idiot. Allow me to share some other quotes to bring a more balanced perspective to this discussion. Granted, these are taken from the SFS web site, and you may wish to dismiss them as part of the SFS marketing machine, but I think they do show that there are many others who do not share your dismissive opinion.

    "At a time when America’s major orchestras are struggling to define their missions and maintain audiences, the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas is an exception."
    --The New York Times

    "Night after night this month I sat in Davies, marveling not only at the music itself...but also at the sense of electricity and enthusiasm that was evident throughout the hall. I routinely heard the kind of impassioned applause that is usually reserved for the most extroverted displays of musical showmanship. I saw delirious grins on the faces of patrons who had come not knowing quite what to expect – and then found the results far more thrilling than they could have imagined."
    --San Francisco Chronicle

    "The multiple textures and clashing rhythms interlock with spontaneous ease; the playing proves that the SFS remains one of the world’s most immaculate ensembles."
    --The Guardian

    "The San Francisco Symphony has undergone a transformation. Woodwinds dance merrily, the brass resonates nobly, and the strings speak as one; overall, performances crackle with new-found vigor."

    "In most places, and certainly in London, the presence of many of the [American Mavericks Festival] composers - from Charles Ives to John Adams to Steve Reich - would have emptied halls. But the audiences in San Francisco have been large, varied, attentive, and enthusiastic. Something quite special, perhaps even revolutionary, is going on."
    --The Times (London)

    "In the presence of such music-making and such a fascinating program, questions about where the San Francisco Symphony ranks among American orchestras (the ‘top five’ debate) seem pointless."
    --The New York Times

    "The San Francisco Symphony, led since 1995 by the brilliant and musically restless Michael Tilson Thomas, gave the kind of performance Saturday evening that proves yet again that the best is the enemy of the better."
    --The Washington Post

    " of the most beautiful orchestral sonorities of the day, that of the San Francisco Symphony."
    --Le Monde

    "Stravinsky is rarely performed with such brilliance, precision, togetherness, power and structure."
    --Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

    "If there is one lesson that other orchestras might take from Mr. Thomas’s success it is that being a strong conductor is only one part of the job. Another is being a music director: that is, a dynamic cultural leader who can proselytize, educate, reach out to composers, schools, other artistic organizations."
    --The New York Times

    "Can every conductor be MTT? Obviously not, but every conductor can learn from him the value of bringing a sense of adventure back to the concert hall."
    --The Toronto Star

    "The orchestra didn’t just sustain a level of playing unprecedented since Tilson Thomas became music director three years ago, exciting though that was. More important, he evinced a mastery of [Mahler’s] daunting formal schemes that yielded interpretations at once more consolidated and daring."
    --Financial Times

    "No recent union of an American conductor and an American orchestra has sent so many excited ripples across the symphonic landscape as that of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony."
    --Chicago Tribune

    "Tilson Thomas's superfine ear coaxes textures of almost impressionistic transparency in (Mahler's) ravishingly lovely score."
    --The Sunday Times (London)

    Thanks for allowing me to post on your blog and offer a somewhat different perspective.

  6. James Levine. Oh, dear. I hate to get started.

    Two or three months ago, playwright Albert Innaurato capsulized Levine's career perfectly on Opera List. If you go to Opera List, and do a search for Innaurato's posts, you can read what he had to say. I thought that it was one of the most accurate and telling characterizations any American would ever dare to write about Levine, one of America's sacred cows.

    You can read my thoughts about Levine on, where there was a very extended discussion about him last December. I started it, unwittingly, and I was surprised that there were so many other persons coming out of the woodwork who did not believe that Levine was any good, either. That particular post, I believe, attracted the largest number of comments ever on

    Levine is competent. In fact, he is highly competent, as competent as any musician alive today. Erich Leinsdorf was highly competent, too, and I believe that both musicians are veritably clones of each other: competent, but with little else to recommend them.

    The Chicago Symphony, a great orchestra and an orchestra whose members were and are great judges of conductors, never for a minute considered Levine to be a candidate to replace Solti, despite the fact that the orchestra had worked with Levine for years and years and years at Ravinia. The only American conductor who was given ANY consideration to replace Solti was Leonard Slatkin, but Solti's job ultimately came down to a choice between Abbado and Barenboim, and everyone knew that all along. Alas, the orchestra made the wrong decision, in large part due to Henry Fogel's work, and chose Barenboim. The disappointing result was there for everyone to see and hear for the following fifteen years. Abbado never again conducted an American orchestra.

    In any case, does it say anything about what the CSO thought about Levine when it never considered him at all to be a candidate to replace Solti, and yet gave Leonard Slatkin some consideration? I believe that it says a great deal about what that orchestra thought of Levine.

    (By the way, Levine has yet to be invited to appear with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for subscription concerts in Orchestra Hall. Is not that amazing? Levine's only appearances in Orchestra Hall have been special concerts in which he accompanied, respectively, pianists Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim.)

    Levine's European career died in 1989. It ended with the death of Herbert Von Karajan, both of whom shared the same agent, Ronald Wilford. Karajan was responsible for getting Levine his European engagements except for Bayreuth, and those engagements ended with Karajan's death. Salzburg, Vienna, Berlin--all of those venues were closed to him after Karajan died and after current contracts expired (but about five years afterward Levine DID conduct the Berlin Philharmonic one summer at an outdoors concert in a Berlin park).

    Levine's position in Europe deflated to such an extent after Karajan's death that he accepted a position with the Munich Philharmonic, Munich's third-place ensemble behind the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the orchestra of the Bavarian Staatsoper. Levine's short time in Munich was not one of the highlights of his career, as the orchestra disliked him (he rehearsed the orchestra in English!) and as the audience disliked him (it became fashionable in Munich to leave concerts at the intermission, to show contempt for Levine) and as the critics disliked him (much preferring Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta, both of whom were also working in Munich at that time). When Levine brought the orchestra to New York, the Munich Philharmonic players deliberately undercut him by playing poorly in Carnegie Hall (and several members of the orchestra were not permitted to continue playing the New York run of concerts after that first night). Levine's time in Munich was further complicated by all sorts of stories in the press about his personal life. I am sure that Munich was a very, very unpleasant time for him, and it had to reinforce upon him how little he was wanted or valued in Europe.

    In point of fact, other than his work in Lucerne each summer, Levine does not have a European career now, and has not had one for quite some time (and he has not been welcome at prestigious venues for almost twenty years, since 1989).

    Personally, I am keen to see how the London audience will respond to Levine's Proms concerts with the Boston Symphony in September. I am glad that I shall be there to witness it. I am also eager to hear the orchestra under Levine. I have heard varying opinions on the question whether he is successfully repairing the Ozawa damage.

    The finest performance I have ever heard Levine give was a performance of "The Flying Dutchman" at the Metropolitan Opera. It was entirely competent, which I cannot say about the Mozart, Verdi, Puccini or Richard Strauss performances I have heard him conduct at the Met, all of which had very serious shortcomings.

    I have heard Levine about forty times at the Met, and I try to avoid him whenever possible. The finest conducting I have ever heard at the Met came not from Levine but from Christian Thielemann in "Die Frau Ohne Schatten".

    In thirty-five years of conducting in the theater, Levine has never learned to extend or to contract stage time--instead, he beats time. This surely is his most fundamental failing (and, again, something he shares, uniquely, with Erich Leinsdorf).

    I am not a fan, as you can see--and I do not know any musician who is (although I am told that the members of the Met orchestra like him, which probably means, above all, that they are accustomed to his work habits).

    European conductors seem to hold a low opinion of Levine. Does it tell you anything that neither Haitink nor Chailly ever invited him to appear in Amsterdam? Does it tell you anything that neither Abbado nor Rattle ever invited him to appear in Berlin? Does it tell you anything that neither Solti nor Barenboim ever invited him to appear in Chicago (other than Ravinia)? Why no appearances in Cleveland during the Dohnanyi or Welser-Most years? Why no appearances in Philadelphia during the Sawallisch and Eschenbach years (and for most of the Muti years, too)?

    European orchestras are not keen on him, either. Does it tell you anything that Levine has never been asked to do Vienna's New Year Concert? Does it tell you anything that the London orchestras have always "passed" on him?

    I am now reading the Joseph Volpe book, a Christmas present I never got around to reading until now. I am almost done with the book. Not once has Volpe praised Levine's musicianship (he takes a few swipes at Levine, but not on issues of musicianship).

    Volpe praises other artists for their work, but he never praises Levine.

  7. Andrew, how odd, I'm currently reading that book. I got up to the infamous Gheorghiu incident last night, but my eyes were already closing, so I'll have to finish it later tonight.

    For me, regarding Mr. Levine, his conducting always struck me as decent, I've only heard him once or twice at the Met, and several times in his many recordings, but never was "transported".

  8. You are most welcome to post anything you want, Winpal.

    And I do not hate the San Francisco Symphony. If so, I would hardly plan to go hear the orchestra this September.

  9. "Decent, but not transported"--I am fully with you on that one, Opera Chanteuse.

    And I hope you are enjoying the Volpe book.

    I sometimes think that I should cease blogging, because it seems to rile people up, which has never been my intent.

    Or perhaps I should invite Stanislaw Skrowaczewski to do a guest blog piece and offer some of his views on today's American conductors--but only after he has totally, completely, utterly, finally, and irrevocably retired from guest conducting.

  10. Nonsense, Andrew! Don't even consider it. I believe in the power of blogs, in the sense that what I write on it fully excercises my "freedom of speech" right. So what if it riles them up? Their entitled to their own opinion. Let them eat cake! Continue blogging!

  11. I actually used to work in Ronald Wilford’s office and am not ENTIRELY sure that James Levine’s career played out quite the way you imagine in your response earlier today.

    I wasn’t a fan of Levine’s for many years, but feel that his prowess and depth of knowledge have broadened considerably. He is a formed musician and I am surprised to hear that you’ve heard that musicians outside of the MET orchestra feel he is workman like. This is certainly not the case with players in Boston. He’s won me over as well. Tell me, when did you start attending the MET? Did you hear Leinsdorf live?

    Again, I’d be interested to hear which professional musicians with whom you enjoy such revelatory personal correspondence.

    I agree on the Thielemann and his remarkable performances at the MET. It was always worth getting a ticket to hear him conduct there, as it was, years before, to hear Kleiber when he would roll through for an engagement in New York. After one of the Frau’s I actually bought Thielemann a pint of beer across the street from Met at O’Neil’s. He’s a talented musician to be sure, but sort of a pill in person.

  12. The winding down of Levine's European career after 1989 is an objective fact which you may confirm on your own through independent sources.

    You may consult the archives of the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic or the Salzburg Festival to note his permanent disappearance from those venues in the early 1990's. Of course, Levine never had a career at all in Britain, France, Italy or elsewhere in Europe, either before or after Karajan's death, so there is nothing for you to check in those countries other than the absence of his name from concert lists. Almost all of Levine's European work was done in Berlin, Vienna, Salzburg and Bayreuth in the 1970's and 1980's, added to which was his brief and unhappy sojourn in Munich in the late 1990's, a profoundly unsuccessful attempt to jump start his European career (and a move widely identified as lame at the time, both in the U.S. and in Europe).

    As I said, I am keen to hear the Boston Symphony under Levine in September. I have heard the full range of opinions on how Levine is working out in Boston, from very positive to very negative, and I look forward to hearing for myself.

    One item that caught me, at least, by surprise was the extremely poor reception his Brahms First received from the New York press last season. Levine receives worshipful treatment from the New York press, and yet everything I read in the New York press about his Brahms First was negative. I would not have expected that from New York writers, and certainly not for the Brahms First, a work in which there is no excuse for the Boston Symphony to display poor ensemble during a New York engagement.

    The answers to your other questions are over at the thread.

    If you read the comments there, you will note the several long-term Met-subscribers who talk about Levine's deterioration since the 1980's.

    I would suggest that it is not so much a matter of deterioration as the fact that Levine reached his highest level of competence while he was in his 30's and, like Andre Previn, always cited as the most conspicuous example of this effect, that Levine's performances have grown more and more boring as his initial youthful energy dissipated.

  13. Thanks Andrew. I do hope you enjoy the SFS in London this September, worst balance and poorest brass section notwithstanding (sorry, I couldn't resist one last little shot).

    I see they are offering two performances. The first is the Ives 3rd, the final scene from Salome with Deborah Voigt, and the Shostakovich 5th. The second is the Mahler 7th.

    Interestingly, I just saw them do the Mahler 7th this evening and, truth be told, was disappointed. It is probably my least favorite of his symphonies, but still the performance seemed brittle and diffuse and the overall energy level lacking. I generally find MTT an excellent Mahler interpreter, having seen his complete traversal of the cycle over the last few years. His first SF performance of the 8th a few years ago was one of the most exciting orchestral performances I have ever experienced (the more recent repeat did not reach the same exalted level) and his most recent performance of the 2nd with the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was truly moving. But tonight was rather routine.

    I'm sure the adrenaline will be up for the tour, and they usually pull out all the stops for Mahler, but all things considered I would probably opt for the Ives/Shostakovich evening. They did the S5 last year and it was superb. Despite your opinion that there are no composers MTT conducts at a high level, I would argue that he does have a special affinity for some of the mid-20th century American composers -- Ives, Ruggles, Copland for example. Ives, in particular, is a most fascinating composer and I would never pass up a rare opportunity to hear his work. I think they will deliver the goods on this.

    Tonight's concert was supposed to also include the Salome with Lisa Gasteen, but she cancelled and this was replaced with a Mozart violin sonata. I did see a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra just a couple weeks ago and it was quite good, and Voigt seems to be having a good run of late with this.

    So if you are still considering which to choose, I would recommend the Ives/Strauss/Shostakovich, and would be interested to hear your thoughts after the performance.

  14. Parterre Box is fun, but I would hardly site it as a source of "objective" truth. As for Levine's European career, there is also the fact that, outside of conducting at Bayrueth, it doesn't really matter to him whether he's got much of a following abroad or not. He's got the MET and Boston. Not a bad accomplishment for a musician and a fine way to cap a long, fruitful career.

    You seem to rely a great deal on lists of performances and critics. Maybe you should get to more actually performances of all these people you carry on about to get a better idea of what's what!



  15. Thank you for the recommendation, Winpal.

    Alas, as a practical matter, we have chosen the concert with the Mahler Seventh.

    This is because we will arrive in London very early on a Friday morning, and we will all stay up that entire day and go to bed very early that night so as to begin to adjust ourselves to London time.

    On the following day, Saturday, we are afraid to schedule anything that evening for fear that we will need to turn in early one more night. That Saturday evening is the night of the first of the San Francisco Symphony Proms concerts.

    By the third day, Sunday, we should be completely adjusted to London time, and this is the first night we are willing to schedule anything in advance (and buy tickets in advance) for the evening. This is the night of the Mahler Seventh.

    I would like to go to the previous night's concert, too, but I am unwilling to buy tickets in advance for fear that I will be too tired that night to make it through the concert.

    This is how we arrived at our selection of the Mahler Seventh--a matter of Proms scheduling more than anything else.

  16. "Parterre Box is fun, but I would hardly site it as a source of 'objective' truth."

    Earl, I referred you to because you, a complete stranger to me, were asking me questions, answers to which were on that site. I am an attorney. I would hardly offer as an authoritative source in support of any proposition.

    "As for Levine's European career, there is also the fact that, outside of conducting at Bayreuth, it doesn't really matter to him whether he's got much of a following abroad or not. He's got the MET and Boston. Not a bad accomplishment for a musician and a fine way to cap a long, fruitful career."

    Earl, Levine would be a very rare musician--and a very rare human being--if it were not extremely painful to him to have had a European career, for over a decade, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic at Europe's most prestigious venues, and then to have that taken away from him before the age of fifty.

    "You seem to rely a great deal on lists of performances and critics."

    Earl, I referred you to lists of performances in Europe after you expressed surprise (and skepticism) that Levine's European career ended with the death of Herbert Von Karajan.

    Further, Earl, I never mentioned any critics.

    "Maybe you should get to more actually performances of all these people you carry on about to get a better idea of what's what!"

    Thank you, Earl. I have been attending musical events since I was ten years old, all over the country and all over the world. There are not too many people my age who have been lucky enough to attend as many musical performances I have, in as many different cities and in as many different venues. I offer thanks each and every day for the family and household in which I was raised.

  17. “Earl, Levine would be a very rare musician--and a very rare human being--if it were not extremely painful to him to have had a European career, for over a decade, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic at Europe's most prestigious venues, and then to have that taken away from him before the age of fifty.”

    This, of course, is a strong assumption on your part. You really have no idea what Levine wants - nor, indeed, what anyone, beyond yourself, perceives as a successful fruitful career.

    I think you should read some Henry James, frankly. I'd start with The Ambassadors - an American view that Europeans are somehow cultural superior will, as it does Lambert Struther, get you in end!

    I'm done posting here - enjoy!


  18. Earl, I have read all of Henry James.

  19. Who is this Earl troll, and why didn't you put that asshole in his place?

    Jimmy Levine has not been to Philadelphia since Ormandy was here. No one misses him.

    What do you think of Eschenbach?

  20. Earl is unknown to me, other than someone who needs help with his spelling and grammar, and processing information lucidly, and drawing rational conclusions.

    I have no opinion on Eschenbach.

  21. DanTD -- I know your question was to Andrew, but I must throw in my two cents because this is timely and near and dear to my heart. I caught Eschenbach and your Philadelphians on tour here is SF just two weeks ago. They delivered the best Brahms 1st I've ever heard. It was revelatory and I am still thinking about it. Whatever controversy and friction exists, and I understand it has been a rocky road there, it was nowhere in evidence. He also guest conducted the SFS about 10 years ago in a concert performance of Fidelio with Behrens and Heppner that is also unforgettable for me.

    I guess Andrew unwittingly opened a Pandora's Box with this particular post. :)

  22. I think Andrew is holding out on me. I don't believe for a minute that he has no opinion re Eschenbach. He must be sick of this.

  23. Blog search/Andrew, you wrote about Eschenbach 3 times

  24. I have found the MTT Mahler thing very dull and rather listless. Ricardo Chailly in his recent set I strongly encourage. I think MTT has really not gone in the direction musically many of us have hoped. However, with marketing hype and all of that yahoo it is very hard not to be jaded by the current trends in Classical music. So much is now marketing.

  25. I think Nagano in MONTREAL to be one of the poorest excuses for a conductor going. Rarely does any of his music sound like a technically clean but devoid of soul. The MSO I have heard really hate his guts too so that must be making itself felt..he hass never been invited back to England by any of the major orchestras there.

    One freind of mine who plays in one of the major London orchestras desrcibed him as a nutbar on two legs who enjoys personal attacks in rehearsals. This is so typical of what dictatorial conductors are MONTREAL has to live with him.

    As to Levine it seems strange no Beethoven symphonies he has performed live in my memory. However, he did wonders with the Met in Wagner but little else.

    As to New York they sound quite natural and fresh with Maazel...he also knows how to respect his players and concentrate on music rather than politics.

  26. David:

    I agree with you, fully, about Chailly. I like Chailly's Mahler very much. I think Chailly is the finest Mahler conductor before the public today.

    I agree with you completely about Tilson Thomas--he has not lived up to his early promise.

    We heard that Tilson Thomas Mahler Seventh in London, and everything about the performance and everything about the orchestra was provincial beyond description.

    If you are interested, my father wrote about that particular Proms concert, as well as three other Proms concerts we heard, on Joshua's blog back in September.

    All the best to you, and thank you for your comments.


  27. David:

    I agree with you again, fully, about Nagano. He is a big-time turkey, and he has not worked out anywhere he has been. I was told last summer that his contract with the Bavarian State Opera will not be extended, which cannot come as a surprise to anyone.

    I have been told, many times, that orchestras detest Nagano. I especially remember what an egg he laid with the Chicago Symphony. The musicians of the Chicago Symphony thought Nagano was incredibly inept.

    I think Maazel has done good work in New York, although the New York critics have been reluctant to acknowledge Maazel's fine work there.

    The New York critics pressed, shamelessly, for one of their favorite pets to succeed Maazel. Now, in Alan Gilbert, they have been granted their wish.

    It should be interesting to see how things develop.

    Levine has not made an impression on me in any area of the repertory. I think even his Wagner is boring.


  28. Dear Drew

    I have been playing orchestrally on the east coast for 25 years as a pro clarinetist. I studied in Boston and also in Holland.

    I certainly agree about the lack of conductors in North America in general lacking in quality. ... Seems there is alot of trouble brewing and music in general is suffering!

    As to the problem being solved soon it can also be a cultural mind set..players today are very good but maybe too good. Most players today play together in spite of the conductor.

    Karajan I saw twice conduct in 1983 one.. an all Strauss program and the other Mahler 9th. The level and quality of sound went way beyond how Berlin Phil even sounds today. Of course it is a great orchestra but the Berlin Phil has even been affected by the ravages of change. No longer does the brass section have it uniform quality of the 80s..Principal oboe Lothar Koch is dead and Karl Leister is retired.

    That being said conductors like Bruno Walter really could do just about anything well..this is the generation Karajan came from. Klemperer too had a special way of doing all of his music..

    Ricard Chailly is currently my favorite of the current jet set conductors. However, it seems much of his work is in Italy and Europe.

  29. Having said all of the above in my comments I think the 60s and 70s were the high water mark in the realm of truly great conductors. I was very lucky as a player to have worked breifly under Guilini and Eugen Jochum.

    I played Bruckner 4 and 5 under Jochum and can honestly say there are few conductors alive who can convincingly pull off an entire Bruckner work. It seems striking the germanic repetoire is suffering most in the age of the technicratic conductor..but there is more to this than meets the eye. Brahms, Bruckner and Beethoven require alot more that just playing together and in requires feel for the idiom and style.

    I think Eugen Jochum is the most vastly underrated conductor who ever lived. His tenure in Amsterdam produced amazing recordings..his Beethoven and Mahler performances there in the early 60s are among the greatest ever. Later his Brahms with the London Phil and Haydn performances are to this day remembered by London concert-goers.

    I seem to remember one thing about Jochum in rehearsal..he was the type of musician not only did one respect but also knew the music inside out..note by note and in Bruckner bar by bar. This training does not exist today...I also found him to be gentle and got his players to play for their lives not by fear but through engaging the musicians because he loved music. He also knew the difference between when something sounded forced and strove for this objective. All the players who worked under him loved him dearly.

    In comparison I know of no player who has much positive to say about the personalities of many of the new younger conductors. Fear tactics and screaming in rehearsals and personality intimidation are now considered acceptable.

    Karajan said it best.."there are no bad orchestras..just bad conductors."

  30. David:

    Lucky you, hearing Karajan and playing under Giulini and Jochum!

    I do not listen to Jochum often, which is my loss. At some point, I need to devote some time to his Bruckner recordings. I love Jochum's recordings of the Bruckner masses, but I generally reach for Karajan when I want to hear the Bruckner symphonies.

    I, too, think that Chailly is the best of today's conductors.

    The only other active conductor who approaches Chailly's level of skill and musicianship is Ivan Fischer, in my estimation. (I consider Abbado to be retired.)

    I would be curious to hear your thoughts about Ivan Fischer.

    I would also be curious to hear any thoughts you may have about the Tintner Bruckner recordings. Those recordings have been praised in some quarters, and disparaged in others. I never bothered to buy any of them.

    Thank you again for such fascinating remarks.


  31. Andrew

    I really think Fischer is the real thing..sadly it seems he gets little or no press on this side of the world. His Bartok and Mahler records are absolutely first rate and every group he conducts sounds fantastic. That being said one must wonder why such a great conductor has little or no press converage on this side of the Atlantic.

    I will also add I truly think Gary Bertini is a very special musician. His way of conducting is incredible..I had a chance years ago to perform under him and thought he was absolutely great!

    Recently his Mahler cycle has been released and I also feel it to be very strong interpretively.

    I also heard Bertini died recently..this must certainly be a blow to conducting.

  32. David:

    Bertini is known to me only through a handful of recordings. Bertini was yet another conductor who had virtually no North American career.

    Apparently Ivan Fischer is happy living and working in Budapest. For guest engagements, he prefers remaining in Europe, mostly. Our loss.

    Many European conductors dislike, on a personal basis, the administrators of many American orchestras. They do not like dealing with these individuals, whom they cannot avoid during guest engagements. That is another thing that keeps so many European conductors away from North American shores.

    Again, our loss.