Things are looking up on the American orchestral scene.
One month ago, the Chicago Symphony named Riccardo Muti its next Music Director, the best possible appointment for Chicago short of luring Riccardo Chailly to these shores. Muti is a very good match for Chicago, I believe.
On Friday, the Cleveland Orchestra extended—again—the contract of Franz Welser-Most. Welser-Most will remain in Cleveland at least through 2018, a most welcome piece of news. One year ago, when Welser-Most accepted the post of Music Director of the Vienna State Opera, he told friends that he planned to leave Cleveland when his contract expired in 2012. I am most pleased that Welser-Most changed his mind. He is, by a long shot, the finest conductor working regularly in America.
Now it will be interesting to see what the Philadelphia Orchestra does. I am told that Philadelphia’s prime target is Vladimir Jurowski—not because Philadelphia actually wants Jurowski, but because Jurowski is the best candidate Philadelphia expects to be able to land—but I am also told that the orchestra is desperately seeking a superior candidate. Myself, I think that the Philadelphia Orchestra can do much, much better than Jurowski.
Given that there have been some very poor, even inexplicable, American orchestral appointments in recent years—Marin Alsop in Baltimore, Alan Gilbert in New York, David Robertson in Saint Louis, Robert Spano in Atlanta—it is reassuring that our two finest orchestras remain committed to hiring and retaining the very finest conductors.
At least Chicago and Cleveland will not devolve into provinciality. The same cannot be said for many other U.S. ensembles.
I have never understood why America, for over a century, has produced the finest orchestral ensembles in the world, and yet has never been able to produce conductors of the same quality.
The Cleveland Orchestra puts to shame even the finest of European ensembles, and the orchestras in Chicago and Philadelphia, depending on the repertory, are just as fine as the orchestras in Amsterdam, Berlin, Dresden and Vienna. Given this, why are the conductors we produce such turkeys?
I could not help but snort when I heard about Michael Tilson Thomas’s meltdown last week with the Chicago Symphony—a meltdown in rehearsal and a meltdown in performance. Since Tilson Thomas’s engagements with prestigious ensembles are few and far between, I would have thought that he would have arrived at rehearsal fully prepared—especially since the works on the Chicago Symphony program have been in Tilson Thomas’s repertory literally for decades! And how could Tilson Thomas possibly have come to grief in Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, a work the musicians of the Chicago Symphony can play—and balance—in their sleep?
The Peter Principle, clearly, is at work here. Tilson Thomas, age 63, possesses the skills to work with regional-level ensembles, but he lacks the skills to work with international-level ensembles. International-level ensembles know this, which is why they so seldom—if ever—engage him.
The sad part is not that Tilson Thomas is not particularly good. The sad part is that Tilson Thomas is much better than most of his American confreres, who are even worse than he is. For whatever reason, we do not produce good conductors.
As a nation, we produce good economists. Where is our Milton Friedman of conductors, capable of training and perpetuating generations of fine baton-wielders?