The Maestro Myth

Hardly a month goes by that some musical pundit doesn’t lament the dearth of great maestros amongst the current crop of podium professionals. It is often put in the context of how bleak the outlook is of finding someone to replace conductor x or conductor y with one of the world’s top orchestras.

In Berlin who could fill the shoes of Herbert von Karajan? Claudio Abbado was found wanting and left after 10 years and his successor Simon Rattle is under intense fire for his alleged inadequacies. In Philadelphia Christoph Eschenbach was forced to resign after he was found to be inferior to Stokowski, Ormandy, Muti and Sawallisch. In Chicago the critics never tired of finding fault with Daniel Barenboim after the legendary Georg Solti until Barenboim finally gave up and went elsewhere. And where is the present-day Toscanini, Furtwängler, Bruno Walter or Monteux? In fact, this line of discussion is absolute rubbish. In their own lifetimes the alleged giants were often found wanting by their contemporaries. And if one looks at the facts about current conductors and their abilities it could be argued that we live in a Golden Age. Surely there have rarely been so many top notch conductors!

Let’s look more closely at the examples I cited. First, the Berlin Philharmonic (BPO). When Karajan died in 1989 and in the years immediately afterwards he had come close to acquiring sainthood. Yet, he had been ill for years and rarely gave performances to compare with his best a decade before. But his reputation was such that his recordings continued to outsell all others and each of his increasingly rare concert appearances became a special occasion. It is also true that even in his prime many observers compared him unfavorably with Wilhelm Furtwängler, his immediate predecessor.

When Abbado was chosen to succeed Karajan he had the unenviable task of being compared to a legend. He also had the misfortune to take over the Berlin Philharmonic at a time when the record business was faltering badly. The big record companies were dropping artists from their rosters as fast as they could and making a mere fraction of the number of recordings they had made only a few years before. Abbado and the BPO made only a handful of recordings together compared to Karajan and the BPO, and soon Abbado was gone. But now, just a few years after leaving the BPO it is Abbado who has been elevated to sainthood after suffering a near fatal illness and giving annual performances with a handpicked orchestra at the Lucerne Festival. Abbado’s concerts in Lucerne are now unique and historic events.

And what of Abbado’s successor with the BPO, Simon Rattle? While one or two critics have been heard to say that Rattle is not up to conducting the great German classics those who know what they are talking about recognize that Rattle is one of the few conductors with the talent, imagination and charisma to do what needs to be done, and that is to bring the moribund symphony orchestra kicking and screaming into the 21st century. In London, Sir Colin Davis recently turned over the reins of the London Symphony to Valery Gergiev, both men near legendary figures in their own time.

And taking a closer look at North American orchestras one finds some pretty good conductors in action. Going done the East Coast starting in Boston, James Levine is being hailed as the greatest conductor the orchestra has had since Koussevitsky. Levine had already set new standards for orchestral playing at the Metropolitan Opera and now Bostonians are discovering that is a master of the concert repertoire too. In New York Lorin Maazel gets the mixed press he has always had but everybody recognizes that he is one of the best technicians alive. In Philadelphia Christoph Eschenbach failed to click with either critics or musicians but remains a gifted and often inspired all-round musician and does not lack for work with the very finest orchestras. And the Philadelphians have just consummated a deal with a successor, the acknowledged master of French repertoire, Charles Dutoit. On the West Coast Michael Tilson Thomas as the most articulate and multi-talented of all Bernstein protégées continues to wow audiences, musicians and critics with his imaginative programming and his sheer exuberance. Esa-Pekka Salonen is doing the same in Los Angeles. In between the coasts there are still other conductors doing extraordinary work, and making their so-called ‘second-tier’ orchestras on many an evening as good as any in the world. Robert Spano with the Atlanta Symphony and David Robertson with the St. Louis Symphony and Marin Alsop with the Baltimore Symphony are typical of the new generation of well-trained and exceptionally-talented home-grown conductors who are steadily taking their places at the head of America’s best orchestras.

It is true that fewer recordings are being made by the major record companies and some of these conductors are not as well represented on CD as they should be. But one does not have to look very far to find excellent CDs or DVDs by Abbado, Rattle, Levine, Thomas, Salonen, Spano, Alsop and most of the others. Future generations will be able to look back and enjoy their accomplishments.

And the list goes on. I have not yet mentioned Mariss Jansons, the current leader of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, nor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner, Ricardo Chailly, Kent Nagano, Osma Vänska, Neeme Järvi, Paavo Järvi, Vladimir Jurowski, Kurt Masur, Sir Andrew Davis, Rafael Frübeck de Burgos, Seiji Ozawa, Semyon Bychkov, Christian Thielemann, or Ivan Fischer.

There may not be a ‘great’ conductor for every orchestra that wants one but there are surely more than there have ever been before. The problem is that there are also many more first-class orchestras than ever before and most of them are playing far more concerts than even the most famous orchestras in the past. But it could be argued that this very problem is giving new opportunities to conductors to gain experience and to make careers.

I rest my case; this is truly a Golden Age for those who enjoy listening to gifted maestros at work.

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