A story by Dan Wakin in the New York Times reveals that the New York Philharmonic has devised a new post of "principal conductor" to go alongside that of music director, and that it also plans to appoint a composer-in-residence, found a new-music group, and present mini-festivals. These are all intelligent moves, signalling, as I suggested in my piece this week, that the Philharmonic is making serious strides toward artistic renovation (with the LA Phil perhaps providing inspiration). It’s potentially a good structure for an orchestra — not to have one star director plus a stream of guests, but two regular conductors working side by side. Ideally, they would have contrasting personalities and tastes, suited to different audiences (Brahms-loving subscribers, youthful new-music-listening types). Trouble is, no names are being put forward to fill in the blanks. The second-banana role would seem tailor-made for a younger conductor such as Alan Gilbert or Ludovic Morlot, but neither is mentioned. Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic president, is said to have "ruled out" Riccardo Muti and Daniel Barenboim for the lead post and further stated that "no conductors had been approached" about either job. A strange cliffhanger. [If you're confused by the details, Matthew Guerrieri has a helpful chart.] Notice, though, a bright statistic at the end: "Over the last four seasons, the orchestra has recorded a steady increase in ticket sales, raising the percentage of tickets sold to a projected 86 this year, from 73."
In my LA Phil article, I mention how it no longer makes sense to generalize about the hidebound attitude of the American orchestra. With such partnerships as David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony, Robert Spano in Atlanta, Marin Alsop in Baltimore, James Levine in Boston, and Osmo Vänskä in Minneapolis, many orchestras are striking out in fresh directions these days, programming more new music and devising new kinds of programs. I might also have mentioned the Detroit Symphony, which is set to present a festival called 8 Days in June, bringing Beethoven and Stravinsky together with Wynton Marsalis and Chuck D. The Brooklyn Philharmonic, which had a brief golden age under Spano in the nineties, is again presenting lively programs under Michael Christie, who also seems to be doing good things at the Phoenix Symphony. The Chicago Symphony's MusicNOW series, currently under the joint direction of Mark-Anthony Turnage and Osvaldo Golijov, is reportedly attracting big crowds (including, as you can see in the photo, young dudes drinkin' beer, like this one). Atlanta, too, has had encouraging results with its new-music programming. When I asked for specifics, the orchestra reported that under Spano attendance has risen 7% to 76%, and that when big works by such locally admired composers as Jennifer Higdon, Golijov, and Michael Gandolfi have appeared on the programs the attendance has been higher than the average: respectively, 86%, 95%, and 92%. (In Minnesota, attendance has gone from 58% in 2002-3 to 72% in 2005-6.) When new music becomes a selling point — and we're not quite there yet — we will be living in a new world, or, rather, a world like Mozart's.
This modernizing trend originated on the West Coast in the nineteen nineties, when Esa-Pekka Salonen arrived in Los Angeles and Michael Tilson Thomas came to San Francisco. There was a particular day in June when you could feel the atmosphere changing — I'll never forget it.