Wednesday, March 11, 2015

News in the Conducting World and some predictions

As expected, the pending marriage of Simon Rattle and the London Symphony has been announced.  Will a new concert hall be included in the dowry?

Sir Simon's "old band," the Berlin Philharmonic will vote on a successor May 11.  It appears to be a horserace, but among the contenders are Christian Thielemann,

formerly leader of the Munich Philharmonic, he conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden through 2019.  The Telegraph calls him "Germany's most sought-after conductor." John Allison goes on to write, "Whichever way you look at the situation, Thielemann is an obvious and leading contender for the Berlin Philharmonic, best placed to restore its Teutonic credentials, if that is what the orchestra wants. Whether Thielemann wants it is still far from clear, though it is hard to imagine him resisting the lure of Karajan’s old orchestra."

And then there's Riccardo Chailly, although he becomes Music Director at La Scala in 2017.  While a great choice, it's probably far-fetched.

Alan Gilbert is leaving the New York Philharmonic just as that orchestra is forced into a two year hiatus from Lincoln Center.  It will take a charismatic leader to retain the old audience (and work toward grabbing the attention of a new one).  In my mind there is one (easy choice):  David Robertson.

After the long and mostly joy-less tenure of Christoph Eschenbach, the National Symphony of Washington, DC is looking for a new leader.  Given the locale as well as the "gravity" of the ensemble's name, one would think that the NSO would be a plum job.  It's not, due in no small part to a rudderless parent (the Kennedy Center) that fails to seek out a conductor to actually lead what should be our National orchestra.  I'm hoping that an American is hired, but really have no predictions.  If Michael Tillson Thomas were a decade younger (he's now 70), I wouldn't hesitate.  Then again, the man has it made in San Francisco--an orchestra and a concert-going public that feasts on new music.

How long will Jimmy last?

In a recent review of the Met Orchestra Chamber Ensemble concert, David Allen noted that conductor James Levine was not onstage for the performance of Charles Wuorinen's "sitcom cantata," It Happens Like This.  The work was written for the conductor in 2011 but he's never taken the time to learn it.  One can only wonder how many years Levine, 71, has left in him.  One would hope that he leaves the podium in full possession of his "chops," rather than hanging on to the stage for dear life, like Placido Domingo.


Pierre Boulez, a giant in the music field for (literally) as long as I can remember, celebrates his 90th birthday on March 26.  Although he has been in absentia during the last year, I hope that it is a happy day for him.  Although he wrote some of the most difficult music known to man or beast, I'll never forget his later career as a conductor, which I was able to experience more than once in Chicago's Orchestra Hall.

We're going to build a new hall....Transformative or Excessive?

It's happened.  Sir Simon Rattle is coming home.  Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic since 2002, he had announced his retirement from that vaunted ensemble over two years ago, effective at the close of the 2018 season.  (The orchestra members, responsible for most artistic and administrative matters, vote on a successor May 11.)  Then he will assume Music Directorship of the London Symphony Orchestra.

The announcement has been met with general euphoria across Great Britain, and it appears that the feeling is mutual.  UK composer Thomas Ades states that Rattle "is as brilliant and devoted an interpreter as any composer could wish to find."  The Guardian quoted the conductor, "It feels like a homecoming."  Tweeting via the LSO, Rattle also stated, "I can't imagine a more inspiring way to spend my next years, and feel immensely fortunate to have the LSO as my musical family." 

The news has been met with acclaim across the globe.  Michael Cooper wrote in the New York Times, "Their long flirtation is over, and now they are engaged."

There is--and has been since discussions began--a sticking point.  Rattle has called the LSO's home, The Barbican Centre, "serviceable" and is lobbying for a concert hall worthy of both the orchestra and its city.  (See my assessment of London's venues here.)  Rattle went on to add in a BBC interview, “The music lovers of London and the country deserve to have something where orchestras can flourish. You have no idea how wonderful an orchestra like the London Symphony Orchestra can sound in a great concert hall.”  A number of political and arts figures are leaping onto the bandwagon.  Chancellor George Osborne has announced "a feasibility study to progress plans to give London a world-class concert hall comparable to those present in other major cities across the world.”

Given the economic climate across Europe, is this a wise move at this time?  Are there more pressing needs across the city and the country?  That remains to be answered in the UK.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Over the past few decades, several orchestras in this country have moved into new concert spaces.  Sometimes such _____ are necessitated due to seating capacities (too large or too small), aging facilities, or--primarily--inadequate acoustics.  Well-known are the various attempts to shore up those problems at Lincoln Center ("the hall formerly known as Avery Fisher").  Most ensembles choose to simply build anew.  But have these decisions been transformations for the home orchestras or (I would argue in the case of NY) excessive wastes of money?  Oftentimes it is obvious from the start and other times the reality needs a few years to sink in.

Here are some recent examples:

Philadelphia - Paying the landlord

Of the original Big Five* of the orchestral world, Philly is the most recent to seek out a new home.  Ensconced in the historic 1856 Academy of Music from 1900-2001, the orchestra rose to a level of fame nearly unequaled in much of its storied history.  Many insisted that the Academy's acoustics were grossly inadequate, particularly for orchestral performance.

Academy of Music, Philadelphia.  Interior.
Thus, after many years of discussion (dating back as far as 1908!) a new concert hall arose in the Kimmel Center and the orchestra first performed at Verizon Hall on December 16, 2001.

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center.
The organ is by the Dobson Company of IOWA!

While hailed as a vast improvement over the Academy, Verizon has not been without its naysayers and it (like the former Avery Fisher) has required millions of dollars in "retuning."  Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote here in the fateful year of 2011 (when the orchestra became the largest arts organization in the country to undergo Chapter 11 reorganization).  More about the hall's improvements are found on its own website here.

One could argue that a great orchestra will sound great wherever they play.  Philly rose to prominence due to two conductors of unmatched longevity:  Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy.  Both performed in the Academy, which, it must be noted, the orchestra actually still owns!  At the Kimmel Center, the orchestra is a tenant, probably the most lucrative form of income for the hall's owners.  Could this be some of the reason for the orchestra's bankruptcy?  I suppose that's left up to the accountants.

*In addition to the NY Phil, the other orchestras of the "Big Five" are:

  • Boston Symphony in Boston Symphony Hall since 1900.
  • Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall since 1931.
  • Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall since 1904.
Many might argue that the LA Philharmonic makes this list a Big Six.

Kansas City - transformative

A move from the staid Lyric Theater to the new Kaufmann Center has been a watershed moment for the arts across the country.  As municipalities are increasingly asked for funds to build arenas for sports combat, very few would ever put up the funds for an arts complex.  

K.C.'s Lyric--originally a Masonic Hall
One has to note that the entire cost of the multi venue Kaufmann Center (somewhere in the $400 million ballpark) was privately raised.  I could easily argue the aesthetics of the project, seen below,

Kaufmann-two dead snails?

the interior of the concert hall has been a boon for the orchestra and community.  As Rodgers and Hammerstein so aptly wrote, "Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City."

Kaufmann interior

Nashville - a hall that looks as one should

This is the Kenneth Schermerhorn Center, home of the Nashville Symphony and named for the orchestra's long-time conductor and music director.  From the outside, the edifice is impressive in its classical style.

Now this looks like a concert hall

On the inside, one might swear we've been transported abroad.  Does this not remind one of the Musikverein?

...and this?  Got to be European.  Nope, it's Nashville.

As many have long argued, it's hard to improve on the shoebox....