LONDON, 1 January
2001 - Ten years ago last month, I finished writing a book called
The Maestro Myth, which argued that the 'Great Conductor' was
a thing of the past. A reckless pursuit of power and wealth had
destroyed the mystique on which their authority was founded.
Easy-come, easy-go maestros with posts on three continents and a
chalet in Gstaad no longer commanded the awe of musicians or the
spiritual aspirations of dwindling audiences. The fame of a Leonard
Bernstein and the fortune of a Herbert von Karajan would never be seen
again; conductors, in future, would occupy a more modest niche on the
margins of cultural awareness.
Barely had the book appeared
than a crisis of confidence smashed the shop window through which
conductors displayed their abilities. With the deaths of Karajan and
Bernstein, major labels slashed their schedules.
went up from industry chiefs and ignorant hacks that things ain't what
they used to be, the talent was not up to the mark. The more painful
truth is that the past decade has produced a prodigiously gifted set
of conductors who are struggling to break through a nimbus of media
There are at least a dozen maestros under the age
of 50 who have the ability to lead music into the new millennium. Most
(or so they tell me) have read The Maestro Myth and taken the
point, working assiduously with one orchestra or opera house, avoiding
one-night stands and Caribbean tax-havens. Their idealism is
refreshing and their ideas original, but will they - without regular
recording and broadcasts - ever get the opportunity to make an impact
on the world at large?
Ask players in the top European
orchestras for their conductors of choice and three names crop up with
clockwork regularity: Simon
Rattle, Mariss Jansons and the whirlwind St Petersburg director,
Valery Gergiev. Rattle is 46 and Gergiev 47. Both have displayed
single-minded devotion to a cause. Rattle spent 18 years nurturing
Birmingham from post-industrial wastage to cultural eminence before
capturing the Berlin Philharmonic. Gergiev seldom spends more than a
week in any one spot, but every foreign foothold he gains is used to
sustain the Kirov Theatre, which he has headed since 1988. Jansons,
56, is a late developer with a dicky heart who has imprinted his own
distinctive sound on the Oslo Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony
orchestras - ever the mark of a remarkable conductor. These three made
the grade before recordings receded.
Two others -
46, in Amsterdam, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, 42, at the Los Angeles
Philharmonic - share their plateau. Chailly's technique is sharp as a
brain-surgeon's; Salonen, when head-hunted by a Big Five Us orchestra,
clarified his position by making a personal 100,000-dollar donation to
the new Los Angeles concert hall - a token, he said, "of
gratitude towards my orchestra." Such gestures, along with other
resurrected values, are providing the ground-rules for the new
for example, Ingo Metzmacher, 42, has taken charge of both opera and
concert seasons, spending seven months a year at his post. "My
father played cello in the orchestra at the end of the 1930s when
Eugen Jochum was music director," he says, "and Jochum
conducted everything. That's the way it should be." Metzmacher
has set a contemporary agenda, which includes new operas this year by
Thomas Ades and Peter Eotvos.
He startled some older
Hamburgers by wearing a silver-lame jacket and jumping up on stage in
the middle of Weill's Mahagonny to join in the mayhem. For
younger citizens, he has imported an education scheme from BBC Wales
to help them get more out of music. His zeal has caught the attention
of the London Philharmonic, Philadelphia and several other crack
outfits which he regularly guest-conducts, mostly, he says, "to
bring back home the higher standards that I find elsewhere."He
has pledged himself to Hamburg for another five years. "Both I
and the players have a long way to grow," he says.
Among German specialists, Metzmacher is
matched by the bluntly ambitious Christian Thielemann and the silkily
ascendant Franz Welser-Möst. Thielemann, 41, quit Berlin's
Deutsche Oper after a row with its next administrator but was hailed
as 'a young Karajan' by an influential senator and is now blue-eyed
boy at Bayreuth, entrusted with the next Ring. Only his
penchant for reported right-wing indiscretions can stem his vertical
Franz Welser-Möst, 40, survived turbulent
beginnings at the London Philharmonic to manifest a massive competence
at Zurich Opera. Next year he takes charge in Cleveland, the only Big
Five orchestra so far to have settled its future. Welser-Möst
will spend at least 18 weeks a year in Cleveland, twice as long as his
The Italian podium is also hotting up. Daniele
Gatti, 39, has in three years raised Bologna almost to La Scala
standards. Equable and studious, Gatti is the antithesis of the
ragaing-bull maestro personified by Toscanini and Riccardo Muti, yet
his music lacks neither passion nor precision. When I asked him
recently about long-term ambitions, he looked down from his hill-top
villa and laughed. "I live here, I walk 20 minutes to my opera
house, I dedicate myself to Bologna."
he has stood by the struggling Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, winning
them this year's pre-Last Night of the Proms, playing Verdi's Requiem.
"The RPO was helpful to me at a certain time in my life,"
says Gatti, "now I can help them."
awaits Antonio Pappano, who was pressured by his record company, EMI,
into becoming music director at Covent Garden. Pappano, 41, earned his
spurs at the Monnaie, in Brussels. Few conductors are better at
handling divas, having helped his father from the age of ten to coach
recalcitrant sopranos. Should the ROH flounder, Pappano is valued at
Bayreuth and coveted in America.
Finland: source of new
The most fertile source of new batons is
Finland, where Jorma Panula's course at the Sibelius Academy has
yielded - apart from Salonen and the less-settled Jukka-Pekka Saraste
- a diversity of talents. Sakari Oramo, 35, has proved an intriguingly
intense successor to Rattle in Birmingham, enriching the string sound
and playing virtuosically with Symphony Hall's adjustable accoustics.
He hardly ever visits London, let alone the US. "This orchestra
is all I want right now," says Oramo, "I won't bother to
conduct opera until I'm 40."
His fellow-Finn Mikko Franck, still only 21,
set a buzz around when he conducted in Stockholm three years ago -"like
an old master," the players said. His temperament remains
unproven. This season he cancelled English National Opera after a
production disagreement and a New York Philharmonic concert on grounds
of ill-health. His debut recording - Sibelius, naturally -reveals
precocious tempo controls, but Franck has yet to deliver on a major
stage. Ahead of him, by several strides, runs Rattle's diminutive
protegé, Daniel Harding, who at 25 has scored notable successes
in Berlin and on record. At Bologna, Gatti has nurtured Vladimir
Jurowski, newly named music director at Glyndebourne.
the Baltic, shoots of the St Petersburg hothouse are striking new
roots. Yakov Kreizberg, 41, formerly of Bournemouth, should soon land
his first US orchestra; the Estonian-born Paavo Järvi, son of the
Detroit conductor Neeme Järvi, recently captured Cincinnati. Järvi,
38, declares that he has no time for the star soloists that stultify
American programmes. He aims to introduce young artists in off-beat
repertoire. His kid brother Krystjan Järvi, only 28, is even more
iconoclastic, forming the 18-member Absolute Ensemble in New York,
that plays Schoenberg alongside Carla Bley. If the Järvi boys get
their way, Middle America is in for a good ear-wigging.
and women absent
The notable absentees from the
conducting future are Americans and women. Kent Nagano, 50, has moved
furthest ahead, claiming an orchestra in Berlin and the Los Angeles
Opera, without convincing everyone of his head for greater heights.
Robert Spano, a muscular Brooklyner, has landed Atlanta. As for women,
the path to podium glory is still impeded by prejudice; Simone Young,
39, at Australian Opera is the only holder of a prominent position.
These, then, are the conductors on whom the
musical future depends. Not all have the stardust of charisma and some
may take another decade to develop leadership skills. But their innate
ability is acknowledged by some of the world's toughest musicians and
their outlook is engagingly outward looking.
conductors know that it is no longer enough to announce a season and
expect the public to attend. They need, like unknown restaurant chefs,
to awaken an appetite and catch the eye. They want to engage with
social and political issues, and they long to break down the barriers
between aging concerthall patrons and their own generation which
seldom crosses the threshold.
These are enormous challenges
- a universe apart from the ecology inhabited by Karajan, Bernstein
and Solti in the era that ended with the 20th century. In effect,
every new conductor is required to reinvent his profession.
the more I meet the new generation, the more I find that they are
putting the podium to rights. A simple litmus test demonstrates the
distance we have travelled in the past ten years. A decade ago, most
conductors liked to be addressed as "Maestro". Today's
conductors dismiss the title and deride the sycophants who utter it.
No more "Maestros" is not a bad omen for a new millennium.
is a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph and the author of several
books on culture. His most recent book, Covent Garden, The Untold
Story: Dispatches From The English Cultural War, 1945-2000, was
published by Simon & Schuster.