The elusive maestro: why the process of finding a new conductor makes music lovers weep.

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April 12 2011 11:20 AM

The Elusive Maestro

Why the process of finding a new conductor makes music lovers weep.

(Continued from Page 1)

In 1973, Ozawa arrived at Boston in a wave of enthusiasm. He was Mister Cool Maestro. He wore swinging love beads. He was a graceful, commanding lion on the podium. He had been mentored at Tanglewood, had studied with Herbert von Karajan in Berlin, and had enjoyed successful tenures with the Toronto and San Francisco Symphonies and well-received guest appearances with the BSO. He took over with the expectation that he'd bring new vision and vigor to an orchestra that had never been less than first-rate but that had never recovered its leading position and general pizazz since Koussevitzky retired in 1949 after a 25-year tenure that climaxed with the creation of the Tanglewood festival. Yes, Ozawa's a little lightweight, experts said, and his English is sketchy, but with this orchestra to work with, he'll ripen and mature soon enough, and he'll build the audience.

Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa. Click image to expand.
Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa leads the Saito Kinen Orchestra

Ozawa did sell seats. As a hero in his homeland, he attracted to the orchestra millions in Japanese money. But he never did ripen all that much, just as his English remained sketchy. Now and then he gave a standout performance, usually in the full-throated late-Romantic and 20th-century literature, but most of the time what came out was glittering surfaces with nothing substantial beneath: no discernable concept, no vision. Nor did he bring any vital leadership to Tanglewood. For the 29 years of Ozawa's tenure, music and vision languished in Boston.

And there you have the existential uncertainties involved in a conductor search. You don't really know what you've got till the person arrives and unpacks the trunk. Think the Red Sox, looking for a pitcher and deciding Dice-K was the messiah. Turns out, dice was the word for him.

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Ozawa announced his departure three years before the date, so the orchestra had plenty of time to mount a search. Levine's exit was a shaky house of cards that collapsed all at once. From this point, simply naming a conductor will take two years or more, then a year or more before the chosen one can take the throne. Here's a survey of that intricate and amorphous process. It's like a roadmap where there are no roads.

Orchestra manager Mark Volpe says the BSO will form a search committee made up of four players elected by the orchestra, four members of the orchestra board, plus himself and the BSO artistic administrator. Orchestra board members are wealthy enthusiasts and patrons, volunteers not usually trained in music. Since the late 19th century, when Boston Brahmin Henry Lee Higginson created the Boston Symphony and ran it as his own little fiefdom, the history of orchestras has partly been a matter of conductors and musicians chipping away at the power of boards, so far with middling success.

The opinion of the players counts now, but the board still holds the power because they are the legal fiduciaries. If a music director does something outrageous or alienates the orchestra or plays too much music not enough people like, the board fires his backside. Boards have ousted conductors like Mahler, in New York, to Stokowski, in Philadelphia (the latter at the peak of his popularity, because he insisted on playing the Schoenberg violin concerto). When looking for a conductor, boards traditionally go for the more glamorous candidates, because boards tend to know more about money than music.

Among the first things the BSO search committee has to do is fill out the roster of guest conductors for the next couple of years. At the same time they have to decide on the job description for the coming music director. In that description, the artistic issue always comes first, but after that come many, many other issues relating to Tanglewood, fundraising, external commitments, community, age, health, availability, gender, chemistry, and so on, more or less endlessly. On the line are jobs, reputations, organizations, and millions of dollars.

Over the coming seasons the guest conductors will be a mix of maestros known and new to the orchestra. Every player in the orchestra fills out a grade form for every guest. Players are highly picky, but when a conductor gives the downbeat they know the real thing when they see it. (Except when they're wrong.) Since anybody who is anybody is scheduled years ahead, it will probably take at least two years for the orchestra to see all persons of interest. Meanwhile, among the guest conductors in the next year or two, who is a real contestant in the beauty contest and who is not, says manager Volpe, is "fluid." In other words, they're not saying. From this stage until the end, the cards will be played very, very close, and speculation will fester month after month.

At last, the search committee "recommends" a name. The full orchestra board, with its own agenda, makes the decision. But if the final decision is not to the orchestra's liking, there will be big, public trouble. A case in point: When Marin Alsop became the first woman to be named conductor of a major U.S. orchestra, much of the musical world cheered, but the Baltimore Symphony virtually revolted against the board that hired her. Whether that had to do with Alsop's gender or her chops was the question, though of course the orchestra claimed the latter. That Alsop would keep her job was a foregone conclusion in any case. Under no circumstances could Baltimore jettison a historic female conductor before she took the podium. Everybody had to suck it up and hope for the best. Alsop is still at the helm in Baltimore and doing well, thank you very much, with a contract to 2015.

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