Europe: Still better than us

Jaap Van Zweden was selected to be the next conductor of the New York Philharmonic, taking over in a couple years. Another prime American orchestra gig goes to another medium-profile European dude. In the wake of LA’s Gustavo Dudamel appointment, the trend seemed to be towards young, energetic guys, even if they lacked Dudamel’s charisma and escaped-mental-patient-plotting-to-destroy-the-dam haircut, which is how we ended up with Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Andris Nelsons, Ludovic Morlot, et al. Alan Gilbert was in this wave, too.

I was happy at the time to see an American get arguably the most prestigious conducting post in the States (friendly reminder that it’s a spot previously held down by the likes of Mahler, Toscanini, and Bernstein), even if it came with the even more American appearance of flagrant nepotism, rightly or wrongly. I thought it might be something of a turning point for American orchestras in general.

Nope. Supposedly the NYPO had their eye on Esa-Pekka Salonen, but he withdrew, so they went with Jaap. I like Jaap. His Bruckner cycle is pretty great (including my favorite performance of the Third on record) and I heard him conduct a killer Brahms 3 in Dallas a couple years back. He reminds me of Solti when he’s on, and that’s something the NYPO could use; a great deal of the performances I’ve attended lack energy, regardless of who was on the podium.

But, once again, a great American orchestra gives the reins to anyone but an American. By my incredibly unofficial count, that makes three of the top 20 or so bands in the U.S. that have Americans as their principal conductors (four depending on where you rank the folks in Kansas City). Michael Tilson Thomas should never leave San Francisco (please stay forever, MTT), so take him out of the discussion, but David Robertson? Marin Alsop? JoAnn Falletta? Hell, Joshua Bell has been doing the St.-Martin-In-The-Fields gig. How about Edwin Outwater? William Eddins? Michael Stern?

It’s confounding. Jaap van Zweden certainly isn’t a nobody, but he’s not exactly Riccardo Muti. If you’re going to give the keys to someone who isn’t an out-and-out legend, why not give them to one of the apex Americans like Robertson or make some history by appointing a woman like Alsop or Falletta, or, perhaps best of all, take a chance on a well-respected but under-the-radar option like Eddins? I’d almost get it if Chailly wanted the job and they offered it to him. I understand their interest in Salonen. But God dammit if it isn’t yet another example of the hero worship of the outsider in American symphony culture.

I’m sure this post makes me sound like a xenophobic prick, and that’s fine. The truth is, until we start to respect the amazing quality of the musicians we’ve produced ourselves by giving them opportunities to shine under our brightest lights, we’re always going to be behind the curve, waiting for conductors to be vetted by audiences elsewhere so as to satisfy our need for a splash. Why don’t WE be the ones to unleash a shiny new talent onto the world of symphonic music?

We had an opportunity to do that and watched it go by. Again.

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6 thoughts on “Europe: Still better than us

  1. Why does it bother you? Its about the best music played by the best musicians and the best conductors. Music should break down barriers.
    My local orchestra, the Liverpool Philharmonic has a young Russian conductor, I don’t give a monkey’s.

  2. @Paul. The point you make is irrelevant to this particular post. Crackladen is stating that it would be nice to see an American trained conductor in an American symphony, period. I have been a professional musician for forty years. Frankly, I am tired of the boring fascination some Americans have with White male, European born and bred, conservatory-trained conductors as somehow being superior in knowledge, ability, and talent. While I agree with you, Paul, that ethnicity, nationality, and gender should not matter, they most certainly DO, at least to the hiring committees of US symphonies. Their posturing assumes that only a certain “type” is qualified, based on European birthright and training.
    This is the BS of politics in the Arts.

  3. Sir Thomas Beecham was of the same opinion. “Why engage second rate foreign conductors when Britain has so many second rate conductors of her own?” he asked.

  4. So you consider van Zweden a second rate conducter? I don’t think so.

  5. Lol! I’ve never heard that quote. It’s spot on.

  6. I don’t consider him second rate in terms of skill or artistry. But I do consider him second “tier” or whatever unit you wish to apply when it concerns his stature and reputation internationally. My point is that there are American conductors who exist within his sphere in a way that there may not be in the sphere of Muti, for instance, except MTT.

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