Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Why Don’t More American Maestros Lead American Orchestras?

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When Leonard Bernstein was named music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, his appointment was hailed as a breakthrough for orchestra conductors from the United States.

For decades, American maestros had been cast aside in classical music, seen as inferior to Europeans. But Bernstein’s rise, recently glamorized in the Oscar-nominated “Maestro,” showed that conductors from the United States could compete with their finest counterparts across the Atlantic.

Commentators predicted a golden age for American conductors at the top American orchestras. Some followed in Bernstein’s footsteps — including protégés of his — and as recently as 2008, there were American music directors leading orchestras in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.

Today, the only one of those ensembles still led by an American is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Four of the 25 largest ensembles in the United States have an American at the podium, and at the nation’s biggest, most prestigious orchestras, American music directors are entirely absent.

“It means that we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Jonathon Heyward, who grew up in South Carolina and began serving as the Baltimore Symphony’s music director last fall. “We have to continuously think about ways to better relate to an American community.” (Heyward is one of those four American maestros at the largest ensembles today, along with Michael Stern in Kansas City, Giancarlo Guerrero in Nashville and Carl St.Clair at the Pacific Symphony in California.)

Classical music has long been a global industry. The Berlin Philharmonic is led by a Russian-born maestro, Kirill Petrenko; the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Germany, by a British-born conductor, Simon Rattle. Just as maestros from overseas have assumed top conducting posts in the United States, American artists have gone to Europe, Asia and elsewhere to lead renowned ensembles. Alan Gilbert, the former music director of the New York Philharmonic, now has orchestras in Germany and Sweden.

Some worry though that the industry could be missing an opportunity to broaden the appeal of classical music in the United States. Bernstein was not only an important conductor, but a skilled communicator, using televised Young People’s Concerts and other programs to demystify classical music for American audiences.

That mission was carried on in the work of a few of Bernstein’s protégés, like Michael Tilson Thomas, who as music director of the San Francisco Symphony made a series of documentaries about composers, and Marin Alsop, who as music director of the Baltimore Symphony frequently appeared on National Public Radio. More recently, Teddy Abrams, the music director of the Louisville Orchestra, has put down roots in Kentucky, embarking on an ambitious effort to make classical music a part of daily life.

But for the most part, said Leonard Slatkin, a veteran conductor from Los Angeles, orchestras seem to be chasing the “lure of the exotic.” He said that having more conductors with roots in the United States at premier ensembles was a matter of national pride.

“We have to be able to say: What is the American brand? Can conductors be something different and distinct?” said Slatkin, who has led the National Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony and the Detroit Symphony orchestras, among other ensembles. “There are wonderful musicians all over the world; that’s not the issue. It’s simply a matter of saying, if they can promote talent in other countries, why can’t we do it too?”

The role and identity of conductors has been front and center for many orchestras, which are still grappling with the lingering pain of the pandemic and have faced questions about the future of the field. Many ensembles are looking for music directors who can forge closer ties with communities, on top of helping with fund-raising and education programs. But modern maestros tend to lead jet-set lives, spending only as much as time in one place as contractually required.

A number of vacancies loom: Roughly a quarter of the music directors at the top 25 largest orchestras in the United States have departed or are planning to depart over the next several years, in Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Seattle and Salt Lake City.

JoAnn Falletta, who has led the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999, said that orchestras should seize the opportunity to appoint more American conductors. She said that many American musicians had exposure to works outside the traditional classical canon that are valuable, like those from the world of jazz.

“We know our musical language, our musical background,” she said. “We sort of take these things for granted: our sense of humor, our willingness to help people, our openness to things.”

Many artists say that national identity should not be an issue in classical music, which has a tradition of cultural exchange, such as the Mozart family’s tour of Western Europe in the 1760s. Foreigners have made lasting contributions to their ensembles and communities: Seiji Ozawa, who was Japanese and led the Boston Symphony from 1973 to 2002, for example, or Gustavo Dudamel, who was born in Venezuela and built a youth orchestra while leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and has risen to the rare level of celebrity beyond the world of classical music. (He will become the New York Philharmonic’s music and artistic director in 2026.)

Stéphane Denève, who leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the New World Symphony in Miami, was born in Tourcoing, France, but he calls himself “the most American French conductor ever.” He said that the best conductors help orchestras embrace a variety of cultures and shift among identities.

“Every orchestra in the world is searching for a music director that it has a certain chemistry with,” he said. “It’s wonderful to know that the question of nationality does not usually come into consideration — certainly not as a priority. For me, that is a beautiful thing.”

The question of American representation in conducting goes back to Bernstein, whose celebrated New York Philharmonic debut in 1943, when he was 25, was described as a “good American success story” by The New York Times. In “Maestro,” he is referred to as the “first great American conductor.” In New York, Bernstein helped elevate American composers and conductors, championing the music of Chadwick, Ives and Copland during his inaugural season.

Some American maestros gained prominence in the decades after Bernstein. But even as their numbers rose, Americans remained underrepresented, leading to perennial soul-searching and some xenophobia. “Does the American Conductor Have a Future?” read a headline in The Times in 1979. The article warned that “every top‐line American orchestra is now in foreign hands.”

When the topic came up in a 1999 television interview, Thomas, the former San Francisco Symphony music director, said that orchestras operated within a “conservative retro world” that had encouraged “the image of the old maestro from the old town someplace, who comes and does that traditional piece, with all of its usual mannerisms.”

“It is only since Bernstein,” he said, “that audiences have discovered how exciting it could be to discover music with someone who was from their own culture.”

The number of American conductors at top-tier orchestras reached a high point in the 2000s. James Levine led the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Lorin Maazel, the New York Philharmonic; Slatkin, the National Symphony Orchestra; Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony; and Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony. David Robertson was music director of the St. Louis Symphony, Gerard Schwarz held the same post at the Seattle Symphony, and so did Robert Spano at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Spano said that the number of American maestros seemed to rise and fall depending on the whims of orchestra administrators.

“Every decade or so, everyone wants a young conductor, then everybody wants an old conductor,” he said. “There are so many wonderful American conductors around. It’s just a matter of how the shuffleboard gets played out and what’s in fashion.”

Some experts say the issue goes deeper, and that American orchestras are not doing enough to nurture young conductors. Many ensembles employ assistant conductors, typically in their 20s and 30s, but rarely give them the opportunity to ascend to top jobs.

Simon Woods, the president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras, said assistant conductors were too often not given the chance to grow as artists. The system for training young conductors in the United States, he said, is “not well suited to the development of distinctiveness.”

“We need to take a hard look at what we’re asking of assistant conductors,” he said. “It’s a relentless job. Many feel overwhelmed by what it is required of them.”

In Europe, conductors-in-training often get practical experience with top orchestras early in their careers. In Finland, for example, which produces a disproportionate number of high-profile maestros, young artists are invited to conduct leading orchestras while still conservatory students, and they often secure managers soon after.

Hannu Lintu, a Finnish conductor, said that many young Americans lacked a similar launchpad.

“They are way behind their European colleagues early on,” he said. “They have wonderful schooling, they know a lot, they are great musicians, and they have worked as assistants at world-class orchestras. But they still don’t have careers.”

For younger Americans eager to experiment in music, the typical job description of a music director can be unappealing. The composer and conductor Matthew Aucoin, 33, said that the American canon was rapidly expanding and that it should not be surprising that some emerging artists in the United States do not want to follow career paths centered on European traditions.

“As American orchestral music continues to accumulate and continues to grow more diverse, I think we should take charge of the reality that we’re building our own tradition in this country,” he said. “We need stewards of that tradition, every bit as much as we need stewards of Beethoven and Brahms.”

For some American conductors, pursuing a career in Europe has proved more fruitful than staying at home. James Gaffigan, 44, an acclaimed maestro who was born in New York, has struggled to win a full-time position at an American ensemble, and has taken jobs in Germany and Spain instead.

Americans “have a chip on our shoulder — that things are better elsewhere,” Gaffigan said, adding that he felt that classical music would be more vibrant with more American conductors at home.

“It seems important to me that people in this country see that Americans can do this job,” he said. “American musicians and orchestras are great because we’re made up of everything. That’s the beauty of the United States, and we should celebrate it.”

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