Has Boston become the new sick man of musical America?

Has Boston become the new sick man of musical America?


norman lebrecht

January 17, 2012

There has been a nasty business at the New England Conservatory, where an authoritarian president has sacked a popular and experienced orchestra leader and dissimulated the cause for his dismissal with an imputed sex slur. We await a rely to our questions from President Tony Woodcock and so do lots of followers of a crisis facebook site.

Opera Boston has been shut down because the main backer didn’t like the chief executive and withdrew his cash (doesn’t happen in mixed state-private funded companies).

And the Boston Symphony Orchestra is no nearer to finding a music director now that Riccardo Chailly is on medical leave and Andriss Nelsons is playing with his new baby.

It sounds like an awful lot of crises for one city to be having at the same time and makes you wonder whether the malaise has not been brewing for much longer. Boston, unless it gets its act together, risks becoming the sick man of American classical music, overtaking Philadelphia.


  • Andrew Bennett says:

    Not sure that the coincidence is much more than that. And it overlooks the fact that the other major classical music player, Boston Lyric Opera, has made great strides in the last couple of years. Their artistic achievements are widely reported and the financial side will have been helped by record fundraising reported at the end of last year: http://www.bizjournals.com/boston/news/2011/11/15/boston-lyric-opera-raises-5m-in-a-year.html

    • Nick B says:

      The Handel & Haydn Society is also thriving under new MD Harry Christophers…and a new concert hall is opening in the expansion of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. Perhaps a transition phase, but certainly not “the new sick man.”

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Andrew and Nick bring up important examples of thriving Boston institutions and there are many more, some of which are mentioned in other messages below.

        I don’t understand the logic behind a statement like “Boston, unless it gets its act together, risks becoming the sick man of American classical music, overtaking Philadelphia.” What does it mean for a city to get its act together, especially an American one where there is no central government planning and it all depends on individual initiatives? And what does it mean to become “the new sick man”? I don’t understand those generalizations, especially because the crises seem unrelated to each other.

  • ariel says:

    Boston as a ‘”classical ” musical centre has long been on “life support “, it once had a large solid core audience
    for “classical ” music but as with other major US cities that is fast disappearing , the attendant universities give the
    city an air of culture , but it is barely better than some of the mid western cities Boston looks down on . As in most
    major US cities the culture is about baseball , hockey ,football and out of embarrassment the city fathers point
    out that there is a great museum , and the famous Boston symphony as a sign of vibrant cultural life . It is
    all a game of mirrors . What keeps the city going is its past great history.

  • Sandy says:

    This statement bothers me: “Andriss Nelsons is playing with his new baby”. Newborns need to be cared for 24/7, and it’s serious work. You make it sound like he’s just bopping around having fun, when he’s probably barely getting 2 hours of sleep at a time. If it were a woman, I highly doubt you would have chosen that word (play).

    • Simon says:

      Well he’s doing pretty well on it from what I heard and saw on Friday night when he conducted the Brahms Haydn Variation, Rach 1 but especially in Also Sprach Zarathrustra – the guy certainly knows what he’s doing in Strauss! The CBSO sounded fantastic BTW even in Sheffield’s awful Oval Hall.

  • Thomas says:

    Many things about this bother me.

    The BSO musicians have said for a while that they don’t plan on finding a new music director for 2-3 years. Is the point really that Chailly getting sick or Nelsons taking care of his newborn are symptomatic of brewing troubles in the Boston musical community? Isn’t it much more to the point that Levine hung on to two major jobs while his health was clearly failing? The BSO has seemed without a full-time music director for years, even though Levine’s name was on the programs.

    Benjamin Zander hired a level 2 convicted sex offender to videotape children. The man had made videotapes of himself raping teenagers before coming to work for YPO, and it appears Zander knew this. Whether it’s a question of naivety or loyalty, it is a serious problem – it’s inexcusable. The outrage from parents would have been extraordinary, and NEC acted in the only sane way possible. I know he was a great conductor and did great things for YPO, and that being summarily fired was harsh, but YPO is a program for high schoolers and middle schoolers. Imagine if a principal of a high school had hired a man he knew had been convicted of child rape…

    But what bothers me most is the overwhelming negativity of this article. We have: The Radius Ensemble, the Juventas New Music Ensemble, The Firebird Ensemble, the Rhode Island Philharmonic, the Portland Symphony, smaller symphonies in New Bedford, Cape Cod, Lexington, Thayer, etc, the Boston Youth Symphony, Emmanuel Music, Blue Heron, Boston New Music Initiative… the list goes on and on. This is not to mention the major conservatory music programs in the area. It’s too bad that Opera Boston folded because their major backer went nuts, but I hardly see how any one of these crises is connected, never mind being somehow associated with endemic troubles in Boston’s musical culture. Sure, none of these are as storied or as famous as the BSO, but there’s a lot of phenomenal music-making going on around Boston. I, for one, will continue to enjoy it.

    • Waldo says:

      May I add to Thomas’ terrific post the following thriving Boston ensembles:

      A Far Cry Chamber Orchestra(fully unconducted chamber orchestra)
      Discovery Ensemble(Music Director Courtney Lewis, only Boston orchestra to do live concerts in inner city Boston schools)
      Boston Philharmonic(Benjamin Zander’s terrific semi-professional ensemble)
      Boston Civic Symphony
      NEC Philharmonia
      NEC Symphony
      NEC Chamber Orchestra
      Boston University Symphony
      Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra
      Boston Lyric Opera
      Boston Chamber Music Society
      BSO Chamber Music Society
      Boston Baroque
      Handel and Haydn Society

      Including Thomas’ list, I count 27 ensembles, not including the financially secure BSO, who has always said they will be hiring a music director within 2-3 years, not immediately, as Norman seems to suggest they should. All 27 of which enjoy regularly full houses and while not always financially secure(like any arts organization in the US), are thriving in Boston.

    • Rachel Newsam says:

      Well said!

      You forgot Boston String Players in your list! 🙂

  • ariel says:

    A perfect example of mirrors – if you were unlucky enough to hear some of the mentioned orchestras as I have(not
    fair to single out any group ) you go from suppressed disbelief to a feeling of sadness to a thought that at
    least they are not out rioting in the streets .Most better players if they get much of a salary are free lancers
    who travel from orchestra to orchestra to make a living and the level of playing is reflective of this . The repertoire
    cannot budge from the standards as the audience will bolt for the doors or not show up at all , so much for
    phenomenal music making . This is also reflective of most “symphony orchestras”across the country, many
    have ceased to exist to lack of interest which results in lack of funding . That the Opera Boston folded
    due to a few hundred thousand dollars not forthcoming from an unhappy patron did not speak well for the
    state of the opera company , It was a shoestring operation in the first place and though decent at times. from
    what I saw attracted a limited audience . The Boston Symphony is still on safe ground but it is all a matter of
    time .