Why the New York Philharmonic must settle for less

Why the New York Philharmonic must settle for less


norman lebrecht

January 28, 2016

When all is done and dusted, there is only one question to ask about the appointment of a new music director at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Simply this: If this was the last concert of your life, who would you get to conduct it?


Alan conducts the Stars Spangled Banner after the Serbian National Anthem, 8:10pm, 10/24/10. Photo by Chris Lee

Very few would come up with the name that the New York Phil put yesterday in the frame.

Yet New York City has the world’s biggest and richest classical audience. It is New York, New York, for heaven’s sake. Why must it always settle for less than the best?

Here’s a list of is music directors in modern times:
1909-1911 Gustav Mahler
1911-1923 Josef Stransky
1922-1930 Willem Mengelberg
1928-1936 Arturo Toscanini
1936-1941 John Barbirolli
1943-1947 Artur Rodziński
1947-1949 Bruno Walter (music advisor)
1949-1950 Leopold Stokowski (co-principal conductor)
1949-1958 Dimitri Mitropoulos
1958-1969 Leonard Bernstein
1969-1970 George Szell
1971-1977 Pierre Boulez
1978-1991 Zubin Mehta
1991-2002 Kurt Masur
2002-2009 Lorin Maazel
2009–2017 Alan Gilbert
2017 Jaap van Zweden

It goes, more or less, hit – miss – hit – hit- miss – miss – dunno.

Then Mitropolous, Bernstein, Boulez. After which, it has been almost consistently miss. Why is that?

In past times, the music director would be chosen by the manager and endorsed by the board. Latterly, the players are told they get to choose the music director. But that’s an illusion. The manager (now known as president) takes care to present the players with a carefully censored selection of guest conductors, the ones he is confident that he can personally manage. Blockbuster names and rising talent do not get on the list.

And the board has a lot to say in this. They don’t want a maestro of ambition, a man (let alone a woman) who might cause turbulence. They want a manageable investment.That’s why the New York Philharmonic gets the music directors it does. The ones it deserves.

van zweden lebrecht


Jaap Van Zweden has his supporters – you can read their comments on Slipped Disc – but he’s far from being a first choice, either on track record or even on the manager’s shortlist. He’s another miss.


  • John de Jong says:

    Give the man a chance and let’ s see in a couple of years.

  • Guus Mostart says:

    Please Norman, give it a rest.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      That’s my last word on the subject, Guus. For the time being.

      • Guus Mostart says:


      • cherrera says:

        You haven’t posted in a while on why there are still no blacks in the Vienna Philharmonic.

        Then you can come back to why is Jaap van Zweden still a white man.

      • Robert says:

        OK, now on to Dallas. Who would they want that would want them back?

        The Dallas Symphony may not seem an important conductor position worthy of blog coverage but I’ll note that the guy there now just got hired by the New York Philharmonic.

        And according to your list it’s among the better paying spots in the country.

      • Holly Golightly says:

        Interesting observations anyway!! The politics of classical music is the politics of fierce ego, competition and bitching!! Nothing like it in the world, IMO.

      • Txmusiclover says:

        Mr. Lebrecht, I urge you (and any local New Yorkers who are grumbling about Van Zweden’s new job) to lay your hands as soon as possible on the new recording of him conducting the DSO in Mahler’s 3rd. It is a true stunner, a thrilling and exquisite performance. & NY can only hope the acoustics of the renovated Geffen can touch those of the Meyerson.

  • John Borstlap says:

    It begins to look like a personal ‘Hetze’. Only someone who is entirely ignorant of this new music director’s qualities, or who has never attended a live concert led by him, can come-up with such persistently restricted view.

    Addendum: As far as I know, Boulez was a disaster with the NY Phil, in spite of his matrasses instead of seats. And when Bernstein was appointed, was he then already the great name he became later-on? He became great thanks to his work with the NY Phil.

    Choices of conductors are always a risk, irrelevant from the party who makes the choice, board or players. Best is to trust the instincts of the musicians.

  • Dave says:

    If it was the last concert of my life I wouldn’t want the NYPO to be playing it.

  • Emil Archambault says:

    There are at least 15 orchestras in the world who can all claim to lay hands on the “best conductor in the world”. If that is your criterion (the ONE conductor you would want most to hear before you die), then you need to find a way to get one conductor to do them all. And frankly, Honeck and Salonen would not be my first choice for “the conductor I would want for my last ever concert.”

    By the way, if I were to get a conductor for my last ever concert, I’m not sure I would bother with gender or ethnic origin. You’ve argued that the NYP should have simultaneously hired the best (European) conductor, a woman, and someone from a minority. JVZ is both too well-established and not established enough for you. Seems like you can’t make up your mind, and just want to blame the NYP.

  • dB says:

    Bernstein had not been music director of a single orchestra before the New York Phil. Van Zweden has been music director of six different orchestras, all of which got better during his tenure. Shall we leave it at that?

    • Kevin Scott says:

      Do you count the New York City Symphony, which Bernstein was music director of from 1945 to 1947, as well as his one-season stint as music director of the Symphony of the Air from 1955 to 1956?

      • Cesare Civetta says:

        those 2 orchestras were not full time ensembles, actually they were free lancers thrown together for a concert at a time.

  • Daniel F. says:

    The blogkeeper is calling his great friend, Kurt Masur, a “miss”?? Would he have done that were KM still alive? Be that as it may, Masur restored the playing standards of the NYP to the point where that orchestra could be taken seriously again. Was he the man for the “last concert”? Probably not, but he was exactly what the NYP needed at the time.

    By the way, Szell was never appointed music director. In the years indicated on the blogkeeper’s list, he was called “Music Advisor”.

  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    John Barbirolli counts as a miss? Bloody Hell!

    • Respect says:

      Yes, Barbirolli was a miss at the NYP. His tenure was widely regarded as premature, and he had the hardest task in the planet, following Toscanini. Of course he grew into one of the greats, but he wasn’t at that time, even if very talented.

      Perhaps van Sweden will rise to the task.

  • Rgiarola says:

    Let’s remind that on 2009, our Mr. Lebrecht started a comparison between the choices of LA Philharmonic and NY Phil at that time. He was a strong support of the first and astonished with the second as usual. On 2015, Dudamel is in deep trouble to move from the wunderkind image to another more mature and serious, besides been involved with Latin American killers dictators. Gilbert had been much better for NY than the most optimistic could believe 7 years ago.

    So, no news concerning 2016 choices.

  • Alexandra Ivanoff says:

    The NY Phil chooses lesser lights because they don’t want to spend Megabucks. Thus, Gilbert (who came from the inside) and now van Zweden, whose salary potential at the moment can’t (yet) compete with the brighter lights.
    Bernstein, btw, was already a musical sensation (due chiefly to West Side Story) when he was chosen, thus bankable in the NYPO minds at that time — a very different time, financially.
    van Zweden is safe at this point because if for any reason he backs out or is fired, they won’t have to pay major compensation to break a contract. It’s all about money management, not artistic management. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen what van Zweden will do.

    • Robert says:

      “now van Zweden, whose salary potential at the moment can’t (yet) compete with the brighter lights…”

      According to this blog, JvZ was already the fifth highest paid US Conductor. It looks like he was yet competing.

  • Nigel Harris says:

    As to the original question: my ideal last concert would be Bruckner 8, conducted by Haitink. But if he were unavailable or indisposed, van Zweden would be my clear second choice. Obviously different people hear different things, but to my ear his recorded Bruckner cycle is easily the best since Haitink and Wand; and you could even make a case for claiming that he combines the best elements of both those greats. I genuinely can’t hear anything remotely second-rate in van Zweden’s work, and to my mind New York deserves congratulation on a very discerning (if admittedly not obvious) choice.

    • Pedro says:

      Haitink is for me the best conductor in the world. Great Deutsches Requiem in Zurich, Schumann cycle in Amsterdam, Schubert 8 in Lucerne, Bruckner 8 in Salzburg, Mahler 1 in London in the last six months.

      • Bruce says:

        Haitink got the Concertgebouw Orchestra job at age 29, by the way. Probably seen as a risky choice back then.

        • Marko Kassenaar says:

          That’s why they paired him with veteran Eugen Jochum in the first years of his tenure. Like the old gardener growing the vulnerable flower. Worked out quite well for Mr. Haitink, didn’t it? Having said this, it was Eduard van Beijnum who virtually chose Haitink as his successor by letting him do a lot of concerts as a youth and promoting him relentlessly.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Entirely agreed with this comment. I got 2 of his Bruckner discs and they are marvels.

  • cherrera says:

    JvZ is as well-known, as famous, as talented as a certain Krill Petrenko.

    Did Berlin get what it deserved as well? There were more top names available when Berlin made its choice than when NY made its choice.

    JvZ belongs on the list of Mahler, Toscanini, Bernstein, as much as Petrenko belongs on the list of Furtwangler, Karajan, Abbado.

    Just pointing out the obvious.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Entirely to the point.

    • Marko Kassenaar says:

      Both Petrenko and JvZ have to work their way up to thát particular Pantheon of Maestros, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them getting there in the end. As a comparison: few concert-goers gave a penny for Haitink when he started. There’s a legendary infamous remark from an elderly lady in the audience exclaiming “My God, what a baby!”, when she saw the young Haitink descending the stairs of the Concertgebouw. A remark he heard. Obviously, she was proven wrong.

  • Milka says:

    Given the art is on life support as it is does it make much difference
    as to the undertaker ?

    • opus 131 says:

      The art has been pronounced dead for centuries. And yet plenty of orchestras (not to mention chamber groups) still provide extraordinary spiritual nourishment for impressive audiences night after night.

  • Ian Murray says:

    Whilst it remains to be seen how successful JvZ becomes in New York, this discussion makes me realise how lucky we are in London to have Dutoit, Orama, Salonen, Jurowski and Gergiev/Rattle as principal conductors.

  • Cesare Civetta says:

    the system is that an American conductor of a big orchestra brings in donations, millions of or tens of millions of dollars of donations to an orchestra through wealthy friends. artistic preferences are secondary.

  • opus 131 says:

    I’ve played under Jaap (or as we call him, “Nope”) many times. He is a one trick pony. If intensity is called for, he can duly summon up impressive intensity. If anything else is called for–serenity, languor, nobility, etc. etc.–he still summons up hyper intensity. I find his interpretations relentless, exhausting, and profoundly unsatisfying. I sure am glad I don’t play in the NY Phil!

    • Mlka says:

      We can all be glad you don’t play in the NY Phil if you read music as ineptly as you read my comment.

      • Holly Golightly says:

        I guess commenting the way you do is the only means you have of garnering attention. You poor soul. I’m suspecting nobody in the real world takes you at all seriously.

    • herrera says:

      There’s going to be an opening at Dallas, why don’t you apply; show us how much better you are than JvZ.

      • opus 131 says:

        Ah, so only conductors are entitled to an opinion about conductors? And an orchestra musician’s perspective on a conductor is utterly without value? Nice going, Herrera!

    • John Borstlap says:

      His Brucker performances are very noble. Tristan and Parsifal in Amsterdam were full of nuance. I find this comment incomprehensible if coming from a player under JvZw.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    This is nuts. First, who the heck out there is under age 80 and is worthy of a chapter in a book of great conductors of the past? Barenboim? The Golden Age of Conductors is long gone and never coming back. JvZ is at least as good as anyone out there, and far better than most. He brings vast performing experience with him with The Dude utterly lacks. The real question should be WHAT WORK WOULD YOU WANT TO HEAR AS YOUR LAST? That’s easy: Elgar 2nd. Then who plays it: London Philharmonic. Then comes the conductor: Mark Elder. Can’t get any better than that.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      This one is also interesting: https://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/concert/14

      I believe that they are offering the complete concert for free on DCH.

      • John Borstlap says:

        What a fantastic talent Petrenko is, and how interesting that he did Elgar II with the BPO, this piece has been quite neglected in Germany. With some luck he will also, at some stage, do Elgar III ( the elaboration from the sketches by Payne).

    • Milka says:

      Don’t live in the past –it’s done .. to read much of the so called expert BS comments
      here on who is and who is not explains why the art is moribund. The question as to the last concert of your life conducted by who is inane -any idiot can wave his arms about,it is what last music you want to hear – always the cart before the horse . Mr. van Zweden is
      hired let him have his day in the sun –he may yet give another cycle of Beethoven
      symphonies for the mourners attending these events who then can go home
      and compare the latest in remembering the last who did the same .

      • Holly Golightly says:

        The art is not “moribund”. You’ve had your head up a long, dark passage for too long – that’s the problem.

  • NY4LIFE says:

    JvZ may not be the greatest conductor, but he sure can help you park your car.


  • Andrew Buelow says:

    I think the premise of this article is faulty. “The last concert of your life?” You don’t choose a music director that way, and it would be a totally irresponsible way to make such a choice for ANY orchestra. And you may be right in your suggestion that the president and Board want a music director they can control and one who won’t rock the boat, but are you basing these claims on solid information, on anything other than cynicism?

  • Enrico Votio del Refettiero says:

    The question shall be: why all the conductors of the New York Philharmonic comes from of the same agency (IMG)? Alan Gilbert before and also Jaap van Zweden now. Has this to do with the fact that the Artistic Administrator of the orchestra (Mr. Ed Yim) is a former IMG manager (and one of the big ones). Does the conflict of interest – if not the decency – have an effect on these kind of decisions? I was under the impression that Judson times were over. I see this is not the case…

    • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

      When you say ‘all’, you mean, of course’ the last two. Not exactly damning proof of a conspiracy, is it?

  • Dan says:

    Did this really happen? It’s NY yet it’s so different from “Mozart in the Jungle.”

  • Peter says:

    “Yet New York City has the world’s biggest and richest classical audience.”

    This is nothing but wishful thinking.
    Just look at the numbers. Per capita NY has a lower classical music participation than most civilized western metropolis outside of the US.
    Probably cities like Berlin, Vienna, Leipzig, Munich, Moscow, St. Petersburg, are much richer as far as classical music is concerned.

    NY is the capital of capitalism. Not of the arts.

  • Milka says:

    Peter must be aware that if you make it in NY you can make it anywhere whereas if
    you make it in Berlin that’s it, you’ve made it inBerlin .
    Who gives a rats ass about what Moscow or ST. Petersburg thinks of the arts ?
    There is not a major city in the world that is not based on capitalism whether private
    or state run .

    • John Borstlap says:

      Berlin has a very rich musical landscape with many very good orchestras and a large music audience. The same for Munich, and Vienna of course, and many other cities in Europe. St Petersburg and Moskow have excellent orchestras and operas with long traditions. For serious people, who is ‘gonna make it’ in NY, is in itself no garantee for any artistic quality. The Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic, belonging to the world top orchestras, did not invite JvZweden because ‘he made it in NY’ but because they sensed real quality in the man. His tenure in NY will not suddenly make a change in their estimation, which is based upon what he delivers. Given the caution orchestras exercise, especially in these days, mere hype does not count.

    • Peter says:

      Hot air. A little drunk, or a lot. That’s Milka’s trade mark.

      Shall we make a list of 1st and 2nd generation Russian born/trained/educated classical musicians vs American counterparts?
      I estimate it’s a list about 20:1 for Russia.

  • Milka says:

    Rattle the gate and out come the two barking guard dogs Borstlap and Peter .
    They have no idea at what they are barking , but have the reflex that they must at all costs
    bark at something seemingly challenging their ignorance .If I recall the 20 to 1 in favor
    of mother Russia most were waiters at the old Russian Tea room .

    • John Borstlap says:

      If you had taken the trouble to read what I had written, and had taken your medicine, you would maybe have noticed that it merely was a factual correction, not even directed at you personally. I know, it’s difficult to notice things, but really, it might be worth the effort.

    • Holly Golightly says:

      Make that a third!! We all recognize Trolls when we see them. Go away and play with your train set.

  • Peter says:

    The conductor cult is a satanic cult.
    The decline of classical music at the end of the 19th century correlates with the rise of the conductor cult. Conductors are taken way too important and paid way too much money. Imagine a world without conductors. Musicians would actually have to be musicians again. Nobody to blame for the own mediocrity. Money that could be spent with a purpose.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “Decline of musical culture at the end of the 19th century”: Strauss, Mahler, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Debussy, Franck, … etc.

  • Tim Page says:

    It’s not the 20th century anymore, and New York is no longer the cultural capital of the United States. I remember all the talk about Michael Tilson Thomas going to the NYP a few years back. To which the only possible response was — Seriously? New York? And leave San Francisco? For what possible reason?

    • Milka says:

      There was no implication that it was the cultural centre .It is how the city
      is perceived by the rest of the world that drives performers to “make it in NY”.
      The NY audience in general is not an easy or forgiving audience -it lets you
      know it is an audience that has seen it “all “, heard it all ..not easily impressed,
      a cold and demanding audience and bored , it is not a London audience
      or a Munich audience , there rarely is a second chance – it is a terrible audience
      unless it takes you to its heart .And thus the old saying if you make it inNY you can make
      it anywhere ,and why the performers come , to play the odds.Many don’t come and have
      successful careers staying in Europe and doing the Asian bit . You can have trouble
      at La Scala but to be booed at the Met is a different cup of tea to the rest of the world .
      Mr. Thomas is a big fish in a small pond,he is no dummy ..NY would have spit him out in no time .and then where? he has a fine group rather unimaginative but it suits SF

      • Tim Page says:

        Only New Yorkers think that their city means much of anything to the rest of the world. It did once, and there are still many brilliant people there, but what is left today is not much more than a New York theme park. It is, as my son puts it, the world capital of the $90 mediocre meal.

        • Milka says:

          Nevertheless Mr. Page $90 meal or not they come in droves to NY . and there
          is not one performer worth his/her salt that doesn’t want a triumphant Carnegie
          recital listed in their CV flyers . It’s the nature of the beast.

          • Peter says:

            It’s a good demonstration that musicians in average are not the smartest lot after all. Myths die slowly, so does Carnegie Hall.
            And what drives musicians to NY is money and vanity. They pay very well there and it tickles your ego. I know for fact a couple of singers and conductors who say that, confidentially.

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    Norman, how about devoting your influence to get a hall that the NyPhil deserves, instead of the yet again to be “renovated” barn at Lincoln Center? Never mind music directors. New York, and Lincoln Center in particular, is full of oversized egos. I hope you are not one if them :-). So, please stop carping at the NYPhil and help them get a better hall at Lincoln Center (hint: get the whole place gutted, except for the outward structure, and construct a completely new space in it – good luck!).

  • sl says:

    I feel sorry for the New Yorkers. This is indeed a poor choice! The man is a 3rd rate bore – lots of hot air with nothing behind it. Incredible that someone like him could take the same position as Maazel, Bernstein, Mitropoulos etc. Sure, Gilbert was not terribly great either, but innovative and daring in regard to programming. In contrast to him, JvZ has a rather limited repertoire and not much interest in expanding it. Very disappointing.

    • John Borstlap says:

      To your information: In Dallas and Hong Kong he has included new music regularly, and always music that relates to orchestral performance practice. During his tenure at the Dutch Radio Phiharmonic, he has conducted a great variety of premieres, some of them quite challenging, and to great success. And, by the way, music is meant for people with a minimum of musical understanding.

      • sl says:

        “music is meant for people with a minimum of musical understanding”
        Isn’t this precisely what fascists and communists understood of music’s function?

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, language is not always easy: meant is: ‘at least one needs a minimum of musical understanding to…’ etc. Totalitarian regimes generally understood only that by annexing traditional art and / or music, they somehow may be seen as legitimate, and decent.

  • David Hyslop says:

    It was my pleasure to work with Jaap in my role as interim CEO of the Dallas Symphony for a year and a half. I also have had a long career in performing arts management and was CEO of 3 major American Orchestras. Jaap is a major talent and has transformed the Dallas Symphony. I also have heard him with the New York Philharmonic. Don’t ever underestimate Jaap . He and New York will do well.

  • Jackson says:

    since your are basically the donald trump of music ‘critics’ can you at least make your website more fun?

    like a ‘sopranos, they’re just like US’ feature, in which we see pics of sopranos eating waffles post Isolde. or: ‘who wore it best?’ and post two photos of conductors in tails. and we can vote. embrace your tabloid inner self. it can be nice to be the bar we wander home past, when all else is closed, on a wednesday.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The NY Phil has to cope with the problem of classical music in the context of modernity, more so than other orchestras:


    • Mlka says:

      One should read the subterranean at least once , if laughter was the desired end result
      it succeeds brilliantly – it is one of the best put ons i have ever come across- it reminds
      one of the Professor comedian mumbo jumbo lectures ( must be on Youtube)were even
      the ridiculous Professor cannot contain his nonsense without laughing .Changes my view
      of Mr. Borstlap -one clever dude to be able to make us believe all along that he was serious .

  • John Borstlap says:

    Dear Milka, you don’t get it, do you? Since you have exposed yourself on these pages as… well, let’s say, as Milka, any mockery, attack or condemnation counts as a wholehearted recommendation. So, thank you very much for your comment.

  • Milka says:

    There was no mockery,attack , nor condemnation if you read carefully, only
    admiration on how you carried this off…and if you compose equally well every major
    symphony orchestra must be clamoring to play your works .