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?
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.
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.