Dead end: Zurich drops young maestro

Dead end: Zurich drops young maestro


norman lebrecht

August 17, 2016

The Tonhalle orchestra has told its young music director, Lionel Bringuier, that his four-year contract will not be renewed. He will leave in the summer of 2018.

lionel bringuier

Lionel was just 26 when he won the job and friends gave him good warning that he was walking into a difficult orchestra with a half-dead, geriatric audience.

But the arrival of a new general director,  Ilona Schmiel, and the prospect of heading an international ensemble in a city where money is no object were irresistible.

The musicians, at first effusive about Lionel’s gifts, soon began grumbling. Now, he’s out and it’s back to square one for both maestro and orchestra.

Lionel will soon find another job, possibly in his native France. He shares a manager with Gustavo Dudamel and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The Tonhalle will not find it so easy. Two possible contenders are Philippe Jordan, presently with Paris Opéra and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and the German conductor Michael Sanderling, presently with the Dresden Philharmonic. Ms Schmiel is not looking for excitement.

UPDATE: Why do Swiss orchestras keep getting it wrong?


  • John Borstlap says:

    “Ms Schmiel is not looking for excitement.” It depends what is understood as ‘excitement’. Also, it is not said that an ‘old audience’ is ‘half-dead’ because of not wanting ‘excitement’. It is, in theory, quite possible that a ‘young audience’ forcefully demanding ‘excitement’, is actively destroying the art form, like ignorant youngsters slamming the antique furniture of their parents.

    • John Borstlap says:


      If there is in Zurich an audience problem, that is quite understandable. If this concert of the Tonhalle Orchester with Bringuier is a representative example, it shows good playing in combination with bad programming:

      The Brahms Double Concerto with Scriabin’s hysteria, alternating with two pieces by artist-in-residence Jorg Widmann, whose (post-)modernist pieces have no points of contact with either of the two other works, which themselves occupy extreme places at the range of the same tradition, highlighting each other’s negative qualities. Such programm is bound to cause irritation and confusion in a well-meaning audience, and the Widmann pieces sound like a cynical, nihilistic comment on the other works.

      The 2nd of Widmann’s pieces has a quite beautiful beginning though, but alas, it looses itself in pointless meandering.

      In the early 20C, Viennese audiences protested at Schoenberg’s performances, not because they objected to modernity, but because they felt their culture was being demolished, music being an important part of their cultural identity. This destruction was wholeheartedly applauded by the modernist elite of the time (and thereafter), but today Vienna is an island of traditional European art and music which draws crowds from all over the world who want to experience something of the thrill of a humanist culture. Maybe Zurich is a comparable case of culture war.

  • Mike says:

    Maybe orchestras shouldstop hiring ‘young maestros’ ?

    • mbhaz says:

      Amen to that! So many orchestras have sold their souls to hire young, attractive “conductors” – both male and female. They seem to think that anyone can conduct, so let’s get someone who looks good on a magazine cover and will fool young, potential audiences that we’re hip. Rarely have these young, inexperienced conductors proven to be worth it. Let them start in the hinterlands, or even better, work their way up through opera houses like the great maestros of the past did.

      • Anon says:

        What a load of absolute drivel. I am one of these so-called young conductors, and whilst I’m flattered to even consider for one moment that I’m good looking (unlikely!), I’m frankly insulted that you think that’s why we’re booked by orchestras. Might it possibly be because we’re good at conducting……?

        • Ratatouille says:

          Problem is that most of these “baby conductors” do not have the wisdom or experience to be good Music Directors.

          Certainly, invite them on as guest conductors.

        • mbhaz says:

          Hopefully you’re a good conductor – you can read a score, you know something about every single instrument in the orchestra, you understand orchestration, have a clear, accurate beat, know something of music history. And that loud and fast doesn’t make music more meaningful. But…if you think that the conducting profession is somehow magically exempt from the personal appearance of the man/woman you’re sadly mistaken and really naive. Appearances matter in every human endeavor like it or not. Study after study confirms it in businesses, schools, politics, TV, film…everywhere! The person who can evaluate someone without giving any thought to the appearance is rare indeed.

          I’m not saying not to book young people and give them the opportunity. If they have the talent, sure, do it. But as a player, you can instantly spot the rookie who hasn’t a clue what he’s doing. Fortunately, most young conductors get gigs as assistants somewhere, or start with a smaller, regional orchestra. They start out doing pops or children’s concerts. They learn their craft, which takes a long time, and then either through luck or skill, rise. Some, but few, will become legends.

          What really matters, besides a lot of podium time learning, is having played in an orchestra. That’s what really hacks me off; conductors who have no orchestral playing experience. They’re the worst. Every football coach has played the game. School head masters have been teachers. They were in the trenches. A conductor who hasn’t spent time in the trenches is just awful. That’s why coming up through the opera system, as a repetitur, was so meaningful.

          • Mathieu says:

            What about conductors whose main instrument is the piano and who therefore cannot (if only very rarely) play in orchestras? You seem to imply that they should become repetiteurs, but what about those who are not primarily opera conductors?

        • NIC says:

          “Might it possibly be because we’re good at conducting……?”
          Highly unlikely. Ask any orchestra musician. With notable exceptions, younger than about 65 have no idea. And that is especially true for conductors that study the fine (mostly english) art of NOT rehearsing.
          How about that?

      • Anon2 says:

        I think orchestras should absolutely be giving young conductors a chance. Bring in some new blood to spice things up! Give them a chance to grow and expand their skills on the job.

        I worked with him this past summer in Washington DC and I thought he was absolutely great! He had many great ideas and executed them well.

        As a young person that is a member of an orchestra, I get sick of hearing that young people need to start at the bottom and work their way up for “experience.” I am so thankful I had the opportunity to be thrown right in and grow into the job (I am still growing.)

        Give this guy a chance. I really wish him luck because he is great. Can’t wait to see where he ends up and to hopefully work with him again very soon.

        • Ratatouille says:

          Young conductors and musicians are hardly an endangered species. Au contraire. They are pushing out experienced and deserving older professionals. There is such an obsession with youth and “spicing things up” that older musicians are being displaced.

          What kind of profession is this if you can only work until you’re 40?

        • Steven Holloway says:

          Sorry about this, but when you say were thrown into and grew into the job, you’re mighty close to describing your younger self as an apprentice. I don’t want my car fixed by an apprentice, and I don’t pay a load of bucks to hear an apprentice orchestra.

      • Gary says:

        ” Let them start in the hinterlands…”

        Well, what’s is Zurich if not hinterlands?

      • Steven Holloway says:

        Spot on! And also true of many young instrumentalists — its no coincidence that so many look so photogenic. Frankly, they are signed up for their sex appeal, and they dress accordingly. It’s been a major problem for years, and it came to mind recently when I came across one of the exceptions, one previously unknown to me: Alice Sara Ott, a pianist with much to offer. She is beautiful, no doubt about that, but performing she dresses very appropriately for the occasion, and an interview revealed a notably thoughtful musician. And there are others similar, of course, but too, too many who reveal nothing in performance about the music, but rather a lot of their bodies. Some may remember the cover picture of a CD of Vanessa-Mae, so close to porn involving an underage girl (she was 15) that Gramophone refused to review it. This was, of course, the ‘old’ Gramophone, before it turned into a disastrously shallow magazine and promptly lost half its circulation. I think the Vanessa-Mae debacle marked the start of this continuing problem.

    • Robert Holmén says:

      Where do the old maestros come from if no one is hiring young maestros?

  • harold braun says:

    Shocking!Lionel Bringuer for my money is the most gifted among young conductors.Right because he refuses to be “exciting”and playing to the gallery.A famous singer friend of mine,who worked with him,put it this way:He combines youthful charm with the wisdom of a seasoned conductor.
    Especially in french repertoire,he is a worthy successor of Munch,Paray,Ansermet or Dutoit,combining clarity of the line with fabulous orchestral clarity and balance.

  • Peter Bassano says:

    I do remember when Abaddo, Maazel, Rattle and Salonen were “young” conductors, all of them superb technically. I have concerns about conductors who take off directly from a conducting class via a competition. It wouldn’t do any modern day young conductors to do a spell as a player in a symphony orchestra to see the other side of the argument.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Good point about conductors coming from the ranks of orchestras. Osmo Vänskä, Mikko Franck, Jaap van Zweden, and Manfred Honeck are some current examples that easily came to my mind.

  • John says:

    I’m kind of amused by this “young vs old” conductor discussion. Kind of reminds me of the “male vs female” conductor discussion, which is equally silly.

    How about we talk about ‘good and not-so-good’ conductors? Hard to measure, but start with the musicians they play for and have to take their measure each time he or she steps on the podium. But stop with this silly old/young nonsense.

  • Gerard says:

    Well, the Rotterdam Phil is looking for a new music director…i’ve seen Bringuierr once there in a wonderful french program (Roussel!), i thought he was very talented and the orchestra played fabulous. But the hall was almost empty…(thanks to dull and non adventurous programming the Rotterdam audience has lost most of it curiousness towards the non standard repertoire)

  • Pedro says:

    The Tonhalle is a good orchestra, and when conducted by great conductors it is still better. In the last two seasons I heard it play Mahler 7 and Deutsches Requiem under Haitink and both concerts were superb.

    Regadibg Bringuier, I didn’t enjoy very much what he did in last week’s Salzburg Camerata concert in Salzburg with Yuja Wang. The orchestra was worst than his own and Ma Mère l’Oye and the Dances of Galanta need some kind of virtuosity lacking there But he went well with Wang in Rapsody in Blue and the Ravel concerto.

    I also remeber a splendid Schumann 3 two years ago in Lisbon. In the same concert he manage to follow and help Nelson Freire who was having a bad day in Chopin 2.

  • Alexander Platt says:

    Please, please. He is obviously a very gifted musician, and not unattractive, but he is very very young and clearly has nothing to say. If he can just spend a decade away from the cameras — and, I’m sorry, but Zurich is not the hinterlands — then, given his style, he might just end up being the next Igor Markevitch.

  • Raffael Bietenhader says:

    What a bad article…Tonhalle orchestra Zurich will never have a problem to find a suitable MD.
    But as so often, things are written down on this blog, with little or no research done!!!