Editorial: NY Philharmonic in chaos as boss walks out

Editorial: NY Philharmonic in chaos as boss walks out


norman lebrecht

January 24, 2017

Two pieces fell off the board last week and no-one saw where they pointed.

First, Ed Yim resigned as v-p of artistic planning, a key liaison between the chief executive and the music director.

Then, Lisa Mantone resigned after just as year as v-p in charge of fundraising.

Taken together, those defections spelled bad news on the two most important fronts. Confusion on the artistic and no money coming in from donors. And only Slipped Disc bothered to report them both.

Today, the third chess piece fell… and it was the king.

Matthew VanBesien, who after eight years playing horn in the Louisiana Philharmonic, made a fine career as an orchestra manager – Houston Symphony, Melbourne, New York – called time on frontline service and swanned off to work out his time on an arboreal campus in the Midwest.

Why he had to go will become clear in the coming days, but what he leaves behind is chaos and confusion.

VanBesien was responsible for persuading the players to accept Jaap Van Zweden as the next music director. The Dutchman is neither an international front-runner nor a charismatic character but the combination of the two Vans was supposed to be the formula that led the Philharmonic through a difficult period while its hall is refurbished.

That plan just bit the dust.

The three months’ notice that VanBesien has given is extremely abrupt by orchestra standards.

The future is anyone’s guess. But from today’s news it does not inspire confidence.


UPDATE: VanBesien: I want a more audacious job.

Here’s the press release the NY Phil have just scrambled together, an hour after Michigan announced its coup.



Team Led by Board Chairman Oscar S. Schafer and Vice Chairman Peter W. May Will

Lead Search Committee for Next President

New York Philharmonic Board Chairman Oscar S. Schafer today announced that Matthew VanBesien, who has served as President of the Philharmonic since 2012, will step down from the position on May 1, 2017. A search for a new president will begin immediately, conducted by a committee led by Mr. Schafer and which will include Vice Chairman Peter W. May, Jaap van Zweden, the Philharmonic’s future Music Director, and Members of the Board of Directors.

“Matthew has been a tremendous leader during his tenure at the New York Philharmonic and we thank him for all that he has accomplished,” said Mr. Schafer. “We have seen incredible strides in our artistic and institutional achievements, with initiatives like the NY PHIL BIENNIAL and the New York Philharmonic Global Academy; selected an excellent and charismatic Music Director in Jaap van Zweden to lead the artistic future of the Philharmonic; and made great progress on the David Geffen Hall renovation project under his presidency. We are confident that Matthew’s successor will build on his accomplishments, ensure the continued success of David Geffen Hall, and take us to even greater heights in the years ahead.”

“It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to lead the New York Philharmonic over the past five years,” said Mr. VanBesien. “The Board, the Staff, and the Artists have all inspired me each and every day to build on the vision that has made the institution one of the preeminent performing arts organizations for the past 175 years. The decision to take a new position was deeply personal, and I felt the time was right to take on a new challenge. I leave with the confidence that this organization is in great shape, particularly as it heads into a new era under Jaap van Zweden, and I look forward to seeing all the amazing things the New York Philharmonic will accomplish in the future.”

“I would like to thank Matthew VanBesien and to salute him for what he has done for the Philharmonic,” said Alan Gilbert, Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. “It has been a pleasure working with Matthew, and every day I have cherished the opportunity to interact with someone who loves the tradition of orchestras, but also sees the way to a new paradigm in the 21st century.”

Oscar Schafer, in conjunction with Peter May, will work with Bill Thomas, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, to ensure a seamless transition and successful continuation of all the Philharmonic’s programs and initiatives.

In partnership with Lincoln Center, there has been significant progress made on the David Geffen Hall renovation project, which has raised nearly $300 million to date, and continues to move forward with work on the schematic design.

“Fundraising is very strong, and we are hard at work on a design process,” continued Mr. Schafer. “This is a very exciting time in the course of our history, and we look forward to identifying a new president who will bring the next chapter in the long, great history of the Philharmonic to life.”

During his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, Matthew VanBesien has helped develop and execute innovative programs along with Music Director Alan Gilbert, such as the NY PHIL BIENNIAL, THE ART OF THE SCORE film-and-music series, and more. He led the creation of the New York Philharmonic Global Academy, which offers educational partnerships with cultural institutions such as the Music Academy of the West and The Shephard School of Music at Rice University to train talented pre-professional musicians, often alongside performance residencies by the Philharmonic. He led a successful Music Director search, resulting in Jaap van Zweden’s being appointed as Music Director Designate in the 2017-18 season, the formation of the Philharmonic’s International Advisory Board and President’s Council, and the Philharmonic’s multi-year residency and educational partnership in Shanghai, China.




  • Tom Moore says:

    whatever could the reason be??

  • Suzanne says:

    Good luck to everyone there. I understand J v Z is a nightmare to work with.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Nonsense. He is demanding, highly prossional, and demands the same attitude from the players which lifts them beyond what they thought were their limitations.

      • Suzanne says:

        I was referring to his behaviour to management and administrative / artistic staff.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Sorry about that…. my cat intervened – it’s ‘professional’.

        • Holly Golightly says:

          Perhaps your cat wanted you to write that they are probably ashamed of Alec Baldwin after his appalling representation of a brand new President, especially when Baldwin spent a good part of the last 8 years throne sniffing.

          • John Borstlap says:

            I don’t think so, she is a great Baldwin fan, like us all here on the estate, and she joins us when we watch SNL together with the Syrian refugees (which helps them to understand the West). Actually, my PA Sally claims that what we see is the real mr T, which I doubt.

  • DrummerMan says:

    He probably won’t make as much as money as he did with the Philharmonic but I’ll bet that he’ll sleep a lot better at night!

    • Brian says:

      And your dollar goes a lot further in Ann Arbor than it does in NYC.

      That said, he’ll have big shoes to fill in Ken Fischer, who built the University Musical Society into one of the country’s top campus arts presenters (if not *the* top).

      • n mcg says:

        exciting for UMS. Mr. Fischer was the most amazing leader. Humungous shoes to fill but what a coup for Michigan.

  • John Borstlap says:

    “VanBesien was responsible for persuading the players to accept Jaap Van Zweden as the next music director. The Dutchman is neither an international front-runner nor a charismatic character but the combination of the two Vans was supposed to be the formula that led the Philharmonic through a difficult period while its hall is refurbished.”

    This seems to want to suggest that the players – who are the most important party in such decisions – were rather reluctant to see JvZw at the helm of their orchestra, but all information on that point shows the opposite: it were especially the players who wanted him. Then, successfull debuts at the Vienna Phil and Berlin Phil, the raising of the Dallas Symphony to one of the very best orchestras of the USA, the building-up of a local orchestra in the far east to one of its very best, currently involved in an ambitious concert- and recording project of Wagner’s Ring – the Hong Kong Philharmonic: if this does not indicate an international ‘front runner’, I don’t know what would. And then, to refer to olympic competition in the term, seems rather misleading to me: conducting orchestras is not about who’s arriving first – where, for instance? – but about dedication to the orchestral performance culture, and keeping it alive in modern times which has become quite a challenge. Where modernity and the classical music culture meet in mutually-rubbing worlds of experience: New York, the choice of JvZw seems to be the best one could wish, not only in an artistic sense but also as a stabilizing and direction-leading factor.

    JvZw so-called ‘lack of charisma’, what some people seem to perceive, or heard rumor about, is based upon a misunderstanding. The type of conductor who sees the repertoire as a vehicle for ego-glorification and turns concerts into a one-man show accompanied by a large group of subjected players, is outdated (a remnant from 19C romanticism) and false, and ultimately destructive for music making. Conductors who invest all their talents and personal drives into the rendering of the musical work in the first place, and see themselves as serving the art form which is greater than its dedicatees, achieve authenticity and artistic sincerity, and JvZw is one of them. He is simply not interested in showmanship, and that is to his credit. He is a musician first.

    I may be wrong of course, but it is likely that these people leaving, rightly saw ahead another period of extreme stresses and work load, and opted for something else for personal reasons. The press release seems to suggest this anyway and why would that not be true? Working at such hub of intensity in a place like NY has its toll (if in doubt, listen to some Carter). So, a new équipe may be an asset with a difficult period ahead.

    • NYMike says:

      Hear, hear!!

    • Steven Holloway says:

      Superb corrective comment, John — especially the paragraph re the ‘charisma’ nonsense. The only possible benefit of soi-disant charisma is to distract from poor music-making.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, shouldn’t the charisma of the music carry a live concert? And then it amply reflects on conductor and players as well, but more deserved.

      • Peter Phillips says:

        By definition, charisma is conferred either by god or by other people, so not really “soi-disant”. JB is right in so far that the the conductor-as-God figure simply would not be tolerated these days. Nevertheless, JB’s observation is in danger of writing off the work of people like Szell, Reiner, Klemperer, Erich Kleiber, HvK, Dorati and others who were apparently autocratic and difficult to work with. We certainly should not return to the days when orchestral musicians were browbeaten and cowed, but equally we should recognise that there were great performances then and that – dare I say it? – orchestras had more individual aural profiles. So times change and we become more humane (??) but this does not mean that the conductor-gods of the past were not first and foremost musicians.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I did not want to ‘write-off’ the brilliant conductors you mention…. but some traits of some of them, like HvK and Klemperer, were not necessary to exercise musical authority or charisma. There is the real charisma and the showmanship kind, and it was the latter of which I was thinking.

        • David Osborne says:

          Charisma doesn’t hurt in any era though, as long as they are also great musicians. Beecham and Furtwängler were both hugely charismatic and wonderful musicians. I won’t comment about JvZw because I don’t know his work, but he does have one thing going for him that I’m aware of- he’s a big John Borstlap fan.

    • Barbara Forbes says:

      Yes, couldn’t agree more.

    • Nick says:

      I agree wholeheartedy with John Borstlap – apart from one comment. The Hong Kong Phil was very far from just a “local” orchestra when JvZ took over. As a regional orchestra it had been showing its metal as far back as the mid-1980s. It’s also certainly true that the 8 years of Edo de Waart’s tenure prior to JvZ taking over in 2012 provided JvZ with what was already a very fine international orchestra.

    • Ruben Greenberg says:

      Dear John,
      Although I fundamentally agree with you, I do however think there is such a thing as “charisma” or “magnetism” or whatever one wishes to call it. This has nothing to do do with “showiness”, I hasten to add. I have known people with superb musical knowledge and ability like the conductor Manuel Rosenthal, who was a student of Ravel. Nevertheless there was something lacking: that sacred fire; that ability to inspire musicians as well as audiences. This, of course, has nothing to do with being flashy and demonstrative. That said, I believe J.V. Zweden possesses that charisma, or whatever that “je ne sais quoi” is.

  • NYMike says:

    “The Dutchman (J v Z) is neither an international front-runner nor a charismatic character”…..

    Hey Norman, have you actually seen/heard J v Z conduct? I posit that your imagined front-runners are Europeans who don’t want to live/work here or some women not yet up to snuff regardless of what you think. My friends in the NYP tell me that they were impressed by J v Z’s guest-conducting and wanted him.

  • Will says:

    5 years is a decent tenure for a CEO and 3 months notice is totally standard.

  • herrera says:

    So VanBeisen left a Big Five Orchestra for a Big Ten School, good for him, the University of Michigan has a much better football team than the New York Philharmonic. And Ann Arbor has its own Starbucks.

    • Ross says:

      I studied at U of M.
      There was a gentleman named Desmond Howard, who attended at the same time I did. The entire school loved that guy.

  • John says:

    In spite of all the speculating and opining here, Norman has said that more information will be forthcoming in the days to come. So I’m looking forward to hearing from Norman on this.

  • Peter says:

    The biggest problem with the “international front-runners” these days is, that they are runners.
    (or jet-flyers more precisely)

  • William Safford says:

    And, of course, Carl Schiebler passed away last month.


  • Frankster says:

    New York is now a tough assignment. The NYT piece highlights some of the issues.
    Many are unaware that the New York Philharmonic annual budget, for example, is now behind Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston and the incoming music director will likely not change that. The Geffen hall fundraising is struggling. Met Opera, audiences sagging, cut a new production, the Met Museum just delayed (canceled?) a major project and Carnegie Hall has a sagging fund-raising effort.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Underneath these problems, there may be the clash between two cultural identity experiences; NY as the world-wide symbol of modernity with its sky scrapers and intense life, and the cultivation of musical repertoire mainly from a pre-modern past which offers an entirely different wave length: mentally, emotionally, aesthetically. If you feel like a ‘true modern New Yorker’, living in an utterly expensive small appartment with only one window upon a glass façade, and working in a sterile cubicle in a fully climatized office with buzzing IT activity, going to a concert to hear a Mozart symphony may create an eery feel of conservative and displacement.

  • AMetFan says:

    You don’t live in New York, I take it?