New York prefers a great manager to a great conductor

New York prefers a great manager to a great conductor


norman lebrecht

March 16, 2017

When the Berlin Philharmonic selected a successor to Sir Simon Rattle two years ago, the players shortlisted the three most successful conductors in Germany, judged by their summer performances in Bayreuth.

Kirill Petrenko defeated Christian Thielemann in a close ballot. The third man, Andris Nelsons, picked up the Gewandhaus orchestra and Boston Symphony as runner-up prizes.

All agreed that the orchestra had gone about the search in the most musical possible way.

When the New York Philharmonic needed to replace Alan Gilbert as music director, the players were presented with a choice of Jaap Van Zweden of Dallas and Manfred Honeck of Pittsburgh.

Neither ranked among the rainmakers in US orchestras. The buzz conductors – Dudamel (LA), Muti (Chicago), Nezet-Seguin (Philadelphia) and Nelsons (Boston) – were not auditioned.

This was not a musical process.

However, when it came to picking a manager for the floundering NY Phil, the board went unerringly after the best orchestra boss in America – and yesterday got her.

What does that tell you about the NY Phil? That it prizes a great manager above a great conductor.



  • Ungeheuer says:

    Yup. Marketing over substance.

  • Ungeheuer says:

    I mean, this person (Borda) is, after all, directly responsible for making the non-event that is Dudamel a “star”. Go figure.

    • Carmen says:

      And made LA Phil arguably the most profitable and financially sound symphony orchestra in the US. And the highest paid for musicians in the US.So she’s selling a little beefcake to do it. The good outweighs the bad here. She’s the best and she knows what she’s doing. End of story.

    • Olassus says:

      No, Borda did not make Dudamel a star, anymore than she made Disney a hall.

      Borda was quick-witted enough to negotiate and seize him just after Abbado, Rattle, and others had identified him as a talent and secured for him his first opportunities in European venues.

      Fleischmann, Borda’s predecessor at the LA Phil, *did* make Salonen a star. He himself scouted and took the deep plunge in hiring the unknown Finn with the faux Brit accent for one of America’s top orchestras.

    • John says:

      Norman, did you know that van Sweden was part of the group that took her to lunch and wooed her and took her hand in his and said “What would it take to get you” (See today’s LA Times – Mark Swed article)?

      Whatever you think of van Sweden, he wanted her in New York. (Having her partner in New York at the Met didn’t hurt, either.)

  • Nick says:

    I have always agreed with NL in respect of Peter Gelb’s inability to run the Met. However, I fail to understand the anti-Van Zweden stance. In your earlier post, Ms Borda stated this – “The major factors that have led me here are my immediate sense of partnership with Jaap van Zweden and our shared belief in forging new ways forward.”

    Your admiration for Ms. Borda clearly knows no bounds. Do you seriously think she would move back to New York if she felt artistically Van Zweden was not a front rank conductor? Would she jeopardise everything she has achieved in her stellar career only to end it by taking a few steps down the ladder? It makes no sense. Besides, she certainly does need the money!

  • harold braun says:

    The usua boring Leberecht Van Zweden bashing.Add a few new items to your rep.And it’s for sure not a marketing decision.There were more glamouros names than Van Zweden.Just for the record….both Dallas and Pittsburgh are on top level now,largely because of Mr.Van Zweden and Manfred Honeck.From what i’ve been told by two NYPO members,among those available(both Mr.Salonen and Mr.Honeck were not,and stated those facts in the media,for those who can Read),Mr.VanZweden got the best vote.Sometimes it’s just as simple as that,contrary to journalists,would be music directors and orchestra managers.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Glamour is not relevant to a successful orchestra / conductor because it can wither away very quicky in a cold wind. Content and thoroughness can create the higher levels which are the building blocks of an orchestra as JvZw has demonstrated, and the NY Phil players have chosen him for that reason, it seems.

      • John says:

        It’s worth noting that the NYPhil musicians enthusiastically embraced Lorin Maazel, a decidedly mixed bag, at least in my mind. And back in the day, many weren’t all that enthusiastic about Lenny, though he was money in the bank for them. Borda has started to convince me that good and creative management that is visionary and tuned into the greater community that an orchestra serves can be as important or more important to the long-term fortunes of that kind of enterprise.

  • Michael Turner says:

    I would like to take issue with “Ungeheuer” over the “non-event that is Dudamel”. Clearly this person has never played for the Dude. I have, and have played for virtually all the great conductors over the past 42 years, and for me Gustavo Dudamel remains the single greatest conducting talent I have met. Period.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      Too bad that talent doesn’t translate to recordings, or even audiences. In big, flashy, loud, high-octane works he’s fine, sometimes great. But his Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and yes, Tchaikovsky is up and down. The Mahler I’ve heard in LA is ok, but in the past I’ve heard that orchestra play Mahler much better with Giulini, Previn, Salonen and sometimes Rattle. His recent of recording of Pictures at an Exhibition with Vienna is awful and in no way touches the brilliance of a performance with Giulini that even almost 40 years later still rings in the memory.

      • M2N2K says:

        Including Sir Andre among the supposedly better Mahler conductors seriously undermines credibility of your comment.

    • John says:

      Thanks for sharing, Michael. Many, me included, have succumbed to the temptation of judging someone because he’s young, sexy, didn’t come from one of “our” music schools, and — sin of all sins — was young! You say he’s phenomenal and the fact you’ve played under his baton means much more to me than all the other nonentities commenting here. I doubt that ensembles like those in Berlin or Vienna would invite him if he didn’t at some level deserve to stand on their podiums. If he lives another thirty or forty years, will he grow. Of course. But what he is today is considerable. And whether I could care less about the show biz aspects of his persona, I’m grateful that we have some of that going on and attracting new audiences and bringing back old audiences into the concert halls of the world.

  • Limo says:

    NL, please explain your position regarding JVZ. Obviously you are entitled to your opinions and since this is your blog will post them – but what gives? JVZ has proven himself to be a violinist, conductor, and arts ambassador at the highest level worldwide. He is consistently engaged and re-engaged to lead the world’s greatest orchestras. He inspires musicians to play their best and makes them “want” to play well. The NY Phil musicians chose him and for the record, not one of my seven very close friends in the NY Phil wanted Salonen to be their MD. From a musician’s standpoint he is absolutely first class and an inspiration to all of us, not to mention that he has the political authority, skill, and contacts to take the NY Phil to new heights. The combination of Borda and JVZ will take the NY Phil to new heights and the notion (from Olassus) that she might remove him as MD is absurd. And no I don’t work for Jaap or the NY Phil.

      • David Osborne says:

        Yes yes Max, very good but when I think of JvZ, only one video comes to mind. This one’s not to be missed!

        • John Borstlap says:

          JvZw had the stubborn nerve to play Borstlap in 5 performances with his 2 orchestras, which was a success, in spite of the impossibly oldfashioned (or modern?) type of revival music, which offers orchestras an injection of something new but within the orchestral performance culture. Such music is supposed to be no longer possible, but JvZw simply recognized in the score what it was, irrespective of fashion, modernism, etc. etc. So,here we have the rare phenomenon of a truly independent-minded performer. I can think of a list of conductors, including ‘great names’, who don’t have either the musical instinct or the independence of mind to simply follow their musical insights.

          • David Osborne says:

            And in that clip the man has the temerity to make the appalling claim that melody is crucially important. Of all things! What is the world coming to?

  • NYMike says:

    “When the New York Philharmonic needed to replace Alan Gilbert as music director, the players were presented with a choice of Jaap Van Zweden of Houston and Manfred Honeck of Pittsburgh.
    Neither ranked among the rainmakers in US orchestras. The buzz conductors – Dudamel (LA), Muti (Chicago), Nezet-Seguin (Philadelphia) and Nelsons (Boston) – were not auditioned.”

    NONSENSE! As previously mentioned, JvZ and MH (both fine musicians) guest-conducted and were voted upon by NYPO musicians. The other conductors cited ALL have jobs they like with contracts years into the future and were therefore non-starters. So – buzz, schmuzz…..

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    Why is the NY Phil floundering? Certainly not artistically because they can still hire the best players away from other great orchestras; it’s obviously a destination orchestra for great players if you look at recent hires. In terms of management, it appears that the recent departures were mistakenly claimed on this blog to be evidence of abandoning ship when, in reality, it was clearing the way for the arrival of the big kahuna.

    Of the conductors mentioned above, only Dudamel is a reasonable choice because he is on the West coast.

  • Michael B. says:

    I agree that Dudamel is overrated. A few years ago, I heard him guest-conducting the Israel Philharmonic in San Diego, including a mediocre and tentative Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. A horse-racing chart-caller would have started his comments: “The Symphony was slightly slow into stride at the break.” This was somewhat surprising and disappointing, especially given the large number of Russians in that orchestra. I really wished that Los Angeles had retained Salonen.

    • M2N2K says:

      “A few years ago” I had similar objections to his Tchaikovsky, but he has improved considerably since then.

  • William E Ford says:

    Let me know when Slipped Disk has something nice to say about the Pittsburgh Symphony and Manfred Honeck. Actually I guess I better stick to those who have heard and enjoyed both.

  • Kirby says:

    If they don’t fix the business, the artists will very shortly have little left to play. I’m sorry they didn’t pick your favorite choice for the music director job. I’m sure you’ll get over it.

  • Jeffrey Levenson says:

    Dallas — not Houston for JVZ.

  • William E Ford says:

    I am elated that someone was able to say “The Dude” in these comments. See- we are are hip and vital.

  • Bostonian says:

    > The third man, Andris Nelsons, picked up the Gewandhaus orchestra and Boston Symphony as runner-up prizes.

    Nelsons was musical director of Boston Symphony well before Rattle left the Berlin post. Many would agree that calling Boston a “runner-up prize” is a quite a bit disrespectful.

  • Gil Gross says:

    All of this is personal taste, but on the “buzz” conductors, what buzz is there about My to. Who is rushing out to get Muti conducting anything outside of opera? I’m honestly not disparaging him, but saying there is a buzz about him is based on what? As for Nelsons, he just started in Boston and I doubt he was even available., and again, for, Nezet-Seguin, May be there would be a buzz st the Met, but not at the NY Phil. There IS buzz about Honeck, at least here in the US, so I don’t know where that comment cane from. As for Jaap, I’ve really only heard recordings which have been a mixed bag, but he’s conducted at L.A. and Borda heard something and she’s the goods.