Editorial: Health alert over conductor virus

Editorial: Health alert over conductor virus


norman lebrecht

June 13, 2017

Six maestro cancellations in one day require pause for thought. And, since some creepy Euro hack on a dodgy website has nicked the ‘epidemic’ headline from Slipped Disc, we’ll make do with ‘virus’ to discuss the phenomenon in a lightly broader context.

Every June, at the tail end of the concert season, over-extended music directors tend to go on a lap of honour around some of Europe’s trophy orchestras.

This year, some of them couldn’t make it, due to accumulated stresses and strains, and whatever else is listed in the doctor notes their agents have produced. What’s worrying is that the six maestros in the sick bay are not the usual cancellers – the ones who cry sick at the first tickle of a cough (no names) or a digestive disorder (likewise). Yesterday’s absentees are pretty tough show ponies. They don’t cancel lightly. Has the stress level suddenly shot up?

Even more worrying is the calibre of the last-minute replacements. This could have been a golden chance (see above) for a 20-something to conduct the Berlin Phil, the Concertgebouw, the LSO or the BRSO. But the music business makes its money by supplying safe substitutes. Midlife maestros who will never give a false beat or frighten the horses. They will do the job and the audience will go home undisturbed.

That’s a pity. This week’s maestro virus is a lamentable missed opportunity. It perpetuates business-as-normal and suppresses the possibility, however faint, of some real excitement. Of a new talent springing from the wings and shaking the rafters at the end of an overlong, overstressed season.

Next year, maybe.

As if.



  • Agatha says:

    In case of the LSO it is the last concert of a tour, no extra rehearsal probably, so Mr. Lebrecht suggests putting a 20 year old conductor in front of that orchestra?
    If this went wrong Mr. Lebrecht would be the first crying over the “music business” that burnes young conductors too early. A quick research Shows that Mr. Slobodeniouk – one of the “midlife maestros who will never give a false beat or frighten the horses” – will give subscription debuts with Berlin Philharmonic and BRSO next season. So apparently Mr. Lebrecht thinks there is something wrong with conductors taking their time to develop before hitting the big stages? Because it worked out so badly for Kirill Petrenko?

  • Peter says:

    The author might in turn question himself about his apparent fetish with youth?
    Why is youth per se “exciting”?
    [engaging more experienced maestros] “suppresses the possibility, however faint, of some real excitement.” Really?
    That’s just absolutely not true. Quite to the contrary.
    I find a young show pony trying to paint over his or her lack of musicianship and meaning the most boring and unnecessary thing in the musical world. Bring on the knowing, the experienced, the wise. Any day. Much more exciting. For someone who likes music.
    There is nothing more sexy than someone who knows what he is doing and demonstrates mastership.
    If you like to see young faces and bodies, a concert might be the wrong event for you.
    Just because some music journalists crave new faces to have new objects to write about, doesn’t mean that’s in any way relevant for the music and concert experience.

    • Mikey says:

      +1 for your comments.

      Wasn’t there an article recently on SD about the obsession with youth? Oh the irony.

  • Halldor says:

    Sorry to see the usual anti-youth bigotry rearing its ugly head here again: if you don’t believe that musicians under 30 can have anything profound to say, you’ll need to stop listening to Schubert, Mozart and Mendelssohn.

    But anyway, it’s entirely irrelevant to this issue, since when a conductor cancels at short notice, all that an orchestra is worried about is getting someone who’s credible, available now, is able to get into the country (with visas and flights sorted) in time for the rehearsals as well as the concert, and has the works in question already in their repertoire. When you’re looking for all these things, at a couple of days’ notice, believe me: you are not dithering about what the conductor looks like, who their agent is or who “deserves” the opportunity. You find the best available fit for all those criteria, as quickly as you can, and you snap them up. There’s rarely more to it than that.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      I mostly agree.

      On the other hand, I’ve often seen the Boston Symphony frequently replace ailing conductors (pace James Levine) not with their resident assistant conductors, who were already on the BSO payroll, but by bringing in available usual suspects. I believe this happens frequently with major US orchestras.

      Beyond conductors, Yuja Wang’s career was launched by stepping in for ailing pianists. But I can’t think of any other examples.

      • Minutewaltz says:

        “Beyond conductors, Yuja Wang’s career was launched by stepping in for ailing pianists. But I can’t think of any other examples”.

        Lang Lang, recommended by Eschenbach, substituted at the last minute for Andre Watts. That was the start of his stellar career.
        Incidentally, Lang Lang has had to cancel performances until the end of the summer because of an ongoing problem with his left arm so maybe that will be an opportunity for other young pianists.

    • Tom says:

      I am not sure it’s fair to call the above comments ‘anti-youth bigotry’. Better to say, perhaps, that those comments question why Mr Lebrecht is always so keen to call for younger conductors when there are plenty of very good not-so-young ones about.

      Yes, younger conductors can of course generate good performances. But it’s simply idle to pretend that they have as much knowledge and experience in making an orchestra play better as – to take just one madly underrated example – someone like the late Walter Weller (and I defy you to find an orchestral player who played for him who would disagree). Honestly, he was – right up to his death – frankly a better conductor (in terms of making an orchestra work to the limits of its capability) than Harding, Ticciati, Dudamel or frankly any of the big younger names you regularly hear about.

      This isn’t to say that young musicians can’t be good – it is to say, however, that yoof ought not to be the primary consideration in searching for a replacement.

      • Halldor says:

        “Any”? That’s quite a lot of people to write off there. But yes, certainly on the various occasions we worked with Weller (including a couple of last minute stand-in jobs), the orchestra (well, the male members, anyway) spoke highly of him. The audience wasn’t so enthusiastic – a salutary reminder that orchestral players are by no means always the best judges of a conductor’s merits. He was certainly one of a kind.

        But again – this is all beside my point, which is that in circumstances like these youth, age, nationality etc are all utterly secondary to the purely practical consideration of getting someone, anyone, who can get the job done. It’s hard to judge without knowing the internal circumstances in each case. Unless an in-house assistant conductor has prepared every single work in that season’s repertoire (an impossibility), they might well have no wish to be thrown in at the deep end, with an unfamiliar programme, at short notice: a performance given under those circumstances has the potential to do as much damage as benefit to a career.

  • Steven Holloway says:

    How very odd to refer to Classissima as a “creepy Euro hack on a dodgy website”. All the site did was reprint your post and fully acknowledged doing so. What is more, it then followed the reprint with a list of other posts on SD. They did you a service and a little gratitude might be in order. Further, that contemptuous reference to Classissima — creepy, Euro (?), hack, dodgy…that’s quite a list of insults, plus, perhaps, a revealing term re SD’s feelings about Europe. It amused me that on Google Chrome Classissima has a grey ? beside it, rather than the green tick indicating that it is safe, but then so does SD! TWO dodgy websites!

  • MacroV says:

    In the case of Berlin, it’s Ludovic Morlot, who is still pretty young (about 40) and who is generally doing well (well enough that he’s already planning to leave Seattle after 8 years), but for whom the BPO represents a big break that, hopefully, he’ll make the most of it.

    But “Midlife maestros who will never give a false beat or frighten the horses” have another name: experienced professionals. People who may not get above-the-title billing but know what they’re doing, which I assume most orchestras like in a conductor.

  • Charlotte says:

    Morlot – debut at BPhil, Mena – debut at BRSO, Slobodeniouk – debut at LSO (jumping in on tour!)… sounds not exactly like business-as-normal to me. Will definitely try to watch/listen to Morlot, does anybody know about transmissions of the other concerts?

    Cheers Charlotte

  • Emil says:

    Imagine: You’ve paid 80£ for a ticket to hear YNS, and he cancels. Would you rather hear a recent graduate with no experience or Ludovic Morlot?
    And since when is Cristian Macelaru an old boring conductor?
    The problem you have here is a simple logical fallacy, that of selection bias: sure, we can point out dozens of artists who were unknown, inexperienced, and got their break as dazzling substitutes with big orchestras. But for a fair comparison, you also need to count all the hundreds of unknown, inexperienced artists who subbed in big orchestras, failed to leave a mark and disappeared.
    Your argument is essentially that I should bet money on Stoke or Crystal Palace to win the Premier League next year, because ‘look at Leicester’. That works if you ignore all the years it’s one of the traditional top 4-5 clubs that wins.
    Ultimately, orchestras have a primary duty to their audience, that of supplying a good concerts. And for that, much better call in a seasoned Morlot than a maybe-great-probably-not 20 something.

  • Anonymous says:

    I have now about this epidemy but would like to mention in this context that conductors are travelling to much these days. Some have jobs at 2 or 3 orchestras. They are everywhere and nowhere and the quality of the music making is not improving at all. Enough said…

  • Anonymous says:

    Sorry, it should read “I have no idea about this epidemy”

  • Maarten Brandt says:

    May I recommend an fantastic dutch conductor with an very wide repertoire : Jac van Steen? At this moment he is conducting a production of Devussy’s Pelleas et Melisande with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

  • Bruce says:

    Didn’t orchestras used to keep assistant conductors on staff, and part of their job was to be prepared to conduct every concert in case the scheduled conductor was unable to go on? And then they would actually use these “understudies” when they were needed?

    I know they still have AssCons, but when did the other part change?

    • Emil says:

      Yes, most big orchestras do. But again, if you have a 24 hour notice or more, you’ll try to get more than the bare minimum. An assistant conductor is a safety net – a bit like a staff understudy at the MET. Given the chance, you’ll get something better (I can guarantee that Morlot>any current assistant conductor).

  • Belfast Bob says:

    Good heavens when the bus conductors went on strike in Belfast, Arlene sent in her enforcer, they went back to work the same day!


  • Sue says:

    The Japanese had a nickname for the late, great Carlos Kleiber; “cancellation devil”.