Which orchestras pick the best music directors?

Which orchestras pick the best music directors?


norman lebrecht

July 14, 2017

A handful have developed an unrivalled capacity for spotting baton talent way ahead of the field:

1 Rotterdam Philharmonic
Jeffrey Tate (1991), Valery Gergiev (1995), Yannick Nézet-Séguin (2008), Lahav Shani (2017).

2 The Metropolitan Opera
James Levine (1971)

3 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (1980), Sakari Oramo (1998), Andris Nelsons (2008), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (2016)

4 Komische Oper, Berlin
Yakov Kreizberg (1994), Kirill Petrenko (2002) (Vladimir Jurowski, 1st kapellmeister, 1996)

5 Welsh National Opera
Carlo Rizzi (1992), Tugan Sokhiev (2003), Tomáš Hanus (2016)

6 Los Angeles Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen (1992), Gustavo Dudamel (2009)

7 BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda (1992), Juanjo Mena (2011)

How do they pick them, often so young? By trusting the instincts of their musicians.

But then how do others get it so wrong?

And who have we forgotten?


  • Anthony Kershaw says:

    The CBSO is an easy winner, here.

    Two very fine conductors, and two greats. What a track record. And two chosen after one rehearsal. Good musicians know 🙂

    Guess we can’t add the Berliner Philharmoniker 😉

    • Jonathan Groves says:

      You are missing Lothar Koenigs, the very succssessful Music Director of WNO from 2009-2016

    • Mercurius Londiniensis says:

      Well, one could have added the Berlin Philharmonic of 1922, who took a gamble on the 36 year-old Furtwangler to replace Nikisch. Interestingly, Karajan, Rattle, and Petrenko all assumed/are scheduled to assume the post of chief conductor at the age of 47.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:
        1895: Willem Mengelberg (24)
        1961 Bernard Haitink (32)
        1988: Riccardo Chailly (35), though his career had a already taken off.

        • Music Lover says:

          Yes, except they have ruined that reputation by choosing Gatti over a few key others, namely Andris Nelsons and Kiril Petrenko.

          • Petros Linardos says:

            Gatti wan’t appointed in his mid-50s, definitely not early in his career.

        • ben LEGEBEKE says:

          Hague Residentie Orchestra:
          Willem v Otterloo
          Jean Martinon
          Ferdinand Leitner
          Hans Vonk
          Evgenii Svetlanov
          Jaap v Zweden
          Neeme Järvi

    • Peter Phillips says:

      It’s so easy to forget Louis Frémaux, isn’t it.

      • Halldor says:

        No, Fremaux is merely irrelevant to this discussion, which is about conductors who were ‘spotted’ early in their career. Fremaux had an established and deservedly high international reputation well before he went to Birmingham.

  • Sandy Matheson says:

    BBCSSO. Jury very much out with current MD (Thomas Dausgaard) but last three were Vänskä, Volkov and Runnicles.

    • Talking the Talk says:

      You are having a laugh aren’t you Norman??? My understanding is the WNO musicians are having a difficult time following the’ lead’ of Tomáš Hanus and are at this moment plotting ways get rid politically.

      As for the CBSO’s last 2 incumbents, it’s marvellous what a orchestra manager can achieve PR wise when he has a photogenic young face and a very grateful & obliging young MD to work with.

      • Halldor says:

        That last comment is such b*s*, with all due respect. Did you actually hear Nelsons’s Parsifal? His Beethoven? And which of Grazinyte-Tyla’s Birmingham concerts this season did you attend? Come on, specific details: she’s only directed about 6 programmes so far, so presumably you can back up your assertion with some serious discussion of particular interpretations. Shouldn’t be hard, if you’re writing from genuine knowledge rather than generalised anti-youth prejudice.

        • Talking the Talk says:

          Oh dear Halldor, how can be BS be given ‘with due respect’? You might perhaps have to accept that anyone who has a different point of view to you, may be as well as or even -perish the thought- more well informed than you, if it’s possible for you. Your comments say more about you than any thing and unfortunately make you out to be prejudiced against anyone who happens to disagree with you.

          That aside, yes I have heard their music making which is exactly what I’ve based my informed opinion on ( I have actually played professionally in orchestras and studied conducting and conduct professionally)have you conducted anything or maybe your one of those professional musicians that you endow with the gift of picking winners?

          I do know that these performances I’ve heard all lack technical control of the ensemble, Mirga’s Mahler 4 being the most glaring example of this, filled with diffident nervous ensemble & entries, grey & bland orchestral colour, no consistent control of tempi and no co-herent understanding or mastery of structure or tempi and lets not even begin to touch on ‘Tchaikovsky’ 4 at the Proms.

          What really astonishes me is that these people have such successful careers and people such as you fall for all the hype.

          But you carry on thinking that my opinion can be explained by simple minded prejudice against youth if it makes you happy. Not sure that it does by the sound of things.

      • Just Derek says:

        Obviously blatant bias in your comments on CBSO incumbents, why? I do not understand.

        Andris Nelsons is appointed by Boston and Leipzig, has frequently worked with the Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic, Philharmonia and WDR Cologne amongst other major orchestras as well as the opera at Met., ROH and Bayreuth. It takes more than being photogenic and obliging to do that!

        • Talking the Talk says:

          Really, these days apparently not, these qualities plus a passing acquaintance with the workings of music seem to be sufficient, oh and a top agent with an eye for an opportunity.

          And why the accusation of blatant bias? What reason(s) would I have for such a stance? I’m very interested to hear you justify this claim with so few facts to base it on, or is this just an example of the blatant bias you accuse me of?

          • Just Derek says:

            Andris Nelsons musicianship and inspirational qualities are mentioned by so many that work with him. Whether you favour him or not I cannot see how you can dismiss his performances and achievements simply as image or PR or deny that he is a leading conductor of his generation.
            You have mentioned some reservations that you have about Mirga performances but not those of Andris. That is why I wonder whether there is some other angle because your statement doesn’t stand up.
            Unlike you, I am not a professional musician but just a music lover who speaks from the heart so shoot me down if you wish. Others can judge if your assessment is valid.
            Simply, I question your statement but intend no personal criticism.

    • Halldor says:

      But we’re talking about orchestras “spotting” new talent, and taking a punt on it, long before they establish a widespread reputation. Only Volkov really falls into that category here; Vanska, Dausgaard and (unquestionably!) Runnicles were very established long before they went to Glasgow.

  • Michael Turner says:

    Hold on a second Norman. Esa Pekka Salonen was “discovered” by the Philharmonia back in 1983, and quickly became Principal Guest. Some of your list of discoveries, whose names I will keep to myself, are really not that good or else were already “discovered”. But what about Klaus Tennstedt: plucked from almost nowhere by the LPO in 1981? Not a bad conductor at all.
    I agree though: by and large, musicians know who is good and who is not.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      You’re so right about Klaus. Most other orchestras he conducted before the LPO just didn’t get it. E-P had no profile in the US when the LA Phil came knocking.

      • ben LEGEBEKE says:

        Svetlanov & the Residentie Orchestra the Hague were in much higher esteem in Holland at the time then Rotterdam under Gergiev. To chose a younger conductor didn’t mean always better or greater maestro’s….

      • MacroV says:

        Salonen was hardly unknown in the US when the LAP hired him. He’d already conducted NY Phil several years earlier and not as a young unknown. Probably had conducted some of the other US bands by then, too. Still a bold choice by Flesichman, but EPS did not lack a US profile.

    • Talking the Talk says:

      Why keep these names to yourself Michael? Get them out there and help stop these crimes against music & wasting propaganda about a great number of ‘young talent’

  • Petros Linardos says:

    In the distant past, Theater Aachen hit it big twice:
    1935 Herbert von Karajan (27)
    1953 Wolfgang Sawallisch(30)

  • Jon H says:

    It’s a tough question because it is a marriage. And while there was some critical push back of NY Phil’s choice of Jaap van Zweden – there’s qualities in each of them that make it an interesting pairing. And as with other cases, the guest conductors also shed light on why that particular pairing might work.
    However, I think the days of 20 year appointments is over – much past 12 and things start to sound a little too routine, comfortable, and/or predictable. Osmo Vanska with Minnesota might be an exception given the circumstances, with 2022 probably a good time to take his abilities elsewhere.

    • Jon H says:

      And while there are certain conductors interesting in their 30s, many (for my tastes anyway) get more interesting after they’ve hit 50. At some point they’re too old for music directing, but many continue to get better in terms of their musical conviction – and orchestras are generally fine doing what someone wants for a week. So I’m not sure music directors is always where it’s at – and if the orchestra’s going through financial crisis it might affect the artistic standards – and people often blame the music director when artistic standards aren’t what they were. And when the financial situation is improving, they say it’s due to the artistic standards/music director – well, not necessarily. It can just be a better local economy.

  • Philippe Cuper says:

    You forget the Opéra National de Paris orchestra conducted by Philippe Jordan, James Conlon, Myung Whun Chung , Daniel Barenboim,Georges Prêtre, Georg Solti …and all the famous invited conductors like Karl Böhm, Pierre Boulez, Seiji Ozawa, Esa Pekka Salonnen, Zubin Mehta, Valéry Gergiev, Christoph von Dohnani, Claudio Abbado…next year Gustavo Dudamel.

    • Bob Bruyn says:

      We’re not talking about who conducted where, but which orchestra’s name their principal conductors while they are young and not yet famous.

      • Philippe Cuper says:

        No I have understood , it is not exact what you have written because Philippe Jordan or Myung Whin Chung were young when they were appointed at the Paris Opera and became famous !

  • James says:

    The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has form in this area – Karabits, Alsop, Litton all had early success there, Rattle had success there pre-CBSO I believe (though not as Music Director), and this followed distinguished tenures by more senior conductors such as Berglund and Silvestri. I would put in a vote also for the Gothenberg Symphony, who lured Dudamel before LA (he was already a hot property when they grabbed him), and earlier had Dutoit at a relatively young age.

    One note – Sokhiev was not really perceived as a great success at WNO, though he has since become a major and much-sought-after conductor. That might make an interesting thread in itself – conductors who had unsuccessful early tenures and then went on to become recognised as major artists!

    • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

      Speaking about major conductors with unsuccessful early tenures, I spontaneously come up to the name “Frankly Worse than Most”. His tenure at London Philharmonic was ended scandalously. Also Giuseppe Sinopoli was much hated by his London orchestra. Critics from that corner didn’t even stop bashing him after his tragic early death.

      Is it a pure coincident that the above mentioned two, together with Tugan Sokhiev, all being indisputably very talented musicians, were starting their failed early tenures in Great Britain?

    • Halldor says:

      In Nicholas Kenyon’s biography, it’s made fairly clear that the Bournemouth Orchestra disliked Rattle (apparently some players said he ‘lacked musicianship’) and that he considered his time there unsuccessful (he said with certain pieces of repertoire he’d been ‘scared off for life’ because of the response of the players).

      The RLPO also had the opportunity to appoint him shortly afterwards but they couldn’t shake off the idea that he was just a pushy but talented kid from their youth orchestra (anyone familiar with the group psychology of orchestral musicians will easily be able to imagine that).

      In each case, you can’t say that any of these orchestras made a mistake – if the relationship didn’t click, it’d probably have been damaging for both parties to try and force it. It was Edward Smith in Birmingham who say past that, trusted his instinct, and took a gamble which the players and audience supported. They clicked, with the results that we all know about.

  • Larry says:

    Eugene (Oregon) Symphony: Marin Alsop, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Giancarlo Guerrero,

  • Anton Bruckner says:

    BBCSSO a huge success with Vanska, Volkov and Runnicles. Not sure about Mirga. Is she really a complete artist at this stage?? Not sure at all.

    • Peter Phillips says:

      I recall that the BBCSSO were pretty good under Jerzy Maksimiuk.

      • Paul Davis says:

        No! I recall a ghastly BBCSSO Prom where the Sibelius 6th was massacred, and the Hyperion recording of Medtner’s 2nd concerto nearly didn’t get off the ground as orchestra and conductor kept getting the tricky rythm of the opening wrong. Jerzy Makes-a-muck, indeed!

  • John Sullivan says:

    You forgot David Zinman with Rotterdam. Don’t recall the dates, but started probably late 70s. He was for a time MD with two RPOs, the other being the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

    • ben LEGEBEKE says:

      Zinman was in the early eighties…..made some terrific recordings with Rotterdam for Philips. Maybe their finest hour….

      • Steve P says:

        How are we all missing Zinman as a giant of the era? He seems to do well everywhere and his recordings are all very fine.

  • Nelson Armitano says:

    I am surprised you didn’t list David Zinman in the Rotterdam Phil list.

  • Blair Tindall says:

    There are headhunting firms for nonprofts that work w management and boards to develop the lists.

  • Amos says:

    I am not sure I’d credit the Met with discovering or taking a chance with Levine because he was aggressively championed by George Szell. As I recall Szell “encouraged” the SF Opera to engage him during Levine’s tenure in Cleveland. Also by the time he joined the Met he had conducted the orchestras in Philadelphia and Chicago. Last, they didn’t appoint him Music Director until ~ 1976.

  • Nick says:

    Surely the Scottish National (or RSNO as it is now called) deserves some placing. Although it had once boasted Szell and Barbirolli as its Music Directors, following the staid, stultifying years of Rankl and Swarowsky (tired old repertoire), it would have been natural if the Board had picked another of the older generation. Instead, it went out on a limb and appointed the young Alexander Gibson whose achievements were to include a massive overhaul of the repertoire, the introduction of much contemporary music including the annual Musica Viva Series, many commercial recordings and the founding of Scottish Opera which in part enabled full-time contracts to be offered to musicians for the first time. The SNO’s first overseas tour included the Musikverien with Janet Baker and Jacqueline du Pre as soloists.

    Although it is generally agreed Sir Alex rather outstayed his welcome by serving s full 25 or so years, he was followed by Neemi Jarvi by acclamation of the musicians.

  • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

    Forget about your museumreife old school masters. Today we want to hear Alondra de la Parra, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Emmanuelle Haïm, Susanna Mälkki. All young and beautiful, with a name which you can’t pronounce and remember correctly.

    Karajan was good at rehearsing. But nowadays orchestras don’t need rehearsal. They need someone do the show!

    • Halldor says:

      You really have know nothing whatever of how these artists work, do you? (And if you can’t remember or pronounce their names, I venture to suggest that the problem is not theirs).

      Take a good hard look at what you’re saying. This is pretty clear-cut and it very evidently has has nothing to do with music. I call misogyny.

      • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

        Kent Nagano, who performed and recorded extensively rare or new pieces, like those by Messiaen, Poulenc, John Adams and Kaija Saariaho, is judged here as a totally untalented charlatan.

        Alan Gilbert, who brought the complete orchestral pieces by Edgard Varèse to performance in New York, in a country which so desperately seeks after their national pride in E-Musik that they even consider proclaiming Dvorak as an American composer, is called here an utterly boring mediocrity. Everyone seemed to be happy when he stepped down.

        And the moral police feels totally OK about it.

        But even when the slightest disharmony occurs in their holy land, they jump up to warn you watching your mouth.

        Just let the quality and time speak for these musician.

    • Stephen Maddock says:

      “…. with a name which you can’t pronounce or remember correctly.”

      Thanks, Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer, you made my day.

  • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

    Small independent orchestras normally do a much better job in picking up unknown but talented young conductors. One excellent example is the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. They worked closely with Mario Venzago, Heinrich Schiff, Jiří Bělohlávek and Thomas Hengelbrock in the 80s and 90s. Then came Daniel Harding and Paavo Järvi,

    Mario Venzago’s new Bruckner cycle at cpo is an exceptionally interesting one. I know there will be a bunch of people out there who won’t like his unorthodox style of Bruckner interpretation. But at least it is not “yet another Bruckner cycle”. Routine and redundancy is the most deadly poison for the recording industry. But that is exactly why so many big players in this business are dying.

  • Wally Francis says:

    Oh dear – this has ignited a right old bonfire of prejudice, ill informed and totally
    erroneous, so called “opinion”.

    Simple really, it’s just down to musicians, sensitive management and applied democracy.

    In the case of the CBSO, they are superb musicians – nothing else needs to be said.

    Their track record speaks volumes.

  • MacroV says:

    You could probably add Edo de Waart to Rotterdam. Gergiev, OTOH, was already pretty well known by 1995, having been in charge at the Maryinsky since 1988.

    • Froberger says:

      The first concerts with the Rotterdam Philharmonic under Gergiev were already in the late “80s (to be precise: november 1988)

    • Dik Gussekloo says:

      Please add James Conlon as well. And lets take the guestdirectorship of Sir Simon Rattle into consideration?

  • Anton Bruckner says:

    the real question is when is the nomination driven by PR oriented considerations and when is it driven by musical quality and willingness to undertake a musical adventure. The latter are clearly the likes of Salonnen, Jurowski or Volkov who do not shy away from musical experimentation. However, many belong to the former category including some very popular recent nominations.