The last American music director

The last American music director


norman lebrecht

November 06, 2017

When David Robertson quits St Louis, Leonard Slatkin leaves Detroit and Michael Tilson Thomas retires from San Francisco, only one of the top 20* US orchestras will have a native born and bred music director (pictured below).

Unfair? Unwise? Self-annihilating?

*by budget

UPDATE: There’s also Robert Spano at Atlanta SO. Not sure if ASO ranks in top 20.


  • ben LEGEBEKE says:

    Who cares? Music is an international profession. Perhaps nowadays there isn’t obviously not enough conducting talent in the US. Certainly not for the big five orchestras….

    • Rodrigo says:

      When a prestigious US conductor training program like the “Dudamel Fellowship” program at LA Phil accepts almost exclusively young foreign conductors – heavily weighted toward those from Spanish speaking countries – instead of giving US talent a chance, I’d say that’s where the problem begins.

      Check out the roster on LA Phil’s website of past Dudamel fellows. With the exception of Jonathan Heyward, who I believe was just named this year, there is not a single US conductor.

      This is a high profile opportunity which leads to top level appointments. The Chilean guy just named as LA Phil’s Asst. Conductor came in as a Dudamel Fellow.

      So even at the training level, US conductors are not being given the opportunities they deserve. LA Phil needs to change that.

  • Andreas B. says:

    “predictions, especially about the future …” comes to mind.

    so you already know for a fact that none of their successors will be American?

    if this is a place to predict the year 2020, the much more interesting question surely is who’ll be POTUS by then?

  • herrera says:

    Who are the top 5 American conductors under 45?

    The New York Philharmonic went with a young solid American maestro, but sometimes all the good intentions of the board and the conductor are still not enough to ignite the audience or the orchestra.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    James Conlon may be the next “last American music director” and David Robertson may be another.

    The question is why is the US not a good breeding ground for the development of conducting talent.

    • Bruce says:

      Actually there are a lot of excellent conductors from the US, but (as with singers in long-ago decades) it seems like they mostly have to go to Europe to make it big before they can get invited back to the US, for big jobs anyway. Not everyone, of course; but I’m thinking of Conlon, Pappano, MTT, Gilbert…

      • Anon says:

        They have to go to Europe, because there are tons more opportunities for young classical musicians, the in the US. The US is basically a desert, with a few oasis sprinkled here and there, when it comes to classical music. At least compared to Europe.

      • The Rain In Spain says:

        I agree!

        Here in Spain at least 4 of the country’s 26 or so full time pro orchestras are headed by US Music Directors: Erik Nielsen in Bilbao, John Axelrod in Sevilla, James Ross in Valles (near Barcelona) and Robert Trevino in Euskadi (Basque National Orchestra).

  • Anon. says:

    Brett Mitchell at Colorado Symphony. Conductors such as Joshua Weillerstein and James Feddek also stand a good chance of getting another appointment. Joann Falletta as well at Buffalo. Tip of the iceberg. You can’t really bemoan the US conducting situation when the one in the UK is just as bad. Apart from Mark Elder and Simon Rattle which other UK orchestras have a British musical director?

  • harold braun says:

    Teddy Abrams!!!

  • Bruce says:

    To be fair, NL is talking about the top 20 US orchestras (by budget), not talking about a lack of US conducting talent.

  • Jon H says:

    There’s also something of the best conductors in the world and the best orchestras in the world not being in the same place. There are some good Russian and Italian orchestras, but so many decent Russian and Italian conductors, they have to basically leave their countries to move up/be discovered.
    And the styles of orchestras, such as in Chicago and Philadelphia are also not purely focused on performing American repertoire well. They can do a very fine Gershwin, Bernstein or Copland – but honestly if the London Philharmonic played that music, not much would be lost (and with someone like Marin Alsop it would be pretty close). Much more can be lost when a non-German orchestra is playing Schubert or R. Strauss – but that’s where those top American orchestras can shine. The bigger scores need the full string section – and then there’s the understanding of a very specific style (like Impressionistic music). Boston has always gotten that feeling for Ravel – and they do a very fine Copland, but so many groups don’t have what they have for Ravel. It would be a shame if they had the Copland expert who had no special feelings for Ravel.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    There’s a built-in anti-American bias is most symphony boards, whether they realize it or not. They have the attitude that only someone with a distinctly foreign accent can be a great conductor. Or an unusual name. And you have to have “the look” in the US: no fat slobs, no obvious deformities, no tattoos. You must at least appear to be straight and frankly musicianship comes second to your ability to schmooze the wealthy donors and that’s really what matters – can you bring in the dough?

    • Steven Holloway says:

      And there has always been an anti-African American bias. If there is, in fact, a problem here — if — it might well be resolved by a cessation of the studied ignoring of conductors such as John McLaughlin Williams, who I’m inclined to think would do mighty well with one of this top twenty. So would have Isaiah Jackson, had he not lost his hearing. He was Principal Conductor and then Director at Covent Garden, and like rather lost luminaries such as Dean Dixon, had a good career — in Europe. There’s no shortage of other examples, but the anti-Black bias in classical music in the U.S., which comes in many forms, is a killer. Yes, so it was in some European countries, but they have changed, and so can the States if they really, really try.


        Thank you, Steve. Isaiah Jackson was an excellent conductor and musician. Indeed, there is a deep bench of terrific American conductors; unfortunately, the powers-that-be refuse to look very deeply outside their hermetic boardrooms in order to identify them. And so it has been the case since the beginning of the twentieth century when Henry Kimball Hadley was acknowledged as a world-class conductor and mentioned as a candidate for the music directorships of all the great American orchestras at that time, only and always to be passed over for a foreigner. Hadley worked tirelessly to promote American conductors and composers, and he once formulated a list of steps to be taken that would foster American talent. Here is Henry Hadley’s six-point list outlining his recommendations for making American music a permanent fixture in the concert hall and to be taken seriously as equal to music from foreign shores, and for the promotion and elevation of American conductors.

        “1. Place an assistant conductor who is American born with every major symphony orchestra in this country.
        2. At least once during the season let him conduct on his own. In the interims train him to know music as well as the Europeans know it.
        3. Use foreign conductors only as guest artists.
        4. Play at least one American work on every program.
        5. Create a definite schedule of performance fees so the young American symphonist may get what is due him for his work.
        6. Create a demand for American music in every possible way–by repetition, education, and financial assistance to composers.”
        (From remarks given by Hadley in 1934 at a National Asociation of American Composers and Conductors reception for American musicians whose major works were performed in NYC that season. Hadley was one of the founders of the organization.)

        I think we can all agree that although some progress has been made, there is still a long way to go.

        • Donald Hansen says:

          Henry Hadley was conductor of the Seattle Symphony and then from 1911-15 the first conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. From 1921 to 1927 he was associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic. This from Wikipedia.


            Yes, and at that time, Seattle and San Francisco were new orchestras and not considered competitive with the best orchestras in America (the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony). Hadley was a candidate for the top posts in New York and Boston, and both went to foreign conductors.

      • Mark Henriksen says:

        Strange you didn’t mention James DePriest or Michael Morgan. They were/are both excellent conductors who conducted all of the big American orchestras as guests. You can claim there is a bias nothing has been presented to back it up.

        • Cubs Fan says:

          I think what’s being said is that while there are quite a few capable, even excellent black conductors, none has ever been given the podium of a top-20 orchestra. Omaha has a fine conductor, Thomas Wilkins. De Priest was great, but was only able to rise to Oregon’s level – and it’s a fine orchestra. He took over in Phoenix for while, too. Calvin Simons in Oakland was promising, but died too early. Joseph Young is up and coming and I’ve heard him do some terrific concerts, but he’s so far been pigeonholed as a pops conductor. Dean Dixon, a minor talent in my opinion, went to Europe where he was better received. So being black isn’t a handicap in the smaller orchestras. Neither is being Hispanic – there are many orchestras large and small that have Latino conductors.

        • Steven Holloway says:

          There is evidence of this going back to the 1930s. I didn’t think that I had to cite every example! Chuckle.


          I could refer you to a bunch of conductors who could “back it up” to your heart’s content.

        • William Safford says:

          Two examples do not negate a argument that bias continues to exist.

      • Steve P says:

        Related field of band directing, the three finest teachers and conductors I know are African-American; no idea how this isn’t translating to orchestral podium success. Maybe there isn’t enough orchestral education in the primary schools in US?

  • M2N2K says:

    Most of the core symphonic repertoire is European, so it is not surprising that US boards usually prefer those maestros who arrive from the same continent as the music they are expected to conduct.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Non-US conductors?

    It’s like naming an American car company “Chevrolet”, it’s for “the romance of foreign origin.”

    And maybe they just happen to be good at the lit that is the bread-and-butter core of a symphony season.

  • RW2013 says:

    So who’s the bloke in the photo?