Detroit takes huge risk on unknown music director

Detroit takes huge risk on unknown music director


norman lebrecht

January 22, 2020

The Detroit Symphony has chosen an Italian of little renown,  Jader Bignamini, as its next music director.  Bignamini, 43, will start work in summer on a six-year contract. It appears he was picked by the players after an impressive Mahler fourth symphony last October.

He is an untested commodity. Bignamini has been assistant to Riccardo Chailly in Milan and has guest conducted extensively, but he has never held a music director position and his symphonic repetroire is limited.

His predecessor, Leonard Slatkin, was not involved in the prolonged search and was gently surprised at the outcome. Bignamini’s agents, Opus 3, were also taken aback. They were backing a different conductor for the job.

This is a tough one for Detroit. First they have to turn a total unknown into a household name in no time flat. Then they have to make the musical relationship strike sparks. Neither is a foregone conclusion.

Dress it up whichever way they like, this is a massive gamble.

But it also signifies the dilemma of US orchestra outside the top ten. Unable to afford a famous or accomplished conductor, they make the best they can out of slim pickings.


  • Esther Cavett says:

    Well I’m impressed here:

    • Old Man in the Midwest says:

      Looks good to me!

    • All about the music says:

      He looks very competent – fantastic to see a risk being taken based on merit. He does seem to be another exponent of vertical conducting however, where the beat doesn’t sit within a horizontal musical frame. The results are always accurate in terms of ensemble, but quite musically stodgy – for my taste anyway. That was the magic of Kleiber and Jansons – the ability to craft a line even in the most vertical music. Will we ever see their like again? They are very sadly missed.

      • muslit says:

        Well, the 1.5 minutes of the end of Shostakovich’s 9th is hardly the music to judge how the musical line is shaped. The music sounds in fact vertical.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    He’s very personable, like in this talk here and will surely win over the patrons.

    Bravo to the board for taking a bit of a risk

  • Miguel Esteban says:

    Jader is amazing and overflowing with artistry, Detroit is very lucky. I have been fortunate to work with him and he is the real thing. Not only that, he is a sincere human being. I wish Jader tremendous success in this wonderful pairing.

  • Olassus says:

    All of the conductors now in their 40s and 50s have had a tough time attaining “renown” because the record industry imploded a generation ago.

    The picture is distorted when every “name” is 88 years old.

    Jader Bignamini is actually quite experienced and a good dynamic choice, I think, for Detroit. Of course, Michiganders will need to master the Italian “gna”!

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Italian name… will look good in the brochures… I foresee no problem.

  • Americans need love too says:

    They could have gone with an unknown American……

  • Stickles says:

    6 years? The price must be right.

  • Music Lover says:

    I could name half a dozen Americans who could have filled the position quite well.

  • Patrick Gillot says:

    mostly guest conduct, has not been a director of a philharmonic orchestra, limited repertoire….? Sounds like the new Carlos Kleiber!

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    “US orchestras outside the top ten”? I would place Detroit in the top ten, where it has been for a long time.

  • Jk says:

    Fantastic choice for the DSO, with great foresight. A marvelous and skilled conductor with great charisma and energy. Bravo Jader!

  • Shigeko Shimazu says:

    I dont think they are taking a risk with contracting Bignamini. An orchestra knows what to think of a conductor after 10 minutes of playing under one. And if problems arise, they can convince him to leave early.

  • Straussian says:

    I’m amazed (maybe not surprised) at the negative tone of the report. Jader Bignamini is not an unknown. He conducted the concert Trio Magnifico given by Anna Netrebko, Yusif Eyvazov and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Toronto in April 2017. He is returning to conduct the upcoming Aida at the COC this April. From what I can tell, a fine conductor.

  • Larry says:

    Most unusual to offer any brand-new M.D. a six year starting contract. They must be very bullish on him, indeed. Let’s give him and the Detroit Symphony the benefit of the doubt and wait a while before passing such harsh judgement.

  • Brian viner says:

    Where do you find a great conductor today. All the legends have passed on.

  • Brian says:

    Keep in mind that Detroit is over 80% African-American. Not saying that the conductor needs to be but he’d better show some interest in black culture and composers if the orchestra is to be a relevant part of its community.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      If you only take the urban centre, then yes, Detroit is 80-percent African American. But if you take the wider urban area then it is not. And the catchment area extends beyond this wider urban area.

      And anyway, what does it matter what colour people are…as long as they are made welcome and treated with respect.

  • Shannon Orme says:

    As a DSO musician, I couldn’t be more proud and excited about this appointment. Maestro Bignamini makes music from the heart and shows characteristics of a great leader on and off the podium.

  • MacroV says:

    Never heard of him but fame and ability are often inversely related.

    And the DSO may have financial challenges but they are a great orchestra; really, these days there really are only good and great orchestras. And the right leadership can make a good one great.

  • FrauGeigerin says:

    What i have seen of his conducting I like. It seems he is there to serve the music and not to impress the audiences with his “passion” and “energy”. I like more the conductors who come from opera.

  • fflambeau says:

    Actually, he is not an unknown and is pretty renowned. He recently guest-conducted the Milwaukee Symphony (on a concert broadcast nationwide by Chicago’s WFMT radio network) and did really well. He has conducted some impressive forces with conducting gigs in Toronto, Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis and Toronto, and Bignamini made his debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2017. In Europe, he has conducted in Berlin, Munich, Bremen, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Vienna plus numerous cities in Italy.

    There are 2 ways of looking at this: he is relatively unknown; or, he is a young, rising star. I think the 2nd way is more accurate.

    He is young and charismatic and is a very good musician. I think Detroit thought outside the box and came up with an excellent choice.

  • SJ says:

    The DSO musicians obviously felt something special about this guy. Getting an orchestra to agree on the colour of an orange is an impossible feat, so for them to move so quickly speaks volumes of the impression he made on them.

    Nice to see an orchestra still willing to take a risk. All credit to DSO!

    Their performances of the Miraculous Mandarin and Dances of Galanta about a decade ago remain one of my fondest memories of a live orchestral performance in the states.

    • Bruce says:

      ” Getting an orchestra to agree on the colour of an orange is an impossible feat…”

      Hahaha! So true!

      I was on my orchestra’s conductor search committee, and some of the musician comments were amazing: on our written survey, here are two comments from dissatisfied musicians, regarding the same concert/ same candidate:

      • “Did we really have to run through the entire Brahms at the dress rehearsal?” and
      •”We never ran through the Brahms until the concert.”

  • fflambeau says:

    Really wrong:

    “But it also signifies the dilemma of US orchestra outside the top ten. Unable to afford a famous or accomplished conductor, they make the best they can out of slim pickings.”

    This was a good get.

    Also, Washington chose G. Noseda and now he is going to be guest conducting in Amsterdam; Dallas chose another Italian, Fabio Luisi; Cincinatti chose Louis Langrée and Milwaukee recently had another excellent pick with Ken-David Masur.

    There’s plenty of young, excellent talent out there and it’s good to see orchestras move beyond the usual list of insiders. None of these choices are “slim pickings”.

    The headline of the day is how well Italian-born conductors are doing in the USA.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Noseda had already taken several chief conductor jobs in Europe, and was chief guest conductor in London and St. Petersburg. So hardly an unknown. Fabio Luisi, likewise, had several chief conductor jobs (including some time at the Met). They were both pretty well known before their current US positions.

  • Bruce says:

    I say this often, and I’ll say it again: an orchestra choosing a conductor (and vice versa) is like two people starting a relationship. Outsiders might not be able to see what caused the sparks to ignite; they can only say things like “why didn’t he pick someone younger — I know any number of young women who would have been perfect for him” or “why didn’t she pick someone with more money — there are so many rich guys out there.” Saying Detroit should have picked someone American, or more famous, or more experienced, is like saying your friend should have picked someone taller or better looking.

    I would guess that they had candidates who were better known, more experienced, and/or American… but who didn’t hit it off with them for some reason. (Maybe that better-looking guy with all the money is a self-centered jerk who is lousy in bed.)

  • fflambeau says:

    “…and his symphonic repetroire is limited.”

    How so?

    He has conducted plenty of opera including:

    Aida in Toronto and Rome; Madame Butterfly in Vienna and at the Met Opera in NYC; La Traviata in Tokyo and Verona; Manon Lescaut in Moscow and Palermo ; La Boheme in Venice, Sao Paulo and Verona; Tosca in Bologna, Milano and numerous other engagements.

    Plus, he has conducted Verdi’s Requem in Milano, Mahler Paganini, Ravel and Berlioz in Detroit; Carmina Burana in Bologna; Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, Respighi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Paganini, Piazzolla, Stravinsky, Vivaldi in Milano and on tour through Russia; Brahms with the Minnesota Orchestra; Tchaikovsky and Resphigi with Milwaukee; Gioacchino Rossini, Giuseppe Martucci and Ottorino Respighi in San Diego. In all of these places, he was acknowledged as a “rising star”.

  • EagleArts says:

    I’d much rather have a conductor with lots of opera experience and limited symphonic than the other way around. I’ve worked with Jader. He’s extremely musical, great in rehearsal with excellent conducting technique and communication skills. IMO he’s perfect fit for an orchestra like Detroit.

  • Jedidiah says:

    As a native Detroiter and longtime patron of the DSO I can say how excited, and frankly honored, I am to have Maestro Bignamini as our new Music Director. He stepped in last minute to conduct a concert version of Turandot in 2018 and then conducted an entire program from memory including a masterful Mahler 4 last October. I was also fortunate to see him conduct La Boheme in Santa Fe this past summer where he ushered the orchestra to bring renewed life to the Puccini score so familiar to Santa Fe’s established opera audience.

    While perhaps a “risk”, fellow commentators are correct that in the USA the majority of orchestras do not have the privilege of having access to big names coming out of Europe. Lest we forget that all great conductors begin somewhere, the musicality and connection that Maestro Bignamini has been able to establish with the members of the DSO in a relatively short period of time is a reflection of his musicality and willingness to collaborate with an organization that has needed real musical leadership for a very long time.

  • Kim Kennedy says:

    I couldn’t be more thrilled.

  • fflambeau says:

    Sorry, I disagree with this: “But it also signifies the dilemma of US orchestra outside the top ten. Unable to afford a famous or accomplished conductor, they make the best they can out of slim pickings.”

    I think the strength of conducting/ music directors in the USA, across the board, right now is amazing.

    You have the older hands, the distinguished grey beards if you will:

    Robert Spano, Atlanta
    Riccardo Muti, Chicago
    Osmo Vänskä, Minnesota
    Esa-Pekka Salonen (he’s 61), San Francisco
    Manfred Honneck, Pittsburgh
    Franz Welser-Möst, Cleveland
    Marin Alsop, Baltimore
    Jaap van Zweden, New York
    Michael Stern, Kansas City
    Gerard Schwarz, Palm Beach Symphony (Florida)

    Young, Dynamic types:

    The Dude, Los Angeles
    Ken-David Masur, Milwaukee; Chicago Civic
    Jader Bignamini, Detroit
    Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Philadelphia, The Met
    Andris Nelsons, Boston
    Krzysztof Urbański, Indianappolis
    Brett Mitchell, Colorado
    Rafael Payare, San Diego

    And excellent middle-aged conductors:

    Thomas Dausgaard, Seattle
    Gianandrea Noseda, Washington, D.C.
    Stéphane Denève, St. Louis
    Fabio Luisi, Dallas
    Patrick Summers, Houston Opera
    Louis Langrée, Cincinnati
    Giancarlo Guerrero, Nashville
    Carlos Miguel Prieto, Louisiana; Orchestra of the Americas

    And the very distinguished guest conductors for many orchestras and groups:

    Edo De Waart, Milwaukee, San Diego, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra etc.

    Leonard Slatkin, Detroit, New York etc.

    And I likely missed some.

  • fflambeau says:

    Here’s one I missed:

    Tito Arturo Muñoz, Phoenix Symphony (b. 1983)

  • Leonardo Bautista says:

    Him not being well known does not mean he is not good. There are many well known conductors who are really bad; just ast orchestra musicians.

  • Nelson says:

    A gamble it may be, but I suspect Bignamini will not remain unknown for long. Several weeks ago he led a stunning debut concert with the Houston Symphony, which included masterful and stylistically spot-on performances of the Respighi Pines and Fountains of Rome. These were far superior to those of the last guest conductor to lead these works with the HSO, by Vassily Petrenko. In this case, the “unknown” far outdid the work by the (IMHO) overrated Mr. Petrenko. Some times you have to take a risk. My words to a friend after this concert were to the effect that I thought many would SOON know Bignamini’s name….it seems that soon was very soon indeed! Best of luck to Maestro Bignamini, and please come back to visit us in Houston soon!

    • fflambeau says:

      I heard him conduct the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the same Resphihi piece on Chicago’s WFMT network and thought it was the best version I had ever heard. He was given a thundering ovation too. He will be a great one if he stays on course.

  • Graeme Withers says:

    The audience was impressed here:

  • Cubs Fan says:

    If the CD era taught us anything, no-name conductors can are are every bit as good, and often better, than the big, over-paid “maestros”. Look at the roster on Hyperion, BIS, Chandos, Naxos, CPO…who needs a big ego anymore?

  • Tim D says:

    It’s very unfair to infer that Jaded Bignamini is not an accomplished conductor. Having worked with him recently I’m not at all surprised that his career has had such a sudden boost. One of the most impressive that’s passed by my orchestra in many years. I think it’s a bold and very astute choice.

  • john says:

    No risk, a great choice for Detroit. Congratulations.

  • Martin Snell says:

    An excellent conductor with an extremely charming, personable character.

    His interpretation of La Traviata earlier this season was justifiably applauded by the ecstatic Staatsoper audiences every time.

    Maestro Bengiamini knows his stuff. Expect great things from him.

    His patience has been rewarded.

    • Anon says:

      Could be, but guest conducting an Italian opera in Vienna is a far cry from becoming Music Director of a US orch. which has suffered financial hardship & struggles to be relevant in a primarily non-white community.

      • Bruce says:

        Keep in mind that the Detroit Symphony’s mostly white audience comes into town from the mostly white suburbs.

        Also: most orchestras struggle to be “relevant” in their community no matter what the prevailing level of pigmentation.

      • EagleArts says:

        Most of the support for the DSO comes from the wealthier suburbs of Detroit and not from within the city limits. It has been this way for many, many decades. Same for the Detroit Institute of Arts. There’s a lot of healing and revitalization going on in the D and I’m certain Jader will be a big part of it.

  • Most of us were huge risks when we began our journey. Although I do not know Maestro Bignamini, I do trust the musicians of the DSO and there was a genuine rapport between him and the orchestra. Hopefully, he will master the fine art of the difference between a conductor and a music director, especially in the States. It will be interesting to see what repertoire will constitute his first couple years, setting him apart from his predecessor.

  • Rodger Greenman says:

    Mr. Lebrecht, this was neither the the time nor the place to attempt to take the DetroitSO down a notch. I echo a somewhat irked opinion that the Detroit orchestra constantly claims world excellence without any formal recognition by their piers. Certainly they are not one of the top ten within America based upon their base salary, number of weeks fully employed, or honestly present performance level. Besides this overly critical thought, the appointment of Maestro Jader Bignamini is a joyous one that is to be celebrated and not condemned with any degree of pessimism. I wish the young Maestro and the DSO the best of luck for a prosperous and imaginative future.

  • Ben says:

    I am sure any female waving a chopstick is way way way way way way way more qualified and justified for this post.

    I rest my case.


  • Doug Grant says:

    Slatkin made the most telling point – there is more to such an appointment than being a good conductor. Does he have the right friends in the business to attract the very best soloists? Will he connect with the city power brokers who can add to the endowment? Does he have the ability to win the inevitable battles with the administration? Time will tell.

    • SMH says:

      Are not many of those issues the same for any new MD? I believe it’s encouraging to have fresh ideas, new blood and new connections at the DSO. Detroit is in the constellation of fantastic midwestern orchestras. Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Cleveland etc. Will be great to have some soloists and repertoire unknown to the area.

    • fflambeau says:

      I think you have misread Mr. Slatkin. His main point (and his first one) is that all conductors start fresh and new and as such carry risks with them.

  • Jader says:

    Do I know you?

  • KANDO says:

    Jader may be “unknown” to YOU, but as someone who has worked with him, I can tell you he is a dynamic conductor with a warm spirit that matches the revitalized energy of Detroit. Also, he isn’t unknown to the Met (Butterfly) , Santa Fe (Boheme) and audiences at countless Netrebko tours. Stick to church choirs in Coventry, and leave the big leagues to the serious people.

  • Westfan says:

    They broadcast some concerts live on the web, free access. They sound damn good. And they have a lovely old hall to perform in.

  • Amanda Blaikie says:

    As a DSO musician, I would like to say that this is NOT a gamble. When you have rehearsed and performed under Bignamini’s baton, magic happens. He is committed to the music, and music itself, and conducts without a score so as to be able to listen, react, and connect with the musicians.

    Bignamini demands every detail of us,— every dynamic,— with complete command, while also bringing passion, joy, humor, and nuance. He has complete command, illustrating the most beautiful and clear gesture.

    Jader had us “at hello” during our very first week together in 2018 when he conducted us in Turandot. We knew he was special and we all fell in love. And coming from the opera world myself, I have nothing but the greatest respect for opera musicians and their devotion to musicality.

    I couldn’t be happier that the DSO musicians and management were in complete agreement in hiring him. He may not be the most famous conductor in the symphonic world, but he soon will be! We know we’ve found a gem. Or rather, struck gold.

    I suggest everyone see him in concert (preferably with the DSO due to our undeniable chemistry) before forming your opinion. 😉

    Welcome to the DSO, Jader Bignamini!

  • David P Assemany says:

    Anyone who has heard the DSO under Jader, and seen Jader in person interacting with DSO patrons knows this is not a risk at all. I have been a subscriber to the DSO since the 1980s, and I could not be more delighted with this decision.

  • Kim says:

    “I’d much rather have a conductor with lots of opera experience and limited symphonic than the other way around.” Yes, if you can handle the elastic beat, integrate the singers with the instruments, drama and comedy, you have serious leg up.