Has Covid made the music director redundant?

Has Covid made the music director redundant?


norman lebrecht

October 30, 2020

From my monthly essay in the new issue of The Critic:

Half a year into Covid-19, the music director has joined the at-risk list. The role has been losing prestige for years as maestros split their time between two or three jobs, but the position remains nonetheless the central pivot of orchestral activity, a hedge against chaos.

When a soloist cancels at the last minute or a principal oboe is no longer up to the job, or the bills can’t be paid, it falls to the music director to make an instant, delicate decision. When the budget turns red, the music director is the one who has to call ministers and donors for a bailout.

Assuming he is around. In Covid, music directors were nowhere to be seen. The moment lockdown loomed, maestros took flight, leaving musicians confused, anxious and, in America, generally unpaid.

The New York Philharmonic’s fat-cat chief Jaap van Zweden has been absent throughout. It’s no comfort to New York musicians to know that the Dutchman last month took the considerable personal risk of flying to riot-torn and virus-ridden Hong Kong, where he collects a second salary.

The breakdown of trust between musicians and maestros will lead to a downgrade or downfall of the music director

When the Metropolitan Opera went dark, not a peep was heard from its Canadian music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has other jobs in Philadelphia and Montreal. Met players told me they felt abandoned…

Read on here.

UPDATE: A multi-job music director writes


  • Orchestral Player says:

    Indeed Simon Rattle has been exemplary in his total support of the LSO. He spent weeks with the orchestra at St Luke’s recently for streamed concerts. He’ll be back at the end of November until Christmas and again in January. He has tirelessly been in touch with the Secretary of State for Culture, and written articles in various newspapers in support of the Arts in general.
    Thank you Simon !

  • Tamino says:

    Ironically the music directors were absent most there, where they are needed the most. In the plutocratic classical music system of the US of A.

    But: we get what we pay for.
    Too many orchestras pay for a vanity big name. Not for content and dedicated artistic work. So, a name is what they get. Flown in by a jet, a few weeks a year. Fair enough.

    Only the agencies were laughing all the way to the bank. Until they didn’t…

  • Firing Back says:


    “When the budget turns red, the music director is the one who has to call ministers and donors for a bailout.”

    Maybe in some countries, of course.

    But, in the UK, for example, it’s up to maestros to call government ministers? I don’t think so.*
    It’s the Chief Execs that do the begging, as evidence shows – usually calling crony chums at Arts Council England, or wherever.

    And some of the funding applications from the UK execs make for eye-wateringly self-entitled and dishonest reading.
    I can send you some examples, Norman. ACE leaks like granny’s sieve.

    *Of course they always wheel out Rattle, to try and rattle-up some government interest.
    Spoiler: neither the government, nor the public, give a hoot. There’s a lot of eye rolling, though.

  • John Borstlap says:

    That is not fair. When Jaap van Zweden went, two weeks earlier than was agreed upon, to Hong Kong, to first spend these two weeks in isolated quarantaine, NY was much worse off than Hong Kong and in the booked NY period there were no flights from Holland to the US. And in the end, all his concerts in HK had to be cancelled because of a coronaded bass clarinet, so his trip was in vain. Concert life has become very volatile.

  • Anon says:

    They’ve been redundant for a long time.
    These guys conduct at most 10-15 weeks a year with the orchestra, sometimes hold more than one chief conductorship position, yet critics and audiences gush with praise for the way they have shaped and molded the orchestra (shaping and molding is done by the orchestra’s musicians).
    Many decades ago, chief conductors really did spend at least half the year with their main orchestra, and really did oversee the musical development of the ensemble. In a few orchestras they still do it, which is both wonderful and rare.

  • Ben Legebeke says:

    What a nonsense! Lebrecht has turned more and more in a tabloid writer ! F.i.he forgot that van Zweden gave the NYPO a considerable amount of ‘Pecunia’ to help the orchestra through this difficult times. Not one word from Norman about this generous gesture….

  • sam says:

    1) For some reason fathomable only to NL, Jaap van Zweden remains his favorite whipping boy, whereas his caro Riccardo Muti, though he was as absent from Chicago as Zweden was from New York, is left entirely unmentioned in this wrongheaded and distempered article.

    2) By the way, what’s with the gratuitous “riot-torn and virus-ridden Hong Kong”?

    Hong Kong was never virus ridden, and at its worst, it was 100x less infectious than London. Just pointing out the obvious.

    And as for the rioting, for God’s sake, they were rioting for democracy against a brutal authoritarian regime, that is by the way, rounding up its own Muslim ethnic citizens and putting them in concentration camps.

    Just pointing out the obvious.

  • Chicagorat says:

    Oust Muti. Get someone in the job who does not think Americans are vulgar idiots, who does not boast that the best trait of a great American orchestra is that it finally sounds “European” (what does that even mean), who does not disparage donors and trustees as if they were garbage behind close doors, and that does not think Italians should rule the world. Oh yes, and that does not think of himself as the second coming of our Lord.

    • Chicagoan says:

      It simply means that in Muti’s very narrow mind Europeans are way superiors to Americans culturally. He thinks that Italians are God’s messengers on Earth. They are superiors to Austrians. Who in turn are superior to Germans, who surpass French, who are a tad above the British (the British are not in a good spot according to him, though he keeps a picture of himself and the Queen in his Chicago office). Asian countries are spared because they idolize him. Americans are at the bottom of the cultural evolution ladder and need to be “evangelized”. He never speaks about Canadians as he has one to humiliate every day when he is in town. The most stunning fact is that the CSO Board turn a blind eye to all of this.

  • caranome says:

    Man goes to pet store looking to buy a parrot, & there’s a sale on musical parrots. The first one costs $500. “Why that much?” The store clerk replies, “because it can hum Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.” The second one costs $4000. “What does he do?” “He can sing Tosca in Italian.” The third one costs $25,000. “Wow, that’s a lot! What does he do?” “Nothing.” “Why is he so expensive then?” “I don’t know. All I know is that the other 2 call him maestro.”

  • Alexander T says:

    Me thinks the good old days of autocracy were better.
    (Certainly from a musical standpoint ).

  • papageno says:

    Duh. These are outsiders that they hired and they expect them to have empathy like family?

  • Greg Bottini says:

    In the cases of van Zweden and Nézet-Séguin, they quite possibly avoided New York City because it is such a hotbed for The Plague. I’d do the same thing.
    Thanks again, Trump.
    (BTW, that picture of Rattle is nauseating. “Put your hands together”, indeed.)

    • Firing Back says:

      +1 regarding the picture.
      Simperingly religioso: in other words, about to produce a collection plate to hand out.

      Brother Rattle of the Virtue Signal.

  • eve lytton says:

    why no mention of the berliner philharmonikers new conductor kirill petrenko he was with his orchestra for the europa concert from the philharmonieon may 1st he thenconducted a very reduced orchestra to an empty hall and was there fr the season opener at end of july and will be conducting again this weekend before the philharmonie is closed again, he definately did not desert his orchestra befair!!

  • Peter San Diego says:

    This is why Payare — who is living in San Diego during the pandemic — is in a position to be exceptional, working with the orchestra’s musicians through this difficult time. (He doesn’t walk on water, though for all I know, he may have taken up surfing…)

  • Voice of the people says:

    Why is every Tier 1 or Tier 2 orchestra picking a music director from another country? Is it to appear more sexy and exotic? I don’t get it. It’s a silly fashion.

    • Firing Back says:

      Foreign is considered better to home-grown talent.
      At least Brexit, in the UK, might help to sort out that particular fallacy.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The idea is that it’s an advantage that a foreign conductor doesn’t pick-up the gossipping and lacks knowledge of local politics and backbiting.

  • Le Křenek du jour says:

    And not only because of Betteridge’s Law of headlines.
    No, because the music director was already redundant way before Covid-19.
    Had been redundant for the longest time.
    The Duchy of Lancaster needs no Chancellor.

  • fflambeau says:

    I would agree that some Music Directors have behaved shamefully during this crisis but not all have. I have long thought that Music Directors in smaller groups are unnecessary and overly expensive. I do think their positions and pay needs to be reevaluated.

  • Fiddlist says:

    Yes, many current MD’s have epically failed to show any leadership during the present pandemic. This doesn’t mean the role of MD will be diminished in the future. Try to see history from a broader perspective!

  • Lam says:

    A good read. It’s also true that musicians’ patience for an insecure child like JVS will be at an all time low in 2-3 years.

  • MezzoLover says:

    Of course not – unless you assume the symphony orchestra, in its traditional form and function, has been somehow made redundant by COVID.

    Yes, the Vienna Philharmonic has not had the equivalent of a Music Director since 1933 and will in all likelihood continue the practice, COVID or no COVID.

    But even a world-class orchestra like the Concertgebouw can benefit from having a Chief Conductor right now, their recent 27-month history notwithstanding – just think of what happened in the early 80s, when Bernard Haitink saved the day by threatening to resign his post in protest at proposed reductions to RCO’s subsidy from the Dutch government.

    And of course, there is (as mentioned in your essay) Franz Welser-Möst, who has proven beyond a shadow of doubt what a difference a great MD can make, first in Zurich and now in Cleveland. Frankly Better Than Most, I would say, contrary to what those LPO players had thought before running him out of town. And where is that British critic who wrote after FWM’s departure: ‘he came from nowhere, he’s going nowhere,’ I wonder?

  • Craig in LA says:

    It seems the orchestral music director is among the many weakened institutions vulnerable to COVID-19. As NL notes in the first paragraph of his Critic piece (and in his other writing), the “role has been losing prestige for years.” Many jet-setting music directors spend only a few weeks each year with their orchestras, so it’s no surprise that with concert halls dark, musicians, management, and boards are beginning to question their ultimate value.