Why are major orchestra unable to pick a music director?

Why are major orchestra unable to pick a music director?


norman lebrecht

January 08, 2021

The symphony orchestra of Montreal, Canada, headless since Kent Nagano stepped down last year, invited the usual slew of hopefuls and put them through their paces during Nagano’s last two seasons.

The Venezuelan Rafael Payare, 40 and mid-career, made his debut in September 2018 with Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht,’ Mozart’s 3rd violin concerto with the concertmaster as soloist and Beethoven’s Eroica. The players liked what they saw and told the selection committee.

Talks began with his agents, AskonasHolt, who held out for a big five-year deal, in exchange for 14-16 weeks a year. The agreement was sealed in the Covid New Year. Everyone seems happy.

So why are more famous orchestras like the Concertgebouw, Bavarian Radio and Paris Opéra finding it so hard to appoint a chief? So much so that the C’bouw thinks it won’t find the right person before 2025?

Because they have got so puffed up on self-esteem that only a ‘big’ name will suit their supposedly elevated status. So they get fixated on fame and paralysed in the search. They have forgotten the simplicity of the process. See one, like one, talk to the agent, sign one.

Done deal.

It’s not rocket science.


  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    If headless the orchestra needs to be renamed the “Marie Antoinette Symphony Orchestra” – the one that wants to get ahead.

  • BP says:

    How far along is the Chicago Symphony in its search ?

    • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

      Muti was asked by management who should succeed him after he left and here is the current list that has been leaked to me from insiders:

      Jesus: interested but too busy trying to save the US from itself

      Buddha: Attempts to reach him through his agent have not been successful. He is out in the woods somewhere.

      Muhammed: Doesn’t like to be seen and publicity shy. Only interested if the CSO moves to the Arabian Peninsula.

      Moses: Specializes in 10th symphonies of great composers (Mahler, Hayden, Mozart) so that leaves out Beethoven (but has told management that Brahms 1 works for him in a pinch)

      Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: musicians don’t want a runner up candidate so things are stalled with these names.

      Aside from those candidates, Muti doesn’t think anyone else is qualified. Also to be noted is that none of these candidates check off the required boxes with regards to Diversity & Inclusion and are the same names that have come up for the past 2000 years.

      • The View from America says:

        I guess Confucius doesn’t stand a chance, either. Too many East Asians in the classical music field already.

    • MacroV says:

      I don’t know, but that’s a good case in point. The CSO traditionally demands the best conductor available. They got Solti (maybe could have gotten Giulini but not sure how much he wanted to be a MD at the time) and talked to Karajan. To replace him they supposedly considered Abbado, Haitink, and Barenboim. Then it took a few years and they got Muti, who it’s hard to dispute was probably the best available athlete.

      I keep thinking there are only about 3 conductors in the world that the CSO would deem worthy of them: Sir Simon, Thielemann, and Chailly (maybe Petrenko, too, but he has the only better job). Probably none are interested and none has much of a history with them. But I’m still betting it will be one of them.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Barenboim has been very open about his dislike of extramusical duties at US orchestras. Isn’t that the case with other top conductors who have high profile European alternatives?

      • The View from America says:

        There’s always Eschenbach …


      • stickles says:

        There was a major collateral damage caused by the strike of 2019: Salonen. Two programs were cancelled including Bluebeard’s Castle with DeYoung and Relyea. After MeToo casualties of Levine and Dutoit, Salonen was probably at the top of their list. He signed with San Francisco a few months later. Given current situation, CSO maybe headless for a few years. They may ask Muti stay on in the interim as an “Advisor” or such. Although Muti’s reign is not the most exciting 12 years, he did have many great concerts, Falstaff being his crowning musical achievement, and he is leaving behind a fantastic orchestra. The criteria for next MD should really be about chemistry, musical integrity and vision over prestige.

        • Maestro5151 says:

          “Although Muti’s reign is not the most exciting 12 years…” Are you serious? The orchestra has literally never sounded better, been more balanced and done more for the community than in the past 12 years. You need to get out more.

          • Stickles says:

            Yes today the quality of the orchestra is among world’s best. Some old timers claim it is as good if not better than even the Reiner years. We must also appreciate its noble community work including Muti’s annual prison visits. However Muti’s limited rep dictated orchestra’s dull programming. Even among standard rep I dont understand why he doesn’t do more of Haydn and Prokofiev symphonies. The roster of guest conductors should be refreshed and improved. His personal relation to the orchestra personnel was also rocky as evidenced by the early departure of nearly all the wind principles plus trumpet. Sadly he was also unable to convince players who are way over their prime to enjoy a timely and dignified retirement. Instead the orchestra and the audience suffered.

      • CarlD says:

        Curious about the “only better job” reference. Is that a reference to pay or orchestra quality? Seems like L.A, and Philly have been getting more regular props than the Chi-town gang of late, and they both pay well enough. I suspect “better job” is a more complex calculation than one might think.

      • fflambeau says:

        I think the clear choice will be Manfred Honeck. He’s done a fantastic job in Pittsburgh.

      • Tristan says:

        given the circumstances plus the lack of highly passionate and exciting conductors at the moment (except Petrenko) stay without any chef like the Viennese do!
        Literally any Maestro I have spoken had only praise for them as long they are convinced by the skills PLUS willing to rehearse properly (maybe Covid has an influence in ‘less is often more’ , HELLO Salzburg Festival wake up!)
        Great conductors like Kleiber have achieved the best results wherever he went (not that often…) Chicago, Amsterdam, Berlin or Vienna and in Munich he has never been any Chef but the orchestra played superb for him, definitely on a level like Vienna or Berlin. They had time for him, he got it and bio unions interfering.
        Voila, save the money and stay without an overrated Chef!
        Just think of Berlin, Rattle was a such a bad choice and without him they would have kept the same quality of sound the had with Abbado or Karajan.

    • Patrick says:

      Manfred Honeck is probably high on their list.

  • Anon says:

    A musical chief is not necessary.
    Every single function that an orchestra must do can easily be accomplished from within. Guest conductors are all that is needed.
    This, despite the fact that many people would like to believe that everything an orchestra does is made possible through divine leadership from an eccentric genius.

    • Pierre says:

      Not quite – a chief conductor can truly affect the sound of the orchestra considerably through both rigourous, regular work, choice of repertoire, and a savvy choice of new recruits.

      This is very far from divine leadership though, I agree – only capable leadership, hard work, true talent and intelligence.

      • Anon says:

        What you’re describing is extremely rare. It doesn’t happen in the modern age of maestros who spend a dozen weeks a year with each of the 2 or 3 orchestras they preside over. So much for rigorous, regular work.
        Savvy choice of new recruits? The chief’s choice is just a formality here, almost always a reflection of the majority opinion of the orchestra musicians.
        I want to agree with you so badly!

        • MWnyc says:

          Consider the difference between the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä and under his predecessor, Eiji Oue.

          For that matter (and to approach the comparison from the other direction), consider the difference between the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz and the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and those two orchestras under wither of those gentlemen’s successors.

          • Anon says:

            There were many other things different besides just the chief, in your examples.
            Different decades, dozens of different musicians, the same musicians of different age and motivation, etc. The orchestra each conductor worked with was not the same.
            Also, comparing one chief to another does not address my idea, of having no chief at all.
            Before I spent the last 30 years and change doing this, when I was just a kid in the audience, I too thought the chief spent a lot of time fussing over their orchestra and shaping their sound. I don’t think so at all now.

          • Anthony Sayer says:

            Oue made a quantum leap to the MO from Scranton, wasn’t it? Nor did he distinguish himself in Bayreuth in 2005 with Tristan. He seems to have found his feet now, though. Sometimes these things just happen too fast.

          • Anon says:

            Erie. A small city situated along a lake of the same name.

  • Emil says:

    I think you forget that the OSM has had 3 years since Nagano announced he was leaving, and that 15 musician positions are vacant at the moment – including principal horn (vacant since several years) and 3rd horn, 2 violas, 3 double basses, associate flute, principal piccolo, 4th trumpet, etc. It wasn’t the smoothest of processes.
    I wonder how/whether orchestras evaluate administrative/organisational competency. As many examples show, an MD is also a leader in a large organisation, not only an artist.

    That being said, Payare seems exciting. I look forward to hearing him.

    • Anon says:

      If they can only contractually fill the position and grant tenure at the discretion of the chief, then that is why they have open positions.
      Are you suggesting that the musicians are incapable of doing this on their own?

      • Emil says:

        I’m not sure whether an MD must sign off on auditions at the OSM, but it’s clear the lack of new MD has affected recruitment. They pretty much stopped auditions after Nagano announced his departure (and, as I mentioned, the principal horn’s been empty since before Nagano declined to extend his contract).

        Is your second point about the admin? Yes, that’s my point. If an MD is responsible (even in part) for programming, organising seasons, musician management, etc., they must be administratively competent. Now, would an VPO model without MD work? Probably. But not for every orchestra.

        • Anon says:

          I’m sorry, I don’t follow. If MD’s were done away with, then obviously there wouldn’t be anything in the bylaws requiring a MD to appoint and tenure new musicians. They are not having trouble recruiting because of lack of a MD, but because they may not hold an audition because of their own rules.
          Programming and organizing seasons? Many people are easily capable of planning a season; it doesn’t have to be a MD who will be in town for 12 weeks. And from what I’ve seen, a VP of Artistic Planning (or similar title) is the one who spends countless hours on this.

        • Ilio says:

          In the US, the MD is the selling point for fundraising for orchestras. That’s what Barenboim didn’t want to was to press the flesh of the donors.

        • Arthur Kaptainis says:

          As I understand the situation, an MD is typically not allowed to audition (and decide on) candidates in his/her last season.

    • Karl says:

      Did you attend the concerts Payare conducted in Montreal previously? He conducted Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht and Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 in Montreal back in 2018. It was a solid Beethoven 3rd, but I remember the performance lead by Jean-Marie Zeitouni at Lanaudiere in 2017 much better because that one was inspiring. I see Jean-Marie Zeitouni is conducting there later this month. I hope he sticks around Montreal and makes appearances often.

    • Stefan Lano says:

      In 2002, the OSM and I won an OPUS Award for Best Concert of the Season when I jumped in to conduct a concert performance of Wozzeck. Management re-invited me in 2003 to conduct Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Again, the OSM and I won an OPUS Award for Best Concert of the Season. Never heard from them after that. It appears one must be on one of those proverbial “lists” or with one of the purveyors of great conductors in London or New York. And yet…everyone bemoans that there is no qualified candidate on the horizon. I would posit that a third time with the OSM would bring us another OPUS Award. But, these days, who the hell cares?

  • alex piantedoux says:

    If you put a curtain in front of the stage i guess that 80% of the audience hardly can recognize which orchestra is playing, and 99% of the audience hardly can say the name of the conductor performing in that concert….so said, it is time to see new conductors with this self named “top” orchestras…bravo to Montreal!

    • henry williams says:

      this is very true. if the orchestra is good the sound
      coming out will be good from behind the curtain

  • Hayne says:

    Because most conductors are not very good?

  • Karl says:

    The appointment of Rafael Payare is big news to us northerners. That should have been the headline instead of the grammatically incorrect dig at other ensembles. “Why are major orchestra unable to pick a music director?” lol!

    Is 40 really considered mid career? Didn’t Bernstein take over the NYPO at age 40? It didn’t seem like mid career for him.

  • Richard Master says:

    His contract will be extended for at least one more year, unless the Protector of Man and Len He 26 are forced to put decency before ticket sales.

  • Symphony musician says:

    The reason it’s taking longer and longer is because there aren’t many conductors who are good enough to inspire the musicians in front of them. There’s a worldwide shortage of truly competent conductors and an even greater shortage of inspirational ones, when these two qualities should be prerequisites for directing professional orchestras and taking the very substantial remuneration on offer. Many – perhaps most – professional orchestras are just making do with somebody not really good enough.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      It can also be a tricky thing to pick a music director because there are so many conductors out there who have mastered a nice but select repertoire that they have developed as permanent traveling guest conductors and can really wow both the board and yes even the musicians. I recall being told by a Milwaukee Symphony musicians that they were all bowled over by Lukas Foss as a guest conductor particularly his way with Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, and that concert got him the job, only to learn that often Foss, who was a splendid musician to be sure, was working hard to stay one concert ahead of them in terms of knowing the larger repertoire he found less interesting, particularly standard concertos. I still remember how Foss got impatient or bored or distracted during the lengthy Sauret cadenza (which has two false endings) to Paganini’s Concerto No. 1, and brought the orchestra back in several measures too early while Midori was still finishing the cadenza. She looked as shocked as some of the orchestra members did. If memory serves he did something similar to Mutter during the Symphonie espagnole. As my teacher (a member of the violin section) told me the Monday after, “well there’s another soloist we won’t be seeing again.”

      What is a bit surprising about the European orchestras taking too long to fill the post is that for better or for worse, it is an American music director is also expected to be a schmoozing fund raiser and be in other ways “local” and thus a high value is place on having some sort of local residence and presence. This was exactly what Giulini made clear he would NOT do for Chicago, according to Furlong’s book Season With Solti. We here in Milwaukee got very used to seeing Harry John Brown walking his dogs, or running into Kenneth Schermerhorn at the local high-end grocery store (and truth be told Schermerhorn seemed to thrive on the attention and he’d loudly greet everybody when he’d enter) and thus the successors Foss, Macal and Delfs seemed comparatively aloof. It was just an amazing happenstance for Milwaukee that Edo de Waart lived nearby because that is where his wife wanted to live.

      • Nick2 says:

        Nice to see Kenneth Schermerhorn mentioned and remembered. I can remember when one of the finest music critics, the late Andrew Porter, praised him after a Carnegie Hall concert as one of the finest conductors in America.

    • Luciano says:

      Is this really true? All of a sudden there is no one good around? And if so why? But if you look at the lists of the big agencies there are more ‘good’ conductors than ever… There are plenty of good conductors around, but orchestras are slaves to the music business system which promotes a select few. I think it would also be fair to say that orchestras themselves could do a better job nurturing young talent.

    • zergafritz says:

      This is a misguided attitude. Having been in the business of hiring conductors for thirty years, we are living in the most fecund period for good young conductors in my career. It doesn’t matter to you because you are a symphony musician, which by definition means you will dismiss 90+% of the conductors you see in front of you. That’s to be expected, but it’s coming from an artificially narrowed point of view.

      • Symphony musician says:

        You might think we’re cynical, but for you to say I will dismiss 90+% of the conductors I see based on what I wrote in my post seems pretty cynical. I realise musicians can appear very dismissive of conductors without giving them a fair chance. But we’re the idealists, and all too often ‘we’ are not listened to and individual conductors get continually more successful without showing ‘us’ the qualities they would need in order to lift a performance above the run-of-the-mill.
        People booking conductors often don’t pay enough attention to the views of the musicians. I’m fortunate to be in an orchestra where our views make a difference, but I am still often disappointed when we see new conductors. I know many of my colleagues in other orchestras despair at some of the people they see, including some Music Directors.
        I wouldn’t dream of suggesting anything other than that you listen to the views of musicians you’re booking conductors for. You might on reflection agree though, that “good” isn’t necessarily the same as “truly competent” and “inspiring”.
        I hope you will now take it on trust when I say I can, after over 30 years, still take something positive from the experience with around 80% of the conductors I see. And when we see very disappointing ones I rarely moan in an unconstructive manner – that would only be bad for me, so what’s the point? But truly competent and inspiring conductors appear very infrequently, and that is what all musicians want and need, at least some of the time!

    • fflambeau says:

      Sorry, I think just the opposite: a plethora of competent conductors.

      • Hayne says:

        zergafritz and fflambeau please, please, please say you don’t play in an orchestra. If you’re a dilettante, I can understand and accept your views.

  • Mauricio Paez says:

    Who says nowadays that an Orchestra needs a permanent conductor????
    (Maybe is also cheaper that way)
    I think it needs deeper discussion.

  • Don Pasquale says:

    So simplistic this post. I’d imagine having Norman Lebrecht along for a guest slot would be entertaining and refreshing. You get him back and you go ok there’s something here. so you sign him and then realise what works as a one off most certainly does not work on a long term basis.
    It’s the orchestra that makes the music not the conductor. Conductors can lift you higher or drag you down and it takes time for them to reveal their true colours. It also takes time for an inexperienced conductor to become a fine music director.
    The concept of see one,like one, book one does not work and whilst there are exceptions they prove the rule.

  • James says:

    Another big issue, for touring in Europe and elsewhere many tour promoters will only accept a ‘star name’. Some orchestras but not many can get by with the reputation of the ensemble (VPO for instance), and not many names have that kind of cache. Of course that reputation can be built but it takes time and a lot of work. Added to which, the same kind of paradigm can apply to sponsors – some orchestras see a star name as a shortcut to bringing in or retaining sponsors.

    On the other hand, the fact that there are so very few genuinely huge names (Gergiev, Barenboim and, what, five or six others if that?) is perhaps levelling the playing field. Orchestras are being forced to go with new or less hyped talents – and that can be a good thing.

    • Nick2 says:

      Even more important than touring Europe, I suggest, is touring Asia. Japan has long been a cash cow for touring orchestras. Now you can add China with Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore as add ons. Kleiber loved Japan and more than once visited just to meet friends and enjoy the country. The fact that he was received with God-like status no doubt helped. Gunther Wand was a ‘star’ in Japan before his genius was fully recognised elsewhere.

      40 year old Pietari Inkinen has been MD at the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra since 2016 – he was scheduled to conduct the Bayreuth Ring last summer. The Tokyo Philharmonic appointed the Italian Andrea Battistoni as MD when he was only 29. Japan audiences love him. These appointments make a break with Japan orchestras in the 1980s and 90s when ‘names’ were traditionally key. Sawalllisch gave the NHK Symphony 4 weeks a year. von Matacic, Dutoit, Ashkenazy, Dutoit, Blomstedt, Fruhbeck de Burgos were just some associated with Japan orchestras in titled positions.

      I believe there are nowadays a lot more younger talented conductors than before. Simply looking at the older generation for a “huge name” may not always the best way to go. At least the younger conductors should be given trials.

  • M2N2K says:

    According to our host here, the “winning” formula is “see one, like one, talk to the agent, sign one”. Unfortunately, in reality quite often it starts with “see many, like none”, after which the two remaining steps are moot points.

  • Nicolas says:

    Pardon, in advance, my funny “Franch like” English…

    Well, the “not absolutely major, but important” orchestras, like Montréal, have a great advantage allowing them to take reasonnable delay to find an artistic director: it is more easy to pick someone who could become a major conductor; who have only few progress to do before becoming a major conductor.

    Adding the artistic direction of a “just a little bit under major” orchestra to their CV draw a bigger attention to them; and the orchestra have the level required to allow them making the few progresses.

    Also, these orchestras have no budget to pay a big, fatty and important conductor; but they can find a way to pay someone who is about to become such a conductor. Another point that accelerate the process. Don’t forget that, in 1961, Montréal was the first artistic direction of Zubin Mehta.

    Something particular must be mentioned about important orchestras in Canada, as Montréal and Toronto: the artistic direction of these ensemble is sometime a good way, for the conductor, to draw big american orchestra’s attention. “See ? I can conduct an orchestra in North America. No problems”.

    Senior Montréal critic Claude Gingras used to say that many Montréal symphony artistic directors accepted this position because their real ambition was on an US orchestra. Igor Markévitch, apparently, conducted Montréal because he wanted Boston Symphony. Too bad: they choosed Leinsdorf; and Markévitch left Montréal shortly after. Frühbeck de Burgos wanted Philadelphia: he left Montréal shortly after they choosed Muti. Do Payaré have something similar in mind ?

  • JussiB says:

    This blog website is interesting. Instead of reporting the news, Norman likes to inject his own opinions and biases, much as today’s CNN, Fox, and such news shows.

    Having said that, my advice for everybody today is – LEARN SPANISH AND MANDARIN.

  • Philly Filly says:

    Well Philadelphia picked a nobody and put their PR department into full spin to produce a megastar! Hey it worked! Everyone was so pleased to move on from their previous MD they they HAD to drink the Koolaid and the hyper hype worked. If you repeat something often enough people believe it. The power of advertising. HUGE energy on the podium and an extreme use of social media is a good recipe for smoke and mirrors but it covers up a conductor learning his craft and the scores during rehearsals. But no matter! If we keep shouting The Messiah is here, a lot of people will believe us. Long Enough for some time before either he learns his craft or shrewd people realize that in fact the Emperor has no credibility or clothing! Other than a bath robe in a hotel and a huge collection of very expensive designer clothing that often look like things Trump’s kids have shot on safari.

  • Bratsche brat says:

    Ask Vienna, they’re doing alright.

  • PL says:

    Well known Honeck high on the Chicago list

  • Harold Wilkin says:

    That is a nice photograph of the charismatic Rafael Payare with the Ulster Orchestra in the Ulster Hall, Belfast.