One music director or another makes little difference

One music director or another makes little difference


norman lebrecht

May 23, 2021

From my monthly essay in The Critic:

Take, as a case history, the New York Philharmonic. America’s premier gateway for musical talent, founded in 1842, the Philharmonic has not picked the right conductor since Leonard Bernstein threw himself under its wheels in 1957 and came up with enough razzle-dazzle to magnetise a new generation. People are going into care homes these days still singing the themes from his Young People’s Concerts. Lenny welded an orchestra to a city and its rising teens.

The Philharmonic plays on. It sounds more or less the same and its patrons continue to cough up the dough.

After he left in 1973, the bond frayed. Pierre Boulez brought six years of modernist chic, followed by decades of torpor with Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel, Alan Gilbert and the incumbent Dutchman Jaap van Zweden (yes, who?). None of these baton wagglers grabbed the city by the love-handles the way Bernstein did, or tuned into its rhythms.

Yet the Philharmonic plays on. It sounds more or less the same and its patrons continue to cough up the dough. The orchestra’s endowment currently stands at $225 million, enough for it to give away all its tickets to the poor for years to come (not that it ever will). So who’s the conductor? No-one on the Staten Island Ferry can tell ya….

Read on here.


  • MT Cicero says:

    “The truth is that an orchestra needs a music director slightly more than a fish needs a bicycle.” Great line!! Your article flats the tyres of the many revolving bicycles, and rightly so. But then you end by proposing pretty, new bicycles for the LSO- but maybe they need a helo…


    May I make a few observations?

    1. Neither Brexit nor Covid were the LSO’s fault.
    2. New hall or not, Rattle was never going to be a permanent fixture in the LSO’s life. When he joined it was for an initial period of 5 years I believe, and that’s about up.
    3. He’ll be involved with the LSO for several years hence, according to the statement issued when his departure was announced.
    4. The LSO must have known about his plans well before they were made public, so the “hunt” for a successor presumably began about the same time.
    5. The young bloods mentioned in NL’s article are no doubt outstanding and full of potential. But the operative word here is “potential”: when it becomes possible again, the LSO needs bums on seats and, with great respect to these names, appointing one of them is unlikely to do it.
    6. In any case, the LSO fosters young conducting talent in its Donatella Flick competition, and others have conducted the orchestra in recent events at LSO St Luke’s. If that’s not enough, there’s LSO discovery plus a range of outreach activities. Lennie would have been proud.

    So stop bashing the LSO. It’s bigger than any conductor and in its history it’s survived far more serious situations than the present one. It will do so again, I have no doubt.

  • justin says:

    The conclusion — “This was a golden opportunity for an orchestra … to advance the lads. They needed to think local, to green shoots in their 30s … to take a leap of faith in new talent” — is disproven by the facts.

    Alan Gilbert was a local boy, heck both his parents played in the Philharmonic, and he was 42 when he assumed the position, but he was a dud.

    MTT was exciting only to 60 year old classical music critics from New York, otherwise, the San Francisco Bay Area went through the whole dot com era as if MTT never existed.

    James Levine was the only local boy that made good…well, until the ignominious end.

    Young local talent is no panacea for an art form that the general population no longer identifies with.

  • Anonymous says:

    Flawed article, for two reasons (off the top of my head):

    1. The NY Philharmonic makes a poor case study, as they’ve always been a second rate orchestra (and one with a lot of attitude at that). No surprise that nothing has changed there, save for under the biggest egomaniacs.

    2. I’d argue that at least some conductors in the educational, amateur, semi-professional, as well as the low to mid-end of the professional tier can make a hugely positive and outsized difference in the organizations they conduct.

    So many con artists are promoted and rewarded in the way the conducting system is currently configured. These people by default would never truly be able to make a difference, as they function purely in a management, public facing or cheerleading role with zero musical context for what they do. This is particularly bad in America. Many of these “impostors” neither spent any time in the trenches nor could play any instrument at anything approaching a high level.

    And while one or the other shouldn’t necessarily be a prerequisite, this is a bit similar to the overflow of MBA’s in the business world. People go to school to train, receive a piece of paper and get credentialed. But in reality, the majority leave school and end up at the big consulting firms or in middle management at big companies. They have trained to become a cog in the wheel, not to think like an entrepreneur. Are there exceptions? Certainly. However in general, missing is the context and a core part of the tactical experience.

    So let’s separate out the bad actors from the folks doing the tireless, unglamorous and financially unrewarding work of organizing and growing the educational, amateur, semi-professional and low-end of the professional tier. That’s where conductors and real leadership is so incredibly important, but get the least amount of recognition.

    • Couperin says:

      Sadly it’s very true. Training at Juilliard, playing for all kinds of guest conductors from high-profile to low, I remember seniors telling me, “Cherish these years.. even the bad conductors; you won’t play under great conductors very much out there, and you need to be adept at following bad ones too.” Even Juilliard allowed charlatan-conductor-wanna-bes like Joel “Juilliard Quartet” Smirnoff and Itzhak “I conduct now!” Perlman a shot at the podium; we were their training wheels. And yet, the student conductors only rarely had a chance to conduct Juilliard Orchestra; most of them only had a shot conducting the Lab Orchestra concerts. Perhaps student conductors could be given more of a boost and some real opportunities for them to gain experience.

  • msc says:

    Watching and listening from afar, I think you’ve been unfair to Masur. However, the main point is certainly right. The NYP has a reputation for being adversarial and truculent, going back to before Bernstein. Might that have something to do with the matter?

  • HugoPreuss says:

    To call Kurt Masur a “baton waggler” is grossly insulting, not to mention wrong. And I am sure that quite a few people would disagree regarding the other gentlemen as well.

  • The conductors, like Bernstein, whose careers coincided with the arrival of the stereo LP age got a boost in connecting with the audience that no one today is going to get.

    Clicking “Play” on a stream isn’t the same commitment to an artist that buying a foot-wide disk is, one that you will need to carefully store and diligently dust off before every spin.

  • Mock Mahler says:

    If the MD ‘makes little difference’, then what caused the ‘decades of torpor’ when financial patrons were there and the orchestra played ‘more or less the same’?

    P.S. I guess this means that SD is going to let up on ragging the Concertgebouw for delaying a new MD appointment?

  • drummerman says:

    If we don’t need music directors, does that also mean we don’t need music critics?

    Just curious………

  • Baguette says:

    Norman, I agree with your general point, but you picked the wrong example. NYP is historically one of the few great orchestras where the music director has made a huge difference. After the sloppy years of Mehta, one could hardly believe it was the same orchestra under Kurt Masur.
    And the orchestra quickly regained some of its former luster under Jaap after the disaster which was Alan Gilbert.
    Unlike other American orchestras (Cleveland and BSO) which are self-sustaining, NYP has always needed a strong paternal hand to guide it. It has also eaten lesser conductors alive.

  • Chicago subscriber says:

    Chicago underground rumor mills say that the CSO is hiring Bill Gates’ PR people to manage their music director image and retain mystified patrons 😉

  • Brian Bell says:

    Norman, one glaring omission in your article: the Germans did not succeed Ormandy. In between there was this guy named Muti. Heard of him?

    • Lothario Hunter says:

      I have! isn’t he the guy who taught Clinton how he could get the most out of his staff?

      Muti is very demanding, it’s all about performance on the job!

    • Hmus says:

      Well, Muti might just as well have been German – he studied at the Berlin Hochschule and programmed more German music in Philadelphia than even Ormandy. (Axis powers?) Aside from a piece or two of Martucci (also abut as German as an Italian composer can sound) and the ocasional Respighi show stopper, he played no non-Verdi Italian that I recall, whereas even Ormandy played Casella now and then.

      • Amos says:

        Sorry but RM greatest weakness, musically, is the Austrian/German repertoire. His one foray with Mahler & Bruckner on disc, the 4th in both instances, was incomprehensible and much of his Mozart, Beethoven & Brahms isn’t much better. His Italian, French, Russian and even Czech efforts have been significantly better received.

        • Novagerio says:

          Amos: “His Mozart, Beethoven & Brahms isn’t much better”
          – Have you heard the Mozart-Da Ponte operas with Muti?…

  • Amos says:

    First, to see and hear how LB could galvanize a great orchestra watch and listen to this 1972 BSO Tanglewood performance of the Brahms 2nd Musicians like concertmaster Silverstein, Principal cello Eskin and Principal percussion Firth couldn’t be BS’d and clearly responded to a conductor who came prepared to lead. Second, unfortunately the same remarks regarding the NYPO could be applied to the CSO after Reiner, save for Solti, the CO after Szell, save for CvD, the PO after Stokowski, save for Muti, and the BSO after Munch. Last, although I found the book informative to my mind the critic lays to waste the myth of the “Maestro Myth”. A great orchestra needs a great Music Director to remain more than a collection of great instrumentalists.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Because I question the underlying premises I tend to disregard the conclusions in this essay. I think who the music director makes a considerable difference in the two things that matter: the tonal quality of the orchestra (Philadelphia under Stokowski then Ormandy, then excellent but nonetheless quite different under the successors, and not at all the same thing as the technical performance quality) and the mastery of certain repertoire. By that I refer to things like the Chicago Symphony’s identification with Bartók’s idiom thanks to Reiner, which Martinon at least had the good sense not to meddle with; the Czech Philharmonic’s way with Dvořák under Talich, Ančerl and Neumann but then sounding different — still fine, but just somehow different — in more recent years, and that sort of thing. If not the music directors, then why or how the changes? A music director can create and a music director can preserve — but a music director can also destroy something even as the orchestra itself “plays beautifully.” The Cleveland Orchestra made some lovely recordings before George Szell arrived, but what a difference Szell made in the appropriateness of that orchestra to a certain repertoire.

    To a certain extent the recruitment of new musicians is a big part of the music directors’ job but these days so many splendid players are being turned out by the conservatories that it would take almost a deliberate effort to let quality deteriorate (not that it has not happened).

    In the matter of Bernstein, I was rather a fledgling maven at the time but the one thing I do remember is that, impossible as it might seem now, the NY and American musical press at the time seemed universally happy to see him go, and my impression was back then that much of the Philharmonic itself seemed to agree.

    Thinking of the Boston Symphony for a moment, I’d concede that it played just as well for Leinsdorf and Ozawa as it had for Koussevitsky and Munch (if recordings and broadcasts are a reliable indicator), but to my mind a great stylistic link with a certain repertoire was impaired if not lost — a certain production of sound, and a certain approach to tone and attack. Not reinstated by Ozawa or any other music director they’ve had since. Just compare the Prokofiev recordings under Koussevitsky and Munch with those of Leinsdorf. That all are well played is not the point.

    I mentioned the Czech Philharmonic. Recently I was (re) listening to an old LP of Bach transcriptions that they recorded under Stokowski. Recalling Pierre Monteux’s jibe that in Philadelphia Stokowski had created a superb orchestra trained to play very badly, one has to imagine that during those concerts and sessions the musicians were fighting every instinct that their training and experience had established, because Stokowski made it sound like “his” orchestra, just as he could do on short notice with freelance recording orchestras (exhibit A would be the circa 1950 Arabian Dance from the Nutcracker Suite:

    If who the music director is makes so little difference, then why does it make such a huge difference? Why do we so readily speak of the “eras” of different orchestras — and almost always use the name of the music director to name those eras? A case in point. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Reiner” era versus its “Martinon” era. No difference? None? Really?

    • John Kelly says:

      I completely concur and your examples are quite apropos. Stoki also played the Dvorak Slavonic Dance Op72 #2 as an encore with the CPO (recorded by Decca and issued) – it is exquisite – but unquestionably the “Stokowski sound” and also Stokowski phrasing. He was 90 at the time and frail, but after the rehearsal for this he quietly said “how wahnderfooly you play.” He was right. The combination of a great orchestra with a conductor who has something to say about the music is irresistable. They also played Enigma Vars – they’d never played it before. Worth a listen. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned Celibidache – his concerts with the LSO in the late 70s completely refute Mr Lebrecht’s argument. If Mr Lebrecht ends up where deceased conductors end up (not necessarily heaven according to Stokowski) we can be certain that Messrs Szell and Mravinsky will wish to discuss his theory…….probably at considerable length…………..

  • Pete Parker says:

    I remember a certain London orchestra taking a punt on young unknown talent… Most people thought he was”Frankly Worse Than Most”….

  • John Kelly says:

    Nonsense of course. Let’s ask George Szell what he thinks………….

  • Mark Lowther says:

    Taking the orchestras that Norman does distorts the picture somewhat. Here today, gone tomorrow Music Directors are unlikely to make much difference to the long-term health of an orchestra. But how about Petrenko in Liverpool? Elder at the Hallé? Karabits in Bournemouth. Conductors who have made a long-term commitment to their orchestras and really have made a difference. And, thinking of the Music Director elect of the LSO, seasoned ROH-goers will have noticed that the difference Pappano has made to that orchestra is that it plays wonderfully not just for him but for a whole variety of other conductors. Ask one of those conductors what difference a committed Music Director has made to the orchestra and they’ll tell you!

  • Unknown Quantity says:

    Norman, the truth is that orchestras, like any business, have antiquated business models. The orchestra, the conductor and even the music, is all a means to an end: generate revenue through donations, ticket sales, government grants/handouts, etc, to feed their machines – basically, pay people in these organizations (note, the heft salaries of some conductors and orchestra managers). In the end, the love of music, the meaning of music, is lost. This was the magic of Bernstein and what he brought to NY Phil and what is missing today. The maestros that you mention all have three or more positions and spend most of their time flying around. Ask yourself, what is the “product” of an orchestra? It’s the MUSIC, right? Have you heard some of these concerts with some of these highly paid conductors? Few are really that amazing. Definitely NOT worth the big paydays. Your right about a few things, Norman – something is wrong with our orchestras and its not the orchestra itself, but the lack of leadership, vision and excitement for the future. And, finally, the young maestros you mention are mostly just a bunch of kids; what do they bring to an orchestra other than youthful flair. We need more than this. We need musicians to conduct an orchestra, musicians with passion for the product they create, who are more interested in staying with one orchestra instead of three or more. Norman, that’s like having three wives/husbands. Won’t work.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Mr. Lebrecht – do you honestly think the New York Philharmonic “sounds more or less the same” today as it did when it played under Bernstein?
    Or that “the Philharmonic has not picked the right conductor since Leonard Bernstein threw himself under its wheels in 1957”? The NYP played brilliantly under Boulez, as many a studio recording or live air-check will show. “Modernist chic”? Boulez’ achievement in raising the general playing level of the orchestra comprised a heck of a lot more than is indicated by that dismissive statement.
    And what does “threw himself under its wheels” refer to, anyway?
    “It never fails to amaze me how little the appointment of a chief conductor affects the general performance and perception of an orchestra.” Really? How about when Stokowski took over from Poehlig in Philadelphia? Or when Ormandy took over from Stokowski? Or when Muti took over from Ormandy? Or when Sawallisch took over from Muti?

    • John Kelly says:

      Of course you’re right Greg. And I witnessed many a program by the NYPO in recent years and can attest that the playing under Maazel was at the very highest level I have ever heard from any orchestra and under a conductor who I didn’t like that much in most music. Unfortunately it was in a wretched hall, but nonetheless, the orchestra can play at the highest level of excellence and often does. They will be playing at Carnegie Hall this coming season and I will be there for everything – and they will sound wonderful – in there……………

  • Greg Bottini says:

    (to continue, as I clicked “submit” too soon)
    “The Philadelphia Sound” was completely changed over the course of each of these conductors’ tenures.
    And Ormandy “dull”? Gergiev “impossibly gifted”?
    Wow. Simply wow.

    • John Kelly says:

      I know. I heard Ormandy in his dotage and he was definitely not dull. Underappreciated in fact, especially in the parochial UK (see Richard Osborne’s rather dismissive review of 40 years worth of recordings in the new Ormandy box in the recent Gramophone). Then go to Youtube and listen to Ormandy’s Tallis Fantasia or Lt Kije and tell me he was “dull”………………Gergiev is impossibly something but “gifted” isn’t the adjective that springs to mind………..

      • fflambeau says:

        I agree with you, John Kelly. Ormandy made several recordings which I still turn to as “the best”.

    • Hayne says:

      I think Muti changed the Philly sound and not for the better.

  • FrankInUsa. says:

    I find the comments about American orchestras disparaging and untrue. It’s well know that London critics hate American orchestras. The latest huge Sony release of Ormandy’s monaural Columbia recorded show Ormandy to be anything but dull but the London-centric NL is ignorant of the facts that he can hear. The review about this release by that Karajan boot licker Osborne in Gramophone is more evidence of the myopia of the London music crowd. NL parrots the same old thing about BSO/Ozawa etc. The NY Phil is a unique case in which it competes with one of the most culturally artistically diverse cities in the world(New York City). Even back in the 1940’s,the American critic/composer Virgil Thompson complained that the NYPhil was culturally obsolescent. NL waxes philosophically about Bernstein. That was a completely different world. LB’s concerts for young people were broadcast by major TV stations. At that time,there were even regular orchestral broadcasts. Today there is a very occasional broadcast on PBS(Public Broadcasting System). Usually the opening of Carnegie Hall and the VPO New Year Concert. NL could not even mention the Chicago Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra(my personal favorite).I know there had been some complaints about Muti but I am not in a position to comment. SD did post the announcement of the full 2021/2022 Cleveland Orchestra schedule and note was taken of the trailblazing,challenging and risk plan of new contemporary works. The Cleveland Orchestra is fearless. They leave all the English orchestras in the dust. And then NL lists a bunch of nobody’s that could’ve/Should’ve taken over the LSO. Lol.Yet SD continuously let’s us know about all Mirga’s travels. To conclude as I have said before. There are too many London based orchestras. This has been known since the 1960’s.

    • Couperin says:

      David Hurwitz positively SAVAGES that Gramophone “review” of the Ormandy box. It’s delicious. Find it on YouTube.

    • John Kelly says:

      Frank in USA I agree. And it extends to conductors. Slatkin is one of the best conductors of English music alive but you would never know that if you read Gramophone or the UK musical “press”. But listen to his Elgar Symphonies or VW Symphonies and make up your own mind. Previn (also great in this repertoire) was given something of a break because of his LSO tenure but he “was never Boult of Barbirolli.” (i.e. one of us)

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Because it’s the music that matters. If the hall sounds really good, and the players can hear themselves and each other, and the if the orchestra is hitting on all cylinders (they’re pros – they’re paid to do so!), then it really almost doesn’t matter who’s doing the stick work. That’s the bald truth of today’s reality. Fast has been done. Slow has been done. The age of interpretative exploration is over with and now unnecessary. Go to the show; listen to the music; pay less attention to the person waving the stick; stop worrying about ‘interpretations’ and just enjoy yourself.

    • John Kelly says:

      Barry, in a way you’re right but at the same time, the ABC approach to conducting of any given work (let the orchestra play and stay out of the way) leaves me remembering Celibidache’s concerts, and Karajan’s and Tennstedt’s and so many others who did not take this approach. We are poorer for their absence…………

  • Petros LInardos says:

    When Abbado succeeded Karajan in Berlin, the Philharmonic reflected his personality. Maybe it takes great conductors to make a difference as music directors.

    And now an honest question: what about difference have the music directors from Rattle on made in the CBSO’s sound – not its profile?

  • fflambeau says:

    The article is full of nonsense, like this: “Elsewhere, the Philadelphia Orchestra went from dull Eugene Ormandy…”

    He was anything but dull. He was a great leader which is why he was there so long. No friend of Sibelius could be dull.

    I also disagree on Masur (wonderful conductor and leader), Maazel (world class musician) and more.

  • Howard Dyck says:

    Norman, your piece reminds of what my German conducting prof told me years ago. The Vienna Philharmonic, having to endure a stream of guest conductors, mostly with little or no rehearsal time, would say, “Lass dem da nur pinzeln…wir spielen das Liedchen schon”, or roughly, “let him brush (as in paintbrush) away, we’ll play the little song already”.

    • John Kelly says:

      And then Dohnanyi showed up and recorded a stupefying Miraculous Mandarin and one of the best Petrushkas you will ever hear……..neither performance what you would expect from the VPO “playing the little song” aka “the usual schlamperei”……

  • Edgar Self says:

    Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Stokowski, Beecham, Furtwaengler made a difference, whatever the orchestra or title.

  • John Borstlap says:

    My impression is that the task of a conductor is often misunderstood by people outside the musical profession. He does not merely beat time, keeping the players together, but he has to recreate the score in terms of tempo, balance, expression, phrasing, complete with the tiny rubati and emphasizes that cannot be notated. With the warhorses of the repertoire that is easier because the players know the music well, but with anything beyond that, the full musicianship of the conductor comes into play and the music stands or falls with his understanding and creative insights. It is very easy to kill a piece with a tempo too slow or too fast, or without giving the fluent transitions between different dynamics enough attention. What happens at rehearsels is something different from what the audience sees and hears.

    I’m sure the first performances of the works that are now the regular stable of the concert practice, were substandard or worse, with a lot of wrong notes and odd balances. For instance, playing the Eroica when nobody understands the piece, and too slow, makes the music disappear completely. The superficial ease with which the role of the conductor is sometimes described, is worrying.

  • H.Wells says:

    If NL meant that music directors have slowly but surely become irrelevant since the 1980’s, then he is quite right. In fact, most comments here defending MD’s role are mainly citing names as Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Stokowsky, Beecham, Furtwangler, Mravinsky, Celibidache, Karajan…

    The MD has indeed turned into a sort of glorified dance squad cheerleader captain instead of what should be the main coach of the team and the central source of the creative process.

    One reason could be that the functioning of an orchestra as we have known it is a product of monarchic, militarist societies and cultures. Whether we like it or not, post ’68 pop and rock culture have put an end to that. Today’s orchestras have still to find a way of re-inventing their functioning which would make the music they produce artistically valid, exciting, engaging enough to restore their central place in a city’s/country’s cultural landscape.

    Will they be up to it? Is it really possible or even necessary in a modern society as it has evolved? Shall we ever believe again that a Bruckner symphony can save the world?