Another US orchestra can’t make up its tiny mind

Another US orchestra can’t make up its tiny mind


norman lebrecht

June 02, 2021

North Carolina is looking for a music director. They are really not that hard to find. And it doesn’t make that much difference.

Here’s what North Carolina have decided (or not):

The North Carolina Symphony is proud to announce the appointment of Carlos Miguel Prieto as Artistic Advisor beginning in the 2021/22 season.

As the Symphony’s music director search continues, Prieto, a distinguished conductor with an international career spanning more than 20 years, will help ensure the continued artistic excellence of the orchestra. In addition to making guest conductor appearances leading the orchestra, Prieto will also fill artistic duties off the podium.

Carlos Miguel Prieto has longstanding relationship with the North Carolina Symphony and we are thrilled to welcome him to this role next season..

Indecision does not play well with regular folk who make difficult decisions every day of their lives. Why don’t orchestras get this?


  • Evan Tucker says:

    Most conductors are deeply flawed but have their virtues. I struggle to find the virtues in Prieto.

    • Chicagorat says:

      There are US orchestras that can’t even make up their minds about firing sexual predators.

    • Sam McElroy says:

      Evan Tucker, I don’t know what experience you have with Carlos Miguel, but I have executive-produced two albums with him and I can tell you he is not only a wonderful, educated musician and man (from a family of superb musicians, too), but he is phenomenal as an educator and leader, too. I can honestly think of few people better suited to lead a modern orchestra, especially given all the extras that are expected these days in education, fundraising and outreach. His work for years with the Orchestra of the Americas has been breathtaking. And I have been there on three tours to witness it. Carlos has virtues a-plenty, and it isn’t for nothing that he was named Musical America’s “Conductor of the Year” in 2019.

      • Aerin says:

        I’ve been in the audience. He may be phenomenal in many ways, just not as a conductor. Sadly, the NC Symphony has finally made up its mind. At least we’ve got another season before he takes over.

    • Amos says:

      Let’s never forget that in print you also struggled to find the lasting contributions of Leon Fleisher.

    • Susie says:

      No kidding! Just heard him lead the NC Symphony in Schumann’s 4th & Tchaikovsky’s 6th last night, and his conducting was a travesty. Audiences may find him “dynamic” and “charismatic,” but his interpretations were simply crude (never mind that he let the brass run roughshod over the strings). It seems he fools most of the people most of the time. I’m fervently praying that NCSO does NOT hire him in any permanent role! Last night was so sad, given what refined, sensitive, and heartfelt music-making the orchestra is capable of — as we heard, for example, in the exceptional New World Symphony led by David Danzmayr a few weeks ago. Or, for that matter, in just about any performance led by Grant Llewellyn. Or even back in 1990, when the orchestra gave an infinitely superior performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th as a tribute to Leonard Bernstein.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    This is actually a very good decision. Coming out of a pandemic which has destroyed millions of lives, killed many people around the world, and has left many in a state of flux, this seems a wise and careful move for an orchestra that embraces so many diverse styles of programming. It is a big decision to appoint a music director, and as performances evolve in a post-pandemic world, why not take small steps and re-emerge together without rushing into hasty decisions. Carlos is a fabulous musician and music director in his own right, and he will surely guide the way forward for this outstanding organization.

  • drummerman says:

    Carlos is wonderful. North Carolina should just offer him the job. He’s had a great run in New Orleans – time to move on and up. (Couldn’t you have found a more flattering photo, Norman?)

  • Amos says:

    Referencing yourself to “validate” an opinion is a questionable tact even in your own blog. In my opinion, a music director for a regional orchestra is in some ways even more important given the more limited financial resources and talent pool. I recall a story about Toscanini guest conducting the Resident Orchestra of the Hague in the late 30’s and leaving vowing to never return. He was convinced to return 2 years later with the assurance that the orchestra was much improved. He did return, was impressed and he was told that the transformation was due to the efforts of the new MD George Szell. AT was so impressed that he immediately invited GS to conduct the NBC.

    • Kypros Markou says:

      Thank you for sharing this great story!

    • John Kelly says:

      Which effectively refutes the argument made by Mr Lebrecht in a recent post suggesting that the Music Director makes no difference to the orchestral standards……………in fact I think I suggested we ask George Szell what he thought of that notion………….

  • Darrell says:

    What most catches my attention about Carlos Miguel Prieto is the pose with his arms crossed, a veritable plague for years, it seems that it is the only way to pose nowadays. From an artistic advisor I expected a more creative spirit.

    • BRUCEB says:

      How would you have preferred him to pose? Please describe a pose that would have satisfied your wish for something that showed “a more creative spirit” but that you would not have derided as a mere attempt to attract attention.

      How much does a conductor’s pose for a generic headshot reflect their overall creativity, and/or their ability to lead an orchestra? Would an “action shot” taken on a yacht or at the wheel of a fast sports car, à la Karajan, have been more indicative of musical greatness? Just wondering.

      Keep in mind the possibility that a conductor might dislike photo shoots and simply do whatever the photographer or publicist wants so they can get out of there faster. I’ve known a couple; they do exist.

  • Anon says:

    Fine conductor & very well educated. Undergrad from Princeton & a Harvard MBA. That can only be an asset to any orchestra.

    • Jeffrey Biegel says:

      We’ve worked together. He’s the real deal and a wonderful person. This is no time to rush into such decisions.

  • CA says:

    Like probably all USA orchestras, they will have to go through a formal search process before naming their next MD. That process typically takes at least a year. Possibly he is a candidate-or he could be; who knows? And when is the last contracted year for their current Music Director, Grant Llewelyn, who has been there for a very long time…is it the coming season, 21-22? I really do not know. But what we do know is that both of the state’s professional orchestras will be searching at the same time, it seems. Should be interesting to follow.

  • Fred Funk says:

    You were expecting them to hire Wes Schulz? ROFLMAO.

  • SlippedChat says:

    This orchestra was just concluding the very successful 16-year music directorship of Grant Llewellyn, a native of Wales, when Covid-19 arrived and all concerts, including what were supposed to be Llewellyn’s own final appearances as director (among them a valedictory Beethoven 9th), were cancelled.

    Since it is customary for orchestras to “audition” prospective music directors by inviting them to guest-conduct, a year of almost complete orchestral silence was hardly an opportune time to select this orchestra’s next music director, or for the musicians and management to actually work as a group with any candidate or to reach any consensus on a choice.

    Meanwhile, the orchestra apparently wants an experienced hand to provide some temporary guidance, therefore Prieto, who has worked with this group previously.

    The comment that the orchestra “can’t make up its tiny mind” is therefore an inaccurate summary of the situation and is also gratuitiously insulting.

    • The View from America says:

      You have no business leaving such a thoughtful and objective comment. It makes too much sense.

  • Sweet Caroline says:

    The North Carolina Symphony has a $15 million operating budget. Under what definition is that considered “tiny”?

    Good for them bringing in the wonderful Carlos Prieto to ride them over until their next music director.

  • giovannibottesini says:

    perhaps it’s easy to sit in judgment of an orchestra without proper contextual information from your place across the pond but let me assure you from experience that a) the competence and character of a conductor matters immeasurably to the quality of life of an orchestra musician, and b) it’s really, really difficult to find a conductor who can do the job well enough to hitch your metaphorical wagon to their train. these things matter. if you’ve heard beethoven 5 before and are sufficiently satisfied with a certain recording and care to hear no more, then by all means tune out, but for those of us interested and invested in live music – the kind that lives and breathes differently each evening, that takes risks and rethinks convention, the kind that engages with its community, and the kind that was conspicuously absent over the last 15 months in most countries – the decision to hire a music director is of weighty importance to artistic quality. if the decision to punt after such a dark time for the performing arts irks you so, maybe you ought to pick up a baton and show NC how it’s done.

  • Super Patron says:

    Why do you have so much snooty contempt?? It’s really tasteless Lebrecht. Why can’t you just say “North Carolina Symphony is looking for a new music director” and leave it at that. At the very least, the musicians and management have to get along with the director, NCS will not accomplish much if they can’t stand the person in front of them. That surly counts for “some difference” making, regarding who the next director will be.
    You have penned The Maestro Myth, whether or not it’s true is up for debate but it is a myth that orchestras can do without one, nothin’n tiny about that.

    Good luck with the search NCS, wish you all the best.

  • Kate says:

    It’s possible he does not care to fill the post permanently, but is willing to help on a temporary basis. This is the most likely scenario.

  • BRUCEB says:

    Having read NL’s article, I would agree with him — but only up to a point.

    For a great big behemoth of an orchestra, with a decades-long tradition of acknowledged greatness behind it, the conductor doesn’t make as much difference day-to-day because the orchestra has an attitude that they are greater than any conductor (almost) who might appear on their podium. It takes a conductor who is a huge force of nature to change the basic sound of such an orchestra.

    Take Chicago for example: Reiner is the one who turned them into the mighty weapon they are now. Solti made (let?) the brass play louder, although judging from recordings they made with other conductors during that time, that didn’t become a ubiquitous characteristic of their approach to everything they played. Has anybody since Reiner (and possibly Solti) made that much of a difference?

    Taking Chicago for example again: some of us might remember when Mathieu Dufour was principal flutist in Chicago and Los Angeles at the same time. When he chose Chicago, he wrote a letter to his colleagues in Chicago (I forget if it was public or was leaked), to the effect that it was because Chicago was a better orchestra: LA played differently under different conductors, which to him indicated a weaker artistic identity or something. In any case, Chicago was better because they sound the same no matter who’s on the podium. Naturally they were furious in LA and he had to retract it, but… well, he did say it; and it’s probably true, whether or not you agree that it makes Chicago a better orchestra.

    Audiences and critics are a factor, of course. I forget which conductor said about Cleveland, “I conduct a good performance and George Szell gets a good review.” And of course, 40 years after his departure, we still can’t stop talking about the sound Ormandy got from Philadelphia — usually to the detriment of every conductor who came after him. And so on.

    Smaller orchestras tend not to be like that, in my experience. They (we) lack the attitude of “we are the best; until you prove otherwise, we have nothing to learn from you.” The down side, of course, is that we usually lack the skills and finesse to turn in a Chicago-level performance (and the individual players who do play at that level tend to move on to bigger and better things fairly quickly); but the upside is that a conductor can say “I want to try something” and the orchestra will usually cooperate. (I haven’t played in every small orchestra; I’m extrapolating.)

    A conductor can come to a smaller orchestra and say “I want to make you a better orchestra,” and the orchestra will say “that would be great!” — whereas the Chicago symphony, or whoever, will most likely just laugh and ignore everything he says from then on.

    Also, the biggest orchestras have fully functional fundraising operations that don’t depend on the music director to raise money. In a less-than-gigantic orchestra, the conductor can make a huge difference in that area as well, since they have to be able to make the case that the orchestra is worth supporting — something no music director in Boston, say, would ever have to do. (And smaller cities have a smaller population of rich people, so you really do have to go to dinner and be charming to get $5,000 out of one person.)

    For the biggest orchestras, it doesn’t matter terribly much who the music director is — only a few living conductors could possibly make a lasting difference in the way they play — but it can matter enormously, financially as well as artistically, to a smaller one.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I reject this “it doesn’t make any difference” position about music directors but our host seems deeply invested in it. I think it makes a big difference, and the “less great” an orchestra is perhaps the bigger the difference. The clearest evidence of this is when a mistaken choice is made and the amount of damage that can be done to an orchestra in a short period of time. This is as true of music directors as it is of baseball managers and corporate CEOs — and a common theme of all three is that an outsider may well believe “it doesn’t make any difference,” and the more an outsider they are, the more they can believe that.

    At the risk of being rude to our host, I am tempted to say that the mark of an outsider is that they believe that.

    Since Amos mentioned George Szell, I am reminded of one of my favorite Szell quotes: “To the kibitzer, no stakes are too high.”

    • John Kelly says:

      “I reject this “it doesn’t make any difference” position about music directors but our host seems deeply invested in it.” Me too, because it’s nonsense.

  • NotToneDeaf says:

    There used to be a credo in the professional orchestra industry that said, “As soon as a new music director starts, you begin the search for the next one.” In other words, you pay attention to every guest conductor that comes through – and you hire (the majority of) those guests with succession in mind. You also get to know those guests and make sure that your musicians and board do as well. This idea that a music director search consists of having a bunch of guests in for a week each while they have “interviews” with board members is ludicrous. Such an important post is determined by ONE week of repertoire? By ONE superficial meeting with a bunch of know-nothings board members? And god help those orchestras who have the audience members VOTE for their FAVORITE conductor.

    • BRUCEB says:

      You will no doubt be shocked to learn that audience polls are considered “advisory” at best. (I believe audience members mostly know this; they are adults, after all, with some idea of how the world works. And the organization makes no promises that the conductor with the most audience votes will get the job.) But it is an effective way for audiences to feel included in the process.

      • NotToneDeaf says:

        It’s an effective way to keep your audiences dumbed down and thinking that artistic endeavors are skin-deep and “fun.” It’s the equivalent of a Miss America pageant and it’s insulting to every musician who sits on the stage. It should be insulting to the conductors as well, but most of them DO think that it’s a beauty pageant.

  • Joseph says:

    I find it difficult to believe that the use of the phrase “tiny mind” was not a deliberate insult to an orchestra and management that you probably don’t know much about, NL. Surely the author of so many respected tomes is careful when chosing his words. While the North Carolina Symphony doesn’t boast a roster of 18 full-time first violins, its members are indeed highly-qualified and highly-accomplished musicians, holding full-time contracts. Rather unusually in the US, the NCSO receives a significant level of financial support from North Carolina state taxes. Rather unusually in the US, this orchestra also plays a very significantly high number of concerts in halls outside of its home base in Raleigh. The role of a Music Director in an orchestra such as this is really quite important, dare I suggest, more important than in more “recognized” orchestra, and his or her success will stem partly from the MD establishing a good relationship with players, board members, audience members, and even (gasp) politicians who have a part in deciding the funding of this organization. This posting strikes me as a deliberate insult to a highly respectable orchestra making a difference in an area that’s easily written off simply because it’s not filled with the expected urban glamour of London, New York, or…
    You can do much better than this, Norman.

  • BigSir says:

    Makes sense because how can you do a search when not meeting as an orchestra for the past 15 months?