OCTOBER 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 24

OCTOBER 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 24
October 10, 2020 leonard slatkin

“Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.”
—Jean-Paul Sartre 

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of news about orchestras settling contracts, some for up to five years. This is a very encouraging sign, as security for the musicians has been hard to calculate during this shutdown. One must hope that contingency plans are in place should the virus continue well into the new year.

The reason I am bringing this up has to do with the role of music directors as we move forward. Many of them cannot enter the States right now or are put into quarantine upon arrival. In several cases their services as conductors have not been required, as their orchestras are not working, even in reduced numbers. Perhaps some are assisting in repertoire choices for chamber music concerts.

The most important question is: “What will happen when and if orchestral seasons resume?”

In order to truly understand this query, we must examine the state of this crisis today, before we can presume to predict where things might go. The music director is the face of the orchestral institution. In the days before fifty-two-week contracts, that person would lead at least half of the performances, thereby shaping the sound and repertoire of the ensemble. This is certainly not the case today, as music directors spend around sixteen to eighteen weeks with their home orchestra. The rest of the season is turned over to guest artists, who lead classical programs as well as pops and educational concerts.

With some orchestras completely shut down, others doing programs with reduced forces, and the rest only performing without conductors, one has to wonder whether the concept of the music director really still exists. In an article published by The Times on October 1st, music critic Richard Morrison wrote:

It is my contention that what the music world has gone through in the past decade, culminating in the existential trauma of coronavirus, may be the equivalent of “last orders, please” for the old-school maestro. It has certainly sounded the death knell of the word. “Among orchestral musicians, certainly in Britain, the title ‘maestro’ is now used only with the heaviest coating of sarcasm,” says one veteran player.

Most of the piece speaks about abusive behavior, dictatorial methods, and old-school preening, all things that defined many of the great conductors during the twentieth century. We do live in a different time and have been moving closer to a more democratized set of orchestral norms. The music directors are chosen in concert with board members, city leaders, and the orchestral musicians themselves.

In some ways this new paradigm makes sense. If the artistic leader is not present for two-thirds of the entire season, why shouldn’t those who are performing have a dominant say in who leads them? On the other hand, leaving aside the extreme behavior of earlier maestri, it is difficult to argue with the results the very best ones achieved. It was fairly easy to identify the singular orchestral personalities of Szell’s Clevelanders, Toscanini’s NBC or Ormandy’s Fabulous Philadelphians.

Let’s say that our concert life resumes as it was, perhaps by March. For most orchestras, at least in the States, a year will have passed since the membership of the orchestras played together as a full unit. But it will also have been at least that long since the music director stood on the podium and led the entire group. How long will it take to get things back into shape? What will be the impact of incoming musicians who have yet to play one note with their new orchestra? Will the audience return, and can new listeners be found?

Mr. Morrison has some possible answers, none more interesting than this:

[Music directors] will be prepared to live and work in the same city as their orchestra for most of the year. They will throw themselves into enthusing school pupils and grappling with the thorny question of how an orchestra makes itself relevant to everybody in the community—not just the small segment of the population that has always supported classical music.

 I could not agree more, but I would take it one step further, in the interest of creating individuality. When we resume, organizations should alter what they planned for the first two months upon return. The music directors of most orchestras should spend between six and eight consecutive weeks with their home ensemble, working to create a true sonic profile, one that might have disappeared over the past year or might not have existed in the first place.

At the same time, orchestras have an opportunity to show off their creative thinking. The pandemic has caused all of us to imagine new formats, repertoire choices, and outreach initiatives. Music directors might have to go into overdrive, but in many ways, that is what they have been hired to do.

The artistic administrators have been busy moving soloists and conductors around during these last months, so they are accustomed to the chess game. Would the music directors need to give up their guest dates during this time? Absolutely. What happens to the guest conductors who were already scheduled to appear? They can fill in the slots that will now be vacant due to the music director returning to his or her home orchestra. What if the music director has two or three posts? In that case, split up the time, giving each orchestra an equal number of consecutive weeks. What about the educational programs? The music directors should conduct them to take advantage of the opportunity to engage with young people.

The reason I like this solution lies in the final sentence of Mr. Morrison’s article, as quoted above. What better way to establish ties to the community than to spend a lot of time in it? Connections with board members, businesses and the public can truly help, as we most certainly will face huge financial challenges for the foreseeable future.

This is what the old-time maestros did. There is no reason that it cannot happen again, this time with a truly cooperative spirit.