On December 10th, I wrote that Alan Gilbert is the finest Music Director that the New York Philharmonic has had during the last five decades.
That statement – that he is the finest – logically demands that I comment about the Music Directors who preceded him. So here I go. As I noted in my previous post, I attended concerts by all these men and some rehearsals too, so I have some claim to having a slightly informed opinion about their conducting and what they brought to the orchestra and to New York.
Lorin Maazel, Music Director 2002-09
Lorin Maazel has a distinguished conducting resume that’s as long as your arm. Looking back, we find that in 1972, he succeeded George Szell as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. (That’s some pair of shoes to fill.) Between 1977 and 1991, Maazel was music director of the Orchestre National de France. He’s now at the helm of the Munich Philharmonic. And that’s only a small sampling of his credentials. Maazel’s credits as an opera conductor are formidable too. To top it off, he’s a very capable composer.
To his immense credit, Lorin Maazel utilized his orchestra as a tool to comfort a despairing New York in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Among the premieres he presented was John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, an important musical inquiry into 9/11 that could come to occupy an important place in standard repertory in the years to come. That alone will help cement Maazel’s legacy.
So why do I say that Alan Gilbert is a more important Music Director than Lorin Maazel was? It’s because of Gilbert’s unique ability to connect with his New York audience. It looks to me like Gilbert’s going to write page after page of vibrant, important new history in his coming years at the Phil. Maazel had a vibrant past; Gilbert has a vibrant future. Maybe that’s an unfair comment to make, but for me it is the essential difference.
Here’s a video of Maazel conducting the Philharmonic on tour in a performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9(“From the New World”).
Kurt Masur, Music Director 1991-2002, and now Music Director Emeritus
Kurt Masur, born in the former East Germany, became a beloved conductor to his New York audiences. What a musical pedigree. In 1970, he assumed leadership of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, a position previously held by Mendelssohn. Masur remained in that post until 1996.
People in New York developed a strong affection for Masur – a big bear of a man with an expansive, yet clear, style of conducting that seemed to invite everyone to share in his musical ideas. Although he was purely a European conductor in pedigree, his approach to the Philharmonic musicians was not dictatorial – a positive impression that I gained by watching him in rehearsals as well as performances. Apparently – and you can read about this elsewhere– he was sometimes in conflict with the Philharmonic’s administration. That may have led to his somewhat sudden departure in 2002. And quite sadly, he was battling a number of health problems (a kidney transplant, also Parkinson’s disease) during the later years of his directorship with the orchestra.
As I write this post, I have learned that Maestro Masur’s annual conducting seminars at the Manhattan School of Music have been cancelled his year because he is ill. Let’s all join together to wish him a speedy return to teaching and music-making.
Why do I feel that Alan Gilbert is a more significant Music Director than Masur was? Again, it’s simply because Gilbert and his city and his audience simply fit togetherbetter. Alan Gilbert has a brilliant future that he and his orchestra are building together.
Here’s a video of Maestro Masur conducting the New York Philharmonic in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. This especially good clip gives a good glimpse of Masur’s clear beat, “readable” conducting and his range of emotive cues that are tasteful, not histrionic. The clip also showcases some of the Phil’s remarkable musicians, including the soon-to-retire Philip Smith, Principal Trumpet. Too bad he’s leaving!
Zubin Mehta, Music Director 1978–1991
Zubin Mehta’s 13-year stay as the New York Philharmonic’s Music Director was actually the longest of any Music Director in the orchestra’s history. Previously, he had headed up the Montréal Symphony and the Israel Philharmonic. After having appeared with that second orchestra for several years, he was appointed Music Director there in 1977 and in 1981, he was named Music Director for Life.
I saw Mehta conduct the Phil several times, and other orchestras too. I always found his conducting to be clear and energetic. He also had that glamor thing going; he was arguably the first “jet set” conductor who divided his time between far-flung orchestras, and he was a handsome man who certainly looked the part. During his tenure, he was sometimes accused of focusing too much on large, lush romantic works rather than early 20th Century or contemporary works. If so, he was probably only trying to give his New York audience what he believed it wanted to hear. A perusal of the New York Philharmonic archives online, in fact, confirms that much of the repertoire he conducted consisted of the familiar, big works by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and other romantic masters.
It’s funny to say, but when you visit Avery Fisher Hall today to hear a concert, you still feel the presence of Masur, Bernstein, and even Boulez. Somehow, Mehta has left the building. That’s a highly subjective statement, of course, and I couldn’t defend it in a court of law. But in 40 or 50 years, I think that audiences will attend Philharmonic concerts and still feel Alan Gilbert’s personality and influence. For some reason, that just hasn’t happened with Zubin Mehta. Perhaps it is because Alan Gilbert’s more exploratory programming is shaping his orchestra and his audience in ways that Zubin Mehta didn’t care to do.
Here’s a video of Mehta conducing the Philharmonic in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto #2 with Andre Watts as soloist. Big, romantic music-making, for sure. And you’re rarely going to find two guys with such matinee-idol looks making music together.
Pierre Boulez, Music Director, 1971–1977
I have to admit, I never saw Pierre Boulez conduct the New York Philharmonic. I did, however, see him conduct both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Montréal Symphony.
Boulez is a major composer, conductor, cultural colossus, and genius. Arguably, he was the first Philharmonic Music Director since Gustav Mahler who fit all those categories. One thing he was not, however, was a showman. And because he immediately followed the showy (and much beloved) Leonard Bernstein as Music Director of the orchestra, Boulez was probably not what the New York audience wanted.
I would be tempted to say that the New York audience simply did not comprehend the fact that their orchestra was in the hands of a giant under Boulez – a man who has left an indelible imprint on the music of the last 50 years. I personally found the Boulez performances that I saw revelatory, brilliant, and intellectually complex. (I recall especially a performance of Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin with the Cleveland Orchestra.) Perhaps New York audiences did not want to take that kind of journey.
The fact is, Boulez should have left a greater mark on the Philharmonic than he did. Due to some disconnect between him and the people of New York, he didn’t. I feel that was not his fault, but the public’s. In any case, sadly, he did not transform the Philharmonic or New York either, in ways that Alan Gilbert seems destined to do.
Here’s a video of Boulez conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the last 10 minutes of Stravinsky’s Firebird.(I regret that I have not been able to find videos of Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic.) This clip reveals a good deal about Boulez’s unique ability to reveal the architecture of the music he is conducting. At the same time, he allows the voice of each solo instrument to be clearly heard. That’s quite a feat. Weren’t New Yorkers listening?
Leonard Bernstein, Music Director 1958–1969 and Laureate Conductor, 1969-1990
Oh boy, what can you say about Leonard Bernstein? For decades, he didn’t just conduct the New York Philharmonic. He was the New York Philharmonic. Furthermore, he was in love with the people of New York. And the people of New York returned that affection, in spades. That love continues undiminished to this day.
So how can I say that Alan Gilbert is destined to be a more important Music Director than Leonard Bernstein was? Part of it is a matter of my personal taste. There, I said it, I just didn’t like Bernstein’s conducting all the time. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. His conducting seemed uneven to me. At times, he seemed calm and attentive to detail. At other times, he was so histrionic and wiggly that I wondered whether I was attending a dance recital given by Mr. Bernstein rather than a concert of orchestral music. Sometimes his conducting was slapdash and imprecise – at those times, I wondered whether he was ramping up the antics to compensate for a possible lack of preparation. I will say, however, that his recorded legacy contains some rather terrific performances. (Maybe it is easier to hear what he is doing within the context of recorded sound.)
Alan Gilbert’s superior abilities as a conductor and desire to make the music he is conducting more important than his own personality will assure that he will leave just as great a legacy as Leonard Bernstein did. I know that’s heretical, I know there are people in New York who will want to scalp me for saying anything less than adulatory about their beloved Leonard Bernstein. But I’m saying it just the same.
There are many videos available of Bernstein conducting, and I urge you to seek them out and compare them. But for my post today, let me offer this clip of him conducting the Phil in the suite of waltzes from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. I won’t comment on it, except to say that it offers quite a contrast to the video of Pierre Boulez conducing, which you will find just above.