Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Great Debate: The National Symphony Orchestra's Proto-Golden Age Under Dorati And Rostropovich Past, How Does The NSO Set Course To Renew Itself?

"The National Symphony wants a music director to replace Leonard Slatkin.

My advice: Stop looking. The NSO needs a radical new strategy. It's time to diversify the product by hiring a series of guest conductors. Put more emerging musicians, especially more Americans, on the podium, and let the players and staff set a course to lure patrons and improve the concerts....

Nowadays most conductors travel too much to build a strong relationship with either an orchestra or its community. They tend to conduct no more than half of an orchestra's classical series concerts, leaving the rest of the season and the majority of educational, pops and other performances to guests and assistants.

Without looking at any major American orchestra's Web site, I can still tell you with better than 50 percent accuracy what the ensemble has done over the past couple of seasons. Seven out of 10 soloists were pianists or violinists. Every three years one of those was named Perlman, Zukerman, Shaham or Bell. The chorus sang "Messiah" and the "Carmina Burana," each with a soprano or baritone who had appeared in a small role at the Met and who was also managed by the maestro's manager. There was a Mozart tribute and a premiere of an American piece under 15 minutes long.

In most cities, what you hear has virtually no relationship to the history and traditions of where you live. But the NSO should be and has at times been different. It struck gold in the '80s with Mstislav Rostropovich. He was a superstar cellist whose limitations as a conductor were outweighed by his consummate musicianship, blistering performances of Russian repertoire, oversize heart and unmatched connections. It was also thrilling to have a Russian Americanophile at the head of Washington's orchestra at the end of the Cold War.

A decade ago, the NSO followed Rostropovich with Slatkin, who looked on paper like what the Muses ordered. A child of one of California's most distinguished musical families, he had solid credentials from a tour of duty with the St. Louis Symphony. He was articulate, sometimes funny, and he supported emerging composers.

Slatkin and the orchestra made some progress. He hired key personnel, including concertmaster Nurit Bar-Joseph. A Grammy-winning recording of John Corigliano's deeply moving First Symphony will long be savored, but many of Slatkin's excursions into new music resulted in disposable pieces ...

Shouldn't the national orchestra make a specialty of our national music? In the season that's wrapping up, virtually all the American repertoire that the NSO has performed has been on pops and family concerts. There were two premieres on the classical series, Roberto Sierra's "Missa Latina" and Joseph Schwantner's "Morning's Embrace." Otherwise, it's impossible to tell from the season what nation this orchestra is the National Symphony of. (The previous season did include more American music.)

Using guest conductors, other visiting artists and re-imagined repertoire as tent poles of the NSO's marketing plan would give the orchestra competitive leverage against the parade of touring orchestras. The NSO should steal ideas from such innovative orchestras as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Miami's New World Symphony....

[A high level of involvement by a music director and superb commissioning] is what made the orchestras in Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland great. But what conductor of international stature will the NSO attract for that kind of commitment? Why not free up the multimillion-dollar salary and make a commitment to finding the next great American conductor?

If the orchestra and the audiences fall in love with someone, after three or four seasons, then by all means hire her or him on a permanent basis. But until then, play the field. Be adventurous, because adventure is something the NSO and its cosmopolitan audience deserve."

Mark Mobley "In Seeking Slatkin's Successor, Why Settle for Just One? Opening the Podium To Up-and-Coming Conductors Could Give the Orchestra An Intriguing Cast" Washington Post, June 4, 2006



Also see Tim Page "A Leading Question for the NSO: Speculation Plentiful As To Slatkin Successor" Washington Post [Sunday], April 16, 2006

Sun Stone from the Navoo Mormon Temple in the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Photo credit: www.delange.org. With thanks.


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