Why Do Orchestras Share Conductors?
“Worthy gentleman, and my loving countrymen,” wrote the English lutist and composer John Dowland in the introduction to his 1612 song cycle “A Pilgrims Solace,” “I have been long obscured from your sight, because I received a Kingly entertainment in a foreign climate…Some part of my poore labours have found favour in the greatest part of Europe.” Dowland had earned success as a musician at the court of King Christian IV of Denmark. But he still felt divided: his second place of work “could not attaine to any (though ever so mean) place at home.”
Dowland’s predicament—being torn between two musical homes—would be instantly recognizable to the modern conductor. Mariss Jansons was in Amsterdam and Munich. Simon Rattle is in Berlin while he advocates for a new hall in London. Daniel Barenboim travels across town in Berlin, from the Staatsoper to his brand-new Pierre Boulez Saal; Iván Fischer has an orchestra here and another one Budapest. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is in Montreal, Rotterdam, Philadelphia and soon the Met; Gustavo Dudamel is in LA and with El Sistema, Andris Nelsons is in Boston and Leipzig. He used to also be at Bayreuth, where Christian Thielemann now is, besides his main post in Dresden and another one in Salzburg. Vladimir Jurowski is in London, Moscow, Berlin, and Glyndebourne.
Over the last 30 years, the amount of simultaneous music directorships, Kappellmeister posts, chief guest conductorships, conductor laureate jobs, and music director designate-ships that maestros take on “has certainly increased with increased mobility and reduced attendance requirements,” said Karsten Witt, the founder of an artist management company in Berlin that currently works with 16 conductors. “It used to be normal that the music director conducted everything that came up, and guest performances were far less common,” he added.
In 2015, Nelsons, the still-new music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, took on an additional position as music director of the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester. This caused offense to some, because his predecessor James Levine had left behind the impression that Boston wasn’t his priority. Perhaps to avoid the sour taste of this development, the two groups came up with a novel arrangement for the very common situation: they agreed to an artistic partnership. In the Times, Michael Cooper put in this way: while “most orchestras try to overlook their maestros’ other gigs, as if they were infidelities,” Boston and Leipzig “are hammering out what amounts to a joint custody agreement.”
The terms of this joint custody agreement are interesting not just because the arrangement is new, but because they reveal the sacrifices both orchestras are willing to make for Nelsons. Neither ensemble is aiming for the kind of intimate near-monogamy that made Karajan and Berlin or Bernstein and New York so legendary. Nor will they be able to cultivate the mysterious aura of a star around their conductor, who is so present and available that little mystery remains. Cooper reported that “the orchestras will present ‘Freaky Friday’-like programs trading the repertoires they are most closely associated with. The Gewandhaus Orchestra will play composers with ties to Boston, including Stravinsky, Carter and Bernstein, while the Boston Symphony will perform works by Leipzig-based masters like Bach, Schumann and Mendelssohn.” But this is standard orchestral programming—listeners can hear this music anywhere. (It also makes it superfluous for Boston to tour to Leipzig and vice versa.) If the exchange precludes more innovative programming that doesn’t connect the two orchestras, that would be a shame.
“The ensembles are co-commissioning new works by the German composer Jörg Widmann and the American Sean Shepherd, among others,” Cooper noted. Again, this cooperation has a pleasing veneer of intercultural cooperation. On the other hand, don’t more composers get commissioned—doesn’t more new music get made—if they commission different composers, and separately? The more institutions are involved, the higher the pressure for success, the less opportunity each orchestra has to take risks on unknown music.
I don’t mean to pick on the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester here. They are simply making an arrangement explicit that is implied whenever a conductor has multiple leadership posts at once, and certainly didn’t invent the joint commission. It’s unlikely that the musical quality will suffer noticeably: as David Slocum, the Faculty Director of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, whose work has focused on management in creative fields, told me, “the elite conductor, wherever he or she is, will have the trust of the musicians.” Karsten Witt, in fact, thought that “two top jobs” were “less problematic than the pretense of being able to conduct all the orchestras in the world,” as a guest conductor. And taking on a maestro with media pull and name recognition has benefits, particularly for audience turnout and online reach. But when the conductor is always leaving to somewhere or arriving from somewhere, it does lead to safer programming; it hinders the kind of detailed, careful, even grueling rehearsal that Levine put in during his first years in Boston and which achieved transcendent results.
“I don’t believe that a music director can do justice to more than one musical institution,” Martin Campbell-White, an artist manager who has represented Simon Rattle and others, told me. Music directors are the most visible leaders of their organizations, even when not on the podium; when they take new jobs elsewhere it’s like a corporate merger, explicit or not. And as Slocum said, there’s a big difference between “how a leader motives talent and how they lead a merger. Because then, there’s a power struggle, over which institution predominates.” Even conductors’ quality of life may suffer: the morning I called, Witt said that he “just spoke with a young musician who was having family problems because he was away too much.” Particularly with young conductors who’ve enjoyed meteoric rises, burnout is a major risk. I asked Campbell-White what he said to conductors when they were offered multiple gigs at once: “My advice was invariably, ‘I don’t believe that you can work for two orchestras at the same time.’ ”
Witt said he thought that as long as the two orchestras were far enough away from one another, the fact of dual directorships wouldn’t have much negative effect on audiences, who are “fixated” on their hometown groups. But this may also be changing. Music lovers can now stream recordings of any repertoire by any orchestra almost instantaneously, and that’s an argument for preserving difference. If I’m in Boston and want to hear Stravinsky, Carter and Bernstein, I’ll go to the concert hall. If I’m in Boston and feel like listening to Bach, Schumann and Mendelssohn, I might simply stay at home and listen to a Gewandhausorchester recording. In food and tourism, the perverse availability of everything has actually led people to take more care in preserving their individual traditions. “It’s like baseball or soccer: if you’re being shared with someone else it diminishes the brand,” Campbell-White said.
It wouldn’t be hard to find a loyal conductor. There are far more talented people out there than there are high-level gigs available to them; plenty would be able to help the world’s 10 best conductors out with their extra gigs while operating at a similarly high level. (If the positions were less consolidated among the same small group of white men, maybe more women or people of color would get a chance.) This would be the kind of calculated risk worth taking: in the worst case, the orchestra wouldn’t sound quite as good; in the best, a dedicated conductor with more time and focus could develop new repertoire, hone the sound and repertoire in detail, and attract new audiences by getting to know them personally.
When Cooper wrote that ensembles “overlook their maestros’ other gigs, as if they were infidelities,” the conductors were the cheating lovers. When the BSO and the Gewandhausorchester were “hammering out what amounts to a joint custody agreement,” the conductors were the forlorn children of divorce. That may be a more apt way to describe the audience. However orchestras and conductors decide to negotiate their relationships, let’s hope they have our best interests at heart. ¶