The Band Plays On

Nothing like a dame: Diva Kiri Te Kanawa sang Mozart and Strauss with the Philharmonic.Photo: Chris Lee

The great search is on again and bets are being placed, but the prey, as always, is elusive. Who will become music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2002? I last played that game eleven years ago in an article for this magazine, mulling over the qualifications of a dozen likely candidates to succeed Zubin Mehta, and not one of them was named Kurt Masur. So much for the inside word. This time, the call is even tougher and the final selection could be even more surprising, now that the front-runner and apparent first choice, Riccardo Muti, has turned the job down. Who’s left with comparable allure? Right now, just two entries on the orchestra’s short wish list have been bandied about in the press: Christoph Eschenbach and Maris Jansons – estimable musicians, no doubt, but not exactly names that quicken the pulse.

But then, the pickings have never been thinner, even among top European conductors – and it seems a foreign accent is still a major consideration when a vacancy on an American podium is to be filled. The Philharmonic obviously craves the sort of charismatic leader it has not had since Leonard Bernstein, but that breed is now extinct. Competence is the rule today, and larger-than-life conductors no longer put their stamp on an orchestra, define its collective personality, or mesmerize audiences as they did a generation ago. Yes, there are a few maestros who conjure up a faint aura of that golden age, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and all of them are firmly committed to other posts.

Take Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, and a busy pianist as well – certainly an impossible option. But wait. He is also an old pal and keen admirer of Zarin Mehta, Zubin’s younger brother and the Philharmonic’s new executive director and a man who already gives every indication of being a more influential and public figure in this post than his predecessors. Just to give this outside possibility an even more interesting spin, Barenboim’s contract in Berlin expires in 2002. According to the conductor himself, renewal will be contingent on his being relieved of all administrative duties so that he can concentrate exclusively on making music. Otherwise he plans to move on.

Barenboim passed through town a few weeks ago, and on the day I spoke to him, he definitely seemed disenchanted with the bureaucratic politics that drive Europe’s musical life, especially in Paris and Berlin, where he has been a prominent musical mover and shaker for the past twenty years. How refreshing the prospect must seem, to work in a country where the government couldn’t care less about meddling with the internal workings of the New York Philharmonic. Of course, if Barenboim did choose to work in the United States full-time, it’s hardly likely that the Philharmonic would care to share him with the Chicago Symphony, where he is under contract through 2006. But I wouldn’t count out anything in this latest crazy round of musical chairs. When I left Barenboim’s hotel suite, who should be ushered in, with a hungry look in his eye, but Zarin Mehta?

Since guessing the next Philharmonic music director can only be an idle game for us armchair kingmakers, I’d like to nominate James Levine. Levine has been toiling at the Metropolitan Opera for almost 30 years, a long time for anyone to stay in one job, and by now he might benefit from a change. Surely, Levine has accomplished everything he can at the Met, where he has led virtually every opera in the mainstream repertory many times over. I know that I’m in a minority – for the New York press in general, Levine can do no wrong – but I find his performances increasingly deficient in depth and spirit despite the instrumental excellence of the orchestra he has trained. Perhaps a radical change of pace is exactly the stimulus this brilliant musician needs to help him realize his full artistic potential before it atrophies altogether.

Meanwhile, for the next two seasons, Kurt Masur will continue to be a very prominent musical presence – and no doubt a welcome steadying influence during a time that is likely to be turbulent as the Philharmonic refocuses its sights. The opening-night concert in Avery Fisher Hall certainly set a reassuring tone: comfortingly familiar music by Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Richard Strauss, all played with remarkable clarity, warmth, and instrumental sheen. However unsettled the orchestra may be right now, performance standards have not suffered – in fact, they may never have been higher.

That surely reflects Masur’s reputation as a benign tyrant, a conductor whose musical ideals command respect even from players who may not particularly care for the man. I have seldom heard a sunnier, more lyrical account of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, one that sang gloriously in every measure, even in the leaping saltarello finale. Adding to the evening’s pleasures was Kiri Te Kanawa, still looking gorgeous and sounding well preserved in the twilight of her career. Her interpretations of two Mozart arias and the final scene of Strauss’s Arabella, with the same composer’s song “Morgen” as an encore, may have been a bit bland and gingerly sung, but there is still plenty of tonal quality left in this lovely throat.

The next evening, Masur launched a three-week Mendelssohn festival, still in progress this week with the orchestra’s first-ever performances of the rarely heard oratorio St. Paul. In some quarters, stifled yawns greeted the news of this project – Mendelssohn still gets bad press from critics who consider him charming but superficial, hardly the composer for a major orchestra to be celebrating when there are far more pressing artistic issues to explore. They are wrong, of course, and there’s no one better equipped to explore Mendelssohn than Masur, who grew up in, studied at, and later directed the Leipzig musical institutions that the composer was intimately associated with. The first concert contained mostly familiar scores, but they have never sounded fresher: the Violin Concerto (Sheryl Staples as the engaging soloist), two overtures, and a repeat of the Italian Symphony. As long as Masur is here, why not let him conduct the music he does best?

The Band Plays On