Alan Gilbert Out, Jaap van Zweden In at New York Philharmonic...Sergiu Celibidache Approves?

By James Inverne on Jan 29, 2016 03:05 AM EST

A quick word about the just-named, incoming music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden (pronounced “YEP van ZVAY-den”). This is not the time nor the place to debate the relative merits of the chosen candidate, as set against every other conductor in the world, for two reasons. One, because I have a conflict of interest via my own professional work in classical music (which, from time to time, has included working with the good folks at the Phil). But mainly, it's because the candidate has now been chosen. The selection process is over, and it's time to give him a chance. If we want him to do well--and success for Jaap, remember, means a success for the orchestra and more to enjoy for all of us--then we should let him mount his new podium free of any baggage or prejudgments.

However, there is something in the air.

A couple of decades ago and more, major orchestras would look for fame and glamour, and perhaps a sense of power, alongside musical brilliance in their music directors. The Abbados, Soltis, Giulinis, Mehtas, Mutis, et al. had all of this. (Still have, in those last two cases). Not that the individuals concerned necessarily sought such attributes, but they came with the job. And then, the jobs came with them. Even the period instrument movement, with its implied historic virtues of equality and a focus purely on the style of music-making, was something of a victim of its own success and could not help but make superstars of its leading proponents.

So, in short, orchestras wanted stars.

More recently, though this is hardly a new phenomena, came the era of the new hotshots--where, in crude terms, everyone wanted the next great thing. Not all of them were all that young. Alan Gilbert in New York and Yannick Nézet-Séguin down in Philly had done their time. Whereas, by conductorly standards at least, Gustavo Dudamel was still a tot when he went to Los Angeles, there were many others of his generation doing well. Nothing wrong with any of this, of course. And the best of them came with great programming ideas (something with which nearly everyone credits Alan Gilbert, for instance), as well as bursting-at-the-seams talent.

Among these new faces were a trio of Europeans who were all appointed to big positions around the same time: Nicola Luisotti went to San Francisco Opera, Manfred Honeck ably to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and, yes, one Jaap van Zweden to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. These last two were widely considered to be contenders for the New York Phil, and anyone who bet on maestro van Zweden, it turns out, would now be "quids in" (as we Brits are wont to say).

But look at what has happened in the last year or two, with some key positions around the world. Jaap to New York. Media-shy Kirill Petrenko to the Berlin Philharmonic. Daniele Gatti (well-known, but hardly an enormous star in the old sense, yet) to Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. OK, so Simon Rattle going to London is pretty huge (even though it is his native capital city, as it were) and Riccardo Chailly, who has never courted publicity, but is certainly as revered as any maestro in the world, is at La Scala.

And yet...

The sense of the artistic solidity, of "let's get on with making great music" before anything else, that somehow surrounds the new appointments of Gatti, and Petrenko and Van Sweden in particular--and you could say the same for Gianandrea Noseda coming to the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.--somehow recalls an earlier era.

A time when the LSO was led by Josef Krips, when the Berlin Philharmonic had Sergiu Celibidache in charge, when, indeed, the New York Phil was led by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Anyone who knows anything about the history of music knows that all three of these were electrifying conductors (Krips perhaps in a more gentle, refined way). Thus, the term 'solidity' isn't to imply anything remotely dull. Quite the opposite, in some ways.

Regardless, there is a shift of emphasis; in a way, it feels as though we're back in the 1950's. Which may present some challenges, as well as the obvious virtues, especially in an era when serious music coverage in the media is under pressure. Fascinating times, for sure. All of us here at Classicalite wish Jaap van Zweden the very best of luck. He inherits a band in great shape.

And, you know, if he turns out to be a Celibidache, I'm sure nobody will complain.

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TagsNew York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden, Alan Gilbert, Sergiu Celibidache, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Gustavo Dudamel, Nicola Luisotti, Manfred Honeck, Kirill Petrenko, Daniele Gatti, Simon Rattle, Riccardo Chailly, Gianandrea Noseda, Josef Krips, Dimitri Mitropoulos

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