Why aren’t more American maestros conducting American orchestras?


In 1958, Leonard Bernstein was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic. His appointment was hailed as a breakthrough for American orchestra conductors.

For decades, American masters were abandoned in the field of classical music and considered inferior to Europeans. But Bernstein’s recent rise with the Oscar-nominated “The Master” has shown that conductors from the United States can compete with the best from across the Atlantic.

Critics predict a golden age for the American conductor of America’s top symphony orchestras.There are those who have followed in Bernstein’s footsteps – including his disciples – and as of 2008, there are American music directors leading orchestras in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.

Today, the only one of these orchestras still led by an American is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Four of the 25 largest orchestras in the United States have Americans on the conductor’s podium, and in the country’s largest and most prestigious orchestras, American music directors are completely absent.

“That means we have a lot of work to do,” said Jonathon Heyward, who grew up in South Carolina and became music director of the Baltimore Symphony last fall. “We have to constantly think about how to better connect with the American community.” (Hayward is one of four masters of the largest orchestra in the United States today, along with Kansas City’s Michael Stern, Nashville’s Giancarlo Guerrero and Carl St. Clair of California’s Pacific Symphony.

Classical music has long been a global industry. The Berlin Philharmonic is led by Russian-born maestro Kirill Petrenko. Germany’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by British-born conductor Simon Rattle. Just as overseas masters hold top conducting positions in the United States, American artists travel to Europe, Asia and elsewhere to lead prestigious orchestras. Alan Gilbert, former music director of the New York Philharmonic, now owns orchestras in Germany and Sweden.

But some worry the industry may be missing out on opportunities to expand classical music’s appeal in the United States. Bernstein was not only an important conductor but also a skilled communicator, demystifying classical music for American audiences through televised youth concerts and other programs.

This mission continues in the work of some of Bernstein’s protégés, such as Michael Tilson Thomas, who as music director of the San Francisco Symphony made a series of documentaries about the composer; Marin Alsop, who as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, often produces a series of documentaries about composers. Lately, Teddy Abrams, music director of the Louisville Orchestra, has put down roots in Kentucky and embarked on an ambitious effort to make classical music a part of everyday life.

But for the most part, said veteran Los Angeles conductor Leonard Slatkin, the orchestra seemed to be chasing “the allure of the exotic.” Having more conductors from the United States in top orchestras is a matter of national pride, he said.

“We have to be able to say: What is an American brand? Can the conductor be something different, something unique?” said Slatkin, who has conducted orchestras such as the National Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. “It exists all over the world. Excellent musicians; that’s not a problem. Simply put, if they can promote talent in other countries, why can’t we do the same?

The role and identity of the conductor has been front and center for many orchestras, which are still grappling with the lingering pain of the pandemic and facing questions about the future of the field. Many orchestras are looking for musical directors who can build closer ties with the community in addition to helping with fundraising and educational programs. But modern masters tend to live a jet-setting life, staying in one place only for a contracted amount of time.

Massive job openings are looming: About a quarter of the music directors at the 25 largest symphony orchestras in the United States have left or plan to leave in the next few years, spread across the cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Seattle and Salt Lake City.

Joan Falletta, who has led the Buffalo Philharmonic since 1999, said the orchestra should seize the opportunity to appoint more American conductors. She said many American musicians have been exposed to valuable works outside the traditional classical canon, such as those from the jazz world.

“We understand our musical language, our musical background,” she said. “We take these things for granted: our sense of humor, our willingness to help others, our openness to things”.

Many artists say national identity should not be an issue in classical music, which has a tradition of cultural exchanges, such as the Mozart family’s tour of Western Europe in the 1760s. Foreigners have made lasting contributions to their orchestras and communities: for example, Seiji Ozawa, who was Japanese and led the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1973 to 2002; Gustavo Dudamel Gustavo Dudamel, who was born in Venezuela and founded a youth orchestra while leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has risen to a level of celebrity rarely seen outside the world of classical music. (He will become the New York Philharmonic’s music and artistic director in 2026.)

Stéphane Deneve, who conducts the St. Louis Symphony and the New World Symphony in Miami, was born in Tourcoin, France, but calls himself “the most American French conductor of all time.” The best conductors, he said, can help orchestras embrace multiple cultures and achieve identity.

“Every orchestra in the world is looking for a music director with whom they have a certain chemistry,” he said. “It’s nice to know that nationality issues are not usually considered – certainly not as a priority. To me, that’s a beautiful thing.

The problem of American representation in conducting can be traced to Bernstein, who made his New York Philharmonic debut in 1943 at the age of 25 and was described by The New York Times as “an American success story.” In “The Master,” he is called “the first great American conductor.” In New York, Bernstein helped elevate the status of American composers and conductors, championing the music of Chadwick, Ives and Copland in his first season.

In the decades after Bernstein, a number of American masters achieved remarkable results. But even as their numbers grow, Americans remain underrepresented, leading to a long period of soul-searching and some xenophobia. “Is there a future for American command?” read a headline in The Times in 1979. “Every top symphony orchestra in the United States is now in foreign hands,” the article warned. “

When the topic came up in a 1999 television interview, Thomas, the former San Francisco Symphony music director, said the orchestra operated in a “conservative retro world” that encouraged “people from somewhere in the old city.” The image of an old master, he comes from and performs traditional works in all common styles.

“It wasn’t until Bernstein,” he said, “that audiences discovered how exciting it was to discover music with people from their own culture.”

The number of top symphony orchestra conductors in the United States peaked in the 2000s. James Levine, Boston Symphony Orchestra; Lorin Maazel, New York Philharmonic; Slatkin, National Symphony Orchestra; Thomas, San Francisco Symphony; and Alsop, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra . David Robertson serves as music director of the St. Louis Symphony, Gerard Schwarz serves as music director of the Seattle Symphony, and Robert Spano serves as music director of the Atlanta Symphony.

The number of conductors in America seems to depend on the whims of orchestra managers, Spano said.

“Every ten years or so, everyone wants a young conductor, and then everyone wants an old conductor,” he said. “There are a lot of great American conductors around. It’s just a matter of how shuffleboard is played and what’s popular.

Some experts say the problem is even worse and that American symphony orchestras are not doing enough to develop young conductors. Many orchestras hire assistant conductors, often in their 20s and 30s, but rarely give them the chance to advance to senior positions.

Simon Woods, president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras, said assistant conductors often don’t get the chance to grow as artists. The American system for training young conductors, he said, is “not well suited to the development of uniqueness.”

“We need to take a hard look at what we ask of our assistant commanders,” he said. “It’s a relentless job. Many people feel overwhelmed by the demands on them.

In Europe, trainee conductors often gain practical experience with top symphony orchestras early in their careers. In Finland, for example, where there are so many famous maestros, young artists are invited to conduct first-class orchestras while still students at conservatories, and they often find managers quickly.

Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu said many young Americans lack a similar launching platform.

“They fell behind their European counterparts very early on,” he said. “They are well educated, knowledgeable, great musicians and have served as assistants in world-class symphony orchestras. But they still don’t have a career.

For young Americans eager to try music, the typical job description of a music director may not be appealing. Matthew Aucoin, a 33-year-old composer and conductor, said the American canon is expanding rapidly and it’s not surprising that some of America’s emerging artists are reluctant to pursue career paths centered on European traditions.

“As American orchestral music continues to accumulate and become more diverse, I think we should be responsible for the reality that we are building our own traditions in this country,” he said. “We need stewards of this tradition just as we need stewards of Beethoven and Brahms.”

For some American conductors, developing a career in Europe has proven more productive than staying at home. James Gaffigan, 44, a renowned New York-born maestro, had been trying to secure a full-time position with an American orchestra and later worked in Germany and Spain.

Gaffigan said Americans “have a grievance in their hearts – things are better elsewhere.”

“It seems important to me that people in this country see that Americans can do this work,” he said. “American musicians and orchestras are great because we are made of everything. That is the beauty of America and we should celebrate it.



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