Monday, May 05, 2008

Chicago Pinstripes


The news on the rialto today is that the Chicago Symphony has signed Riccardo Muti as its next music director, effective in 2010. Bloggers are passing the news from site to site, but I haven't seen any commentary yet on what it all means, or whether or not this is a good call, and why. Big Marc? Andrew? How say you both?

I'd speculate myself, if I knew a damn thing on the subject. My own experience with Muti live has been sparse and inconclusive, and in any case, the issue is not about this performance or that, but the day-to-day operations, both musical and non-. I accept the maestro's testimony, and that of orchestra president Deborah Card, that his recent collaborations with the orchestra have been all kinds of wonderful. But I'm curious about his stated commitment to doing all the grunt work — the auditioning, the fund-raising, the administrative stuff — that comes with an American music directorship. This was the sticking point for Barenboim, and supposedly in Muti's negotiations with the New York Phil. What changed his mind?

The more interesting point, though, is the direction that the orchestra has chosen to go with this appointment. In general, I think there are deep and revealing parallels to be drawn between the building of a sports franchise — a baseball team, say — and an orchestra, and I live in hope that someone who actually knows something about sports (why not Matthew?) will lay out the analogy in detail.

Yet even with my spotty knowledge of baseball, I grasp that, roughly speaking, you can try to win a pennant either by a) attracting proven, high-performing (and therefore expensive) talent — that's the George Steinbrenner method — or b) building a team out of young and still-developing players. The same sorts of options present themselves to orchestra managers.

The problem with the second plan is that it takes time — as well as a good nose for talent. The Pittsburgh and Dallas Symphonies, for instance, have both committed themselves to young, little-known Europeans (Manfred Honeck and Jaap van Zweden, respectively). That means a period of a few years in which those orchestras' reputations and achievements will be more or less put on hold while everybody gets used to each other. And at the end of that time, the leadership is going to look like geniuses or jackasses, depending on how things work out.

To hire Muti, on the other hand, is like signing — well, whoever stepped into Reggie Jackson's cleats after I stopped following baseball. Let's assume that, as with the Yankees, money is no object for the CSO, and figure that, like Jackson, Muti can hit the symphonic long ball. Still, the catch here is that you're grabbing today's glory at the potential expense of tomorrow's. I'm not saying that's a bad decision — who else deserves a conductor like Muti if not the CSO? — only that it's got a comparatively short-term payoff horizon. (Is that a real phrase? If not, I'm proud to have invented it.)

To see the risk of this kind of strategy, you only have to look at our friends the New York Phil, always the poster child for bass-ackwards game-theory decisions. They wanted a big-name music director and couldn't get one; they bought time with Maazel; they bought more time; they wound up back where they started. Taking the long view when it mattered could have helped them avoid that embarrassment (by which I don't mean either the appointment of Maazel or Gilbert, but rather the fumfering and flailing that accompanied them).

On the other hand, there's something smart and self-fulfilling about refusing to settle for anyone but a proven, older, A-list conductor (for as long as there are any around). It makes your orchestra seem consequential, as indeed it should. "We're the Chicago Symphony, dammit!" There's something kinda thrilling about an attitude like that.

10 Comments:

At 5/05/2008 6:10 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

Joe Barron commented on my blog that it means "no more Carter." I said that might depend on whether Boulez stays on as a major guest conductor.

But I'm surprised you're not mentioning the other big gamble with youth, just to the south of us. I know lots of people are smitten with Dudamel. It remains to be seen how he will take to the glad-handing, administrative work, etc.

 
At 5/05/2008 7:32 PM, Anonymous Andrew Patner said...

I think you have a nice analysis here, Josh, and a fair one. I have my newsy stuff up today on my site (thanks for the link! finally have you on my own weblog roll, too) and will have more commenty stuff tomorrow.

Just some clarification on your poster's questions:

Boulez is of course still on in a major way in Chicago, at least through 2010, and then, after a sabbatical 2010-2011 and if he follows EC's longevity program, after that as well. And he has Carter coming up here the next two seasons.

Haitink is also here for the next two and a half years as well and he does not shy away from new music -- he played Lieberson's "Neruda Songs" last week and takes it and the CSO to Carnegie this month and he'll play Turnage on the Europe tour in September.

But the big mistake is thinking that Muti doesn't play new music or doesn't commission tough stuff. He remains close with Bernard Rands, his composer-in-residence in Philadelphia, and championed Ralph Shapey in Philly when he was shunned in Chicago. He already has commission ideas for 2010-2015.

And he'll do what he needs to do in terms of outreach, auditions, community pep talking, etc. Barenboim, by the way, not only did not object to doing auditions, he did them superbly. A full third of the orchestra.

Yeah, we're not unhappy here. And in five to ten years, if Gustavito proves himself at Walt Disney, we're ready for him at Orchestra Hall!

 
At 5/06/2008 8:22 AM, Anonymous Marc Geelhoed said...

Since Muti will be my boss in a couple years, my hands are professionally tied from saying anything, pro (which would be dismissed as cheerleading) or con (which would get me called on the carpet, or worse). I deeply admired the music-making at his recent concerts here last September, and have high, high, high hopes for his tenure here. Let's leave it at that.

 
At 5/06/2008 10:45 AM, Anonymous joe barron said...

Bernard Rands and Ralph Shapey are not Elliott Carter, whose music was programmed only one during Muti's tenure in Philadelphia, and it was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. I pnce asked a friend of mine on the orchestra whether we'd be hearing any Ives soon, and he replied he didn't think Muti even knew who Ives was.

Babbitt's "Transfigured Notes" was also programmed under Muti, then dropped as unplayable---a judgment confuted by a subsequent recording.

On the plus side, Muti did record some Persichetti with the Philadelphia, and I love his recordings of the Beethoven symhonies

 
At 5/07/2008 2:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How long before Muti decides Chicago is beneath him, as he did here in Philadelphia?

I can't speak for the musicians, but he was still popular with audiences, and the town's leading music critic was favorable to the point of fawning.

None of which kept him from departing abruptly and rancorously, and repeatedly canceling planned return appearances (I think he has deigned to come back once since 1992.)

Good luck, Chicago. You may need it.

 
At 5/07/2008 7:14 PM, OpenID henryholland said...

It's a given that a new music director is going to bring his/her enthusiasms with them.

Haven't heard much, if any, Vaughn Williams or Elgar since Andre Previn left, I seriously doubt that Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho can expect many royalty checks to be forthcoming from Los Angeles Philharmonic performances after Mr. Salonen leaves, while I'm sure that the estates of Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chavez should expect an uptick in income when Mr. Dudamel arrives.

And in five to ten years, if Gustavito proves himself at Walt Disney, we're ready for him at Orchestra Hall!

To continue Mr. Kosman's baseball analogizing: so, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is just AAA ball, while the CSO is the big leagues huh? :-)

 
At 5/08/2008 11:41 AM, Anonymous Tony said...

Well Muti only signed a 5 year deal and has said it will be the last of his career. There won't be enough time for rancor to develop. It looks like a deal that will benefit both parties in the short term.

 
At 5/13/2008 10:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I think the LA Phil is AAA to CSO's big leagues in one major regard. How they sound! By most other yardsticks, I think LA is surpassing CSO (especially programming and exciting MD choices). But you have to come back to what is most important. Hire the best musicians and cultivate a powerhouse orchestra. No one beats CSO in this regard.

 
At 7/10/2008 6:06 AM, Anonymous C. K. Dexter Haven said...

By most other yardsticks, I think LA is surpassing CSO (especially programming and exciting MD choices). But you have to come back to what is most important. Hire the best musicians and cultivate a powerhouse orchestra. No one beats CSO in this regard.

Really? It seems quite interesting then that the new Principal Flute of the LA Phil is apparently coming from the same job at the CSO: Mathieu Dufour

Not that current LA Phil musicians aren't impressive in their own right, but on the heels of the Carrie Dennis hire, it looks like the orchestra has been clearly attracting more players with some noteworthy resumes.

 
At 7/10/2008 6:27 AM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm curious why Carrie Dennis would leave the Berlin Phil after only two years in the principal viola seat there. I can imagine all sorts of reasons, many of them cultural. Still!

 

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