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.