Monday, April 25, 2011

Crisis and Charisma

Lisa Hirsch thoughtfully points us to Matthew Guerrieri's post today on the succession issues at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As ever, I'm both dazzled by and envious of Matthew's combination of erudition (Max Weber! Garry Wills!) and splendid prose style, and I love his optokinetic test for conductorial efficacy.

Where he loses me is in the actual analysis of the situation, which strikes me as, well, completely wrong. The moment he pivots from politics to music we get "music directors rarely depart except under circumstances of crisis" — which is simply not true. Levine's departure is a crisis; Philadelphia's struggle to find a music director is, as Matthew quite rightly points out, part of a larger institutional crisis; and, let's see, André Previn's precipitous departure from Los Angeles was, oh, a small crisis. There are others.

But much more common, surely, is the orderly succession of music directors such as we've seen in Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Baltimore, Minnesota, San Francisco and so on. One conductor announces that he'll step down at the end of next season or the one after that, and at that point, or soon thereafter, the next guy (or, in Baltimore, gal) takes over. Note that by "orderly" I don't mean "entirely without bad feeling, controversy or turmoil." But "crisis"? As in, "the Cuban Missile Crisis"? I don't see it.

Nor do I believe Matthew's suggestion that a crisis is essential — or even particularly beneficial — in the establishing of conductorial charisma. Quick, where's the biggest known deposit of such charisma in the United States at the moment? And a follow-up: Where was the most serene, least crisis-driven transfer of podium power in the last five years? Right both times — Los Angeles, where Esa-Pekka Salonen's angst-free departure has not detracted in the slightest from the extraordinary charisma of his Venezuelan successor.

Now, it's possible the successful resolution of a crisis — once it's safely past — can contribute to a general sense of elation and vitality among an orchestra, its new music director and its public, in just the same way that a narrow escape from being hit by an oncoming semi will give you a renewed sense of the value of life. But it's no goddam way to run a railroad. A well-run orchestra, or organization of any kind, doesn't so much resolve crises as keep them from arising in the first place.


At 4/25/2011 5:26 PM, Blogger Matthew said...

Did I generalize that much? I was trying to keep the focus on Philadelphia and Boston, with a little big-picture wiggle room to make them at least cautionary tales. Maybe it was post-Holy Week mental jet lag. You're absolutely right that not every music-director transition is a climacteric, and that management has some sway over how dramatic the transition is.

One thing, though, is that, in the context I was using, a crisis doesn't have to be an earth-shaking thing on the level of missiles in Cuba. I was really using it in the sense of a problem that is primarily solved through the arrival of charismatic leadership, not through organizational procedure, which is pretty much the definition of a director search. Maybe a good example would be a successful resolution—Chicago's hiring of Muti. It's a feel-good story because he said yes, but one should also remember that he was the only option they were pursuing. (I remember one of the players' committee members quoted as saying that there had been "no plan B.") That's the Weber crisis-charisma nexus in a nutshell—only Muti's personal stature was enough to fully resolve the situation the CSO had arrived at.

Glad to have you back in the increasingly old-fashioned blogosphere, incidentally!

At 4/25/2011 7:16 PM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Thanks for the reply, and for the words of welcome. And I'm sorry if I read too much into one little bit of your long and eloquent post (true confession: nit-picking at length is a proven technique for dispelling blogger inertia).

But I have to admit I still don't quite understand your linkage between the conductor's charisma on the one hand and administrative competence on the other. If the CSO had no backup plan to Muti, then whether he said yes or no is kind of immaterial to the fact that they were doing it wrong — just as a near-miss with a semi, even if you survive it, is evidence that you're doing pedestrianism wrong. No?


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