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.