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On the Arts: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra ought to take a risk on an American conductor

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

Unless the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra finds a conductor in a magic lamp, it won't be landing a music director capable of making its every wish come true.

Related article:
The PSO candidates


An established star would garner respect and bring the orchestra to Europe, but he'd be expensive and unlikely to show up at chicken dinners to raise money. An energetic young American would come with a smaller price tag and the understanding of what it takes to market an orchestra, but he'd lack connections to soloists and venues as well as the name value to sit comfortably with the likes of Reiner, Steinberg, Previn, Maazel and Jansons.

It's a tough choice, but the PSO needs to act decisively and then work to shore up whatever weaknesses remain.

But a little unsolicited advice: If it were my decision, I'd hire an American, perhaps James Conlon or David Robertson, David Zinman or Leonard Slatkin, Marin Alsop or Michael Tilson Thomas. That's not to suggest each would be available. But unless the PSO is willing to wait several years, it will not find the right fit among the available European-born star maestros.

Even if the right superstar were available, the PSO would be better served with an American. The orchestra wants the best musician available, but the extra-musical factors loom large. While PSO musicians are world-class, the greater Pittsburgh region is something less than a world-class market. The core of Heinz Hall patrons are committed and knowledgeable, but declining audiences suggest that there isn't a critical mass big enough to support a top-tier orchestra.

The PSO has worked its way through this problem previously by way of big checks from rich donors and corporations and with foundation grants. But that well isn't as deep as it once was, and the orchestra acknowledged as much in this current fiscal crisis by a massive fund-raising campaign seeking individual donations.

It's become painfully obvious that dependency upon contributions from too narrow a constituency put the PSO's fiscal health at risk. For better fund raising and more relevancy, the orchestra needs to connect with average-income individuals. It must broaden its appeal without dumbing down the art. For this, the PSO needs someone on the podium who stands in contrast to Jansons.

Jansons was the connoisseurs' choice as music director, a man known in Europe for his interpretive ability. He's a gifted musician whose mere association with the PSO raised its profile overseas, the heart of the classical music sphere.

Musical prowess remains the first priority, but this time around an ability to connect with the community is a close second. We don't want a repeat of the Eiji Oue fiasco. The Minnesota Orchestra hired him in part because of his big smile and willingness to stump for patrons, but his lack of conducting skill sank him.

More than ever, even the best conductors must "sell" classical music to the potential patron, the casual concert-goer and the longtime subscriber to ensure better ticket sales and donations. Otherwise, the result will be a diminished orchestra -- or none at all.

More Pittsburghers would go to concerts if they felt a sense of ownership. The PSO has several intriguing developmental and programming initiatives on tap, but it needs someone who enjoys talking with the audience as much as with the performers. The next conductor must meet the people where they are, not demand that they "rise to the level" of the orchestra.

With the exception of Leonard Bernstein, the qualities of communicator and conductor rarely have been embodied in the same person. That's beginning to change. There are several high-caliber American conductors with musical skills and marketing moxie, though they aren't the world's biggest names. (Remember, Bernstein was hardly a superstar when he began with the New York Philharmonic.)

The PSO needs someone who will show up at a ballgame, movie theater, restaurant and museum -- preferably without having to issue a press release to tout the appearance. Apart from drumming up some interest in classical music, he'd get a better idea of what programming best fits our audience. The new music director must think broadly and program diversely to fit the community.

Also helpful would be finding a conductor who's willing to stay in Pittsburgh long enough to unpack a suitcase. This would allow for more interaction with the musicians and citizenry. Somewhere along the line, orchestras became comfortable with the notion of music directors who spend only eight or 10 weeks at the podium. While we may never have a George Szell in Cleveland or a William Steinberg here again, it's clear that shortened residencies have hurt communities' connections with their orchestras.

Underneath it all lies the issue that the PSO must rise higher in stature than its conductors. The Cleveland Orchestra's reputation is larger than Christoph von Dohnanyi or Franz Welser-Most. The New York Philharmonic's rep is certainly far more established than Kurt Masur or even Lorin Maazel.

But mid-size and small orchestras tend to tie their reputation to a conductor. The San Francisco Symphony, for instance, is bound to Tilson Thomas; the Baltimore Symphony was wedded first to Zinman and now Yuri Temerkinov. This practice -- Steinberg, Previn, Maazel, Jansons for the PSO -- impairs groups in the long run because the musicians are ultimately more important to the community.

Perhaps now is the time to get a younger, up-and-coming American conductor who will work like mad, stay here longer, connect with the locals and allow the world to see that it is the musicians, management, staff and volunteers who give the PSO its world-class standing, not just the imprimatur of some transplanted "genius." And this person might work for half the salary of a Maazel or Jansons, both of whom commanded $1 million or more. Wouldn't that be in keeping with a financially streamlined PSO?

That person is available right now: David Robertson.

This American conductor in his mid-40s polarized the Pittsburgh music community when he debuted here last fall. The audience loved his visual style and his ability to explain a complex Boulez work, the board loved his vivaciousness and social skills, and this critic loved the precise sound he elicited from the orchestra. But many musicians complained that he was immature in rehearsals, a mix of naivete and language like "Jiminy Christmas." I chalk it up to nervousness over the realization that a good impression here would make him a viable candidate.

Another possibility is Marin Alsop.

Though not on the short list, she ought to be. Conducting is a male-dominated club, but it's not that women lack the talent. Alsop does it all, from championing new music to interpreting the canon with panache. A native New Yorker, she's demonstrated with the Colorado Symphony that she understands how to build an orchestra in an arts-saturated, mid-size market.

Next year, the world will find out exactly how talented the 46-year-old conductor is when she breaks out for a big season. Alsop will lead the New York Philharmonic along with the orchestras of Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Minnesota.

She starts leading the Bornmouth Symphony this year, will end her tenure at Colorado next year and remains principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. She's also music director of the Cabrillo Festival.

Hiring Alsop would make a bold statement for the PSO. She would bring much attention to the PSO not just because of her gender, but because of her talents. Robertson, too -- for that matter, any of the American conductors mentioned above -- would send a positive signal.

I'm not on the PSO's search committee, but I can recognize a risk worth taking. And aren't these risky times?

Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at druckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.

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