Having Retired the Great Masur, Philharmonic Can’t Find Maestro

When the New York Philharmonic decided in early 1998 that it would not renew musical director Kurt Masur’s tenure past 2002, it somewhat recklessly entered a nationwide scramble that already had the cities of Cleveland and Philadelphia–and soon Boston–vying to find replacements for their own departing maestros. With the orchestra playing better than it had in the past decade and no replacement in view, Mr. Masur was asked by the board of directors to step down in 2000 and meanwhile make way for guest conductors who would be auditioning for his job. After a bitter dispute, he agreed to leave in 2002.

But the pool of available talent since 1998 has shrunk from an already depressingly small size. The search could be likened to the plight of picky single New York women. “It’s like being a marriage broker,” said Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s new executive director. “You ask, ‘Are you interested?’ Then you go out on a date.”

But it seems the best ones are always taken. Sir Simon Rattle, any major orchestra’s dream wish, was snatched by the Berlin Philharmonic in the summer of 1999. Riccardo Muti, an official contender for a while, sent his regrets to the Philharmonic this past summer, a public relations gaffe the orchestra could have done without. And Mariss Jansons, long an unofficial possibility at the Philharmonic, recently had a disappointing trial run in New York–according to the musicians, “the chemistry wasn’t there”–and Mr. Jansons’ current employer in Pittsburgh, Gideon Toeplitz, told The Observer he thought the maestro was no longer interested.

Why did the board push Mr. Masur out? After seven years, he had markedly improved the quality of the playing and boosted the morale of the musicians–but compared to vibrant orchestras like the San Francisco Symphony or the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which had rejuvenated their audiences, the repertoire of the Philharmonic was starting to feel staid. By all accounts, Mr. Masur also had a tumultuous relationship with Deborah Borda, the then-executive director who had the support of the board. Although the musicians rooted for him (despite the first years of stormy rehearsals), it was not enough to sway the board in his favor.

So who will replace him? Cleveland is no longer competing–it dropped out of the race with a surprise choice, FranzWelser-Möst–but Boston, Philadelphia and New York are still fighting over a few pretty faces. And as the Muti fiasco made clear, European maestros are increasingly unwilling to take on the administrative duties that are nicely packaged with a position at an American orchestra, including, but not limited to, fund-raising and board-member pandering.

The dilemma: to find an artistic leader who will maintain the high level reached by Mr. Masur but who will also bring in good soloists to keep the hype going, get along with musicians and board members and engage the local community for fund-raising and subscriptions. And don’t forget the looming heritage of Leonard Bernstein and the pressure to find a young, daring American to take over and bring those golden years back to life.

Here are the options, and then some:

Christoph Eschenbach

Mr. Eschenbach, a German-born pianist by training, stepped into the spotlight as a conductor when he took over at the embattled Houston Symphony in 1988 and turned it into one of the nation’s finest. Described by Zarin Mehta as “a catholic conductor,” he has a strong repertoire of German, French and Russian, and could tackle the usual suspects and throw in some contemporary American to boot (Christopher Rouse, Tobias Picker). A master at Mahler, he is an intense, emotional director, who conducts in Nehru jackets and sports a shaved head in a world where a good head of hair is an asset not to be disregarded. Even though “he wasn’t buddy-buddy,” one Houston musician told The Observer , “when he conducted Mahler, he was Mahler.” Current engagements (Ravinia, Orchestre de Paris, Hamburg NDR) should not prevent him from taking the job if he were ever offered it. His recent Dvorak at the Philharmonic drew praise from the critics, but mixed reviews from the musicians.

Pluses: Worked with Mr. Mehta at Ravinia, and the two got along famously.

Minuses: Not Old World enough to awe, not new enough to seem daring. And Germans aren’t exactly popular right now in the New York music world.

Lorin Maazel

Often said to be the best living conductor today, Mr. Maazel, also a composer and a violinist, would certainly have the right credentials, seeing he’s had 70 years to acquire them. Back at the Philharmonic last month after a 23-year-absence, he thrilled the musicians and audience by compounding Wagner’s Ring in a 70-minute performance. It was called ” The Ring Without Words.” How’s that for a daring American? Mr. Maazel will be relieved from his duties at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2002. But let’s face it: It would be only a temporary solution at the Phil.

Pluses: He’s Lorin Maazel.

Minuses : Lorin Maazel is 70.

Kent Nagano

A New York Times favorite, this 49-year-old American sure is daring. At the Salzburg Festival, where he is a frequent and much-admired guest conductor, Mr. Nagano participates in the kind of avant-garde projects not often seen at Lincoln Center. Peter Sellars’ controversial staging of Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise in 1998 is still remembered with a frisson . In Lyon, France, where he conducted the opera for nearly 10 years, Mr. Nagano put those generous French subsidies to good use and staged way-out productions (a film-opera with jazz pieces around Martinu’s Trois Souhaits .) But does he have what it takes to conserve the great symphonic repertoire? Also, he’s not a household name, and his stuff might send heartland tourists running to Broadway. Of the Big Three orchestras conducting searches, he hasn’t received a single offer.

Pluses: He’s young, daring and American.

Minuses: He’s young, daring and American.

Daniel Barenboim

Currently celebrating his 50 years of performing by jetting around the world with the Chicago Symphony, Mr. Barenboim, an Argentine-born Israeli, would bring his worldwide cachet to the Philharmonic. Although he isn’t exactly known for his modern repertoire (tango piano-playing excluded), he would certainly deliver the greats. Under contract with the Staatsoper in Berlin until 2002, he might not renew if that city does not honor its promise to aid the theater orchestra, the Staatskapelle, with which Mr. Barenboim has been involved. And then there’s the fact that a German politician recently called him the “Jew Barenboim” in the Berlin Morgenpost. But he’s also under contract with the Chicago Symphony until 2006. His rep says it’s not even a possibility.

Pluses: He’s a safe choice (some might say too safe), and a friend of Zarin Mehta’s.

Minuses: Would have to work it out with the Chicago Symphony.

David Robertson

Another American who’s big in France (for all that’s worth), Mr. Robertson is a 41-year-old champion of contemporary music. The current musical director of the Orchestre National de Lyon (self-described on its Web site as a “defender of the music of our time”), Mr. Robertson was a trainee of Philharmonic alum Pierre Boulez. He will be making his debut at the Philharmonic at the end of April 2001, conducting Wagner, Schoenberg and Beethoven. But Philadelphia still sounds more likely for such a brash fellow.

Pluses: An energetic, exciting conductor who might provide that breath of fresh air.

Minuses: The Boulez connection. If they weren’t ready then, they sure aren’t ready now.

Esa-Pekka Salonen

The 42-year-old Finn has been working his magic at the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1992, and it doesn’t seem likely he’ll leave. His contract is up for renewal in 2002, but he has “verbally committed himself to staying for the opening of the new concert hall” in 2003, according to a spokesperson. Another champion of contemporary music, Mr. Salonen is also a composer (he’s at work on a sonata and an opera). He probably programs more 20th-century works than any other director in the country.

Pluses: Responsible, with Michael Tilson Thomas, for shifting the center of gravity to the West.

Minuses: Too European, too contemporary.

Michael Tilson Thomas

The heir to Leonard Bernstein lives out in San Francisco. “M.T.T.,” as he is known, had his conducting debut at 24 in Boston, became Lenny’s protégé soon after and has never escaped the comparison. In San Francisco, his close relationship with the city, his celebration of contemporary composers and his dynamic programming are reminiscent of the Philharmonic in the 1960′s. He is also a great commercial hit, having accomplished the rare feat of drawing younger crowds without losing old-time subscribers. His “evergreen” contract with the S.F.S. is up for renewal in 2005, but he’s never been a big hit with Philharmonic musicians.

Pluses: Bernstein affiliation.

Minuses: Why would he come to New York?

James Conlon

After surviving the intrigue, the moodiness, the politicking and the strikes at the Paris Opera, the Philharmonic would be a breeze! He’d take it if they offered it, but the 50-year-old American, who is also artistic director at Cologne, might have to make do with Europe for now. On a recent tour here, he let out that none of the Big Three had approached him. Another Times pet, Mr. Conlon may be gifted and underrated, but he’s just not a big enough name for the Philharmonic. Boston might get him.

Pluses: A skilled conductor with a growing reputation.

Minuses: No star power.

Riccardo Chailly

Having successfully introduced contemporary and somewhat arcane music to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, this 47-year-old Milanese might pull off a similar feat in New York. After all, that legendary orchestra was probably as little prepared as the Philharmonic would be to tackle Berio, Stockhausen or Varese. Not to mention Alexander Zemlinsky, a name that would likely have disappeared from the face of the music world were it not for the repeated efforts of the ambitious Mr. Chailly. But would he want the administrative headaches of the Philharmonic?

Pluses: Has the prestige of the Concertgebouw, technical skills and adventurous ideas.

Minuses: Would he really want to leave Amsterdam?

The Wild Cards: Valery Gergiev, James Levine

These two might have it in them to play a game of musical chairs that would settle the whole thing. The wild Mr. Gergiev, the principal guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, heads the Kirov in St. Petersburg and would seem to be a natural to move up into Mr. Levine’s top spot. Especially since he gets along with the Met’s flamboyant general manager, Joseph Volpe. Mr. Levine, who transformed the Met into one of the world’s best orchestras, is rumored for Boston. Why not just cross the piazza instead?