After Kurt Masur’s Reign, Could It Be Simon Rattle?

The news that the New York Philharmonic has informed Kurt Masur his services as music director will no longer be required after 2002 might seem, at first, ho-hum. Mr. Masur is 70, after all, and although he shows no signs of diminishing energy-conductors are supposed to live forever, you know-he will, when he does step down at Avery Fisher Hall, be well past the retirement age for employees at The New York Times , where the story broke. (At The Times, you get the gate at 65.) Moreover, it has been clear for some time that the Kapellmeister from Leipzig has pretty much accomplished what he was hired to do: raise the Philharmonic’s playing standards to a consistent, world-class level and instill discipline in its notoriously unruly ranks. It was a foregone conclusion that the eminently worthy Mr. Masur was not bringing box-office charisma or a dazzling, innovative spirit when he arrived in New York in 1991; he was bringing an old-fashioned rod with the directive not to spoil the child.

Nonetheless, conductors of Mr. Masur’s stature are not used to being manhandled this way-he was reported to have felt “insulted”-especially after they have performed a successful rescue job on an institution that had been sinking under the previous stewardship (in this case, that of Zubin Mehta). As part of a lot of hasty damage control, the Philharmonic board is taking pains to distance the orchestra’s executive director, Deborah Borda, from the unseemly business. Within the orchestra, however, there is the perception that this is the latest development in a longstanding power struggle between the orchestra’s music director and its chief administrator over issues of “control.” Among the players, Ms. Borda is viewed as trying to manipulate Mr. Masur-which, given his granitic bearing and long experience with Realpolitik as the most powerful musician in what used to be East Germany, must be like trying to manipulate Mount Rushmore.

While there has been grumbling from the musicians that Mr. Masur isn’t exactly a lot of fun to play for, and that he is much too skittish about programming contemporary music (“He loves Brahms and more Brahms,” one younger player puts it), he is generally held in high regard by the musicians. With soldierly loyalty, they seem appalled by what they take to be the board’s high-handedness. “The whole thing took me completely by surprise,” said one player. “My understanding is that the people on the board defended what happened by saying that they wanted to avoid any conflict or any interregnum, which is always harmful to an orchestra. But, essentially, they were saying to Masur, ‘Here’s your hat-won’t you go.'”

As is customary in such situations, the board has brushed aside any allegations that they are dissatisfied with Mr. Masur. “The maestro has been phenomenal,” Paul Guenther, the board chairman, told The Observer . “We have no problems with his performance.”

Another board member pleaded practicality: “We had to negotiate a time for his departure. He’s getting on-it was time to start looking for a replacement. It’s always a game of musical chairs. You have to arrange these things long in advance.” Which, to this observer, is another way of saying that what is really behind Mr. Masur’s early retirement is what might be called the Rattle Factor.

The Rattle Factor

When Sir Simon Rattle, the mop-haired conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony in the English Midlands, recently announced his retirement from the provincial organization he had elevated to international prestige, it was like Michael Jordan saying that he was up for grabs. Here is a maestro who looks like Roger Daltrey, sells CDs by the bucketful and not only eats Mahler for breakfast but makes takeout of such less digestible 20th-century composers as Leos Janacek and Karol Szymanowski. And he’s only 43. According to the classical music rumor mill-which, at such junctures, goes into a fever of name-swapping scarcely less intense than the speculation that attends the selection of a new pope-the Philadelphia Orchestra, which has been plodding along under the blandly distinguished Wolfgang Sawallisch, offered Mr. Rattle the Liberty Bell. The Boston Symphony, chafing under the unbudgeable leadership of Seiji Ozawa, was thought to be salivating. The Berlin Philharmonic-the No. 1 prize in the maestro sweepstakes-was said to have a soft spot for the Brit, and its conductor, Claudio Abbado, who has recently announced that he will be calling it quits in 2002.

A couple of months ago, I ran into one of the more formidable members of the Philharmonic board at a dinner party and asked whether they had been sending love letters to Mr. Rattle. “Are you kidding?” came the answer. “We’ve been in extremely close touch.” When I asked about the fortunes of Kurt Masur, I got a look that would have curdled the brie.

I use Mr. Rattle symbolically. Given the fact that he has never conducted the Philharmonic, his chances to succeed Mr. Masur seem, for now at least, remote. Nonetheless, what the Philharmonic’s board is undoubtedly hungry for is a Rattle type -someone who is youthful, media-friendly and of possible magnetism to that elusive “younger generation,” whatever that may be. Someone like Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Leonardo DiCaprio of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, or Michael Tilson Thomas, the Puck of the San Francisco Symphony, who have both succeeded in making symphony orchestras genuinely matter in their communities, produced attention-getting CDs and attracted great gobs of publicity. Someone, in short, like Lenny-Bernstein, of course-who gave the orchestra a glamor it hasn’t enjoyed since he left the music directorship in 1969.

By telling Mr. Masur that his time was up, the board was putting out the word to the Rattle types that the Philharmonic wants them -and not to act hastily should another of the world’s so-called “first-tier” orchestras extend an offer. After all, with Cleveland’s Christoph von Dohnanyi also making retirement noises, four of the “Big Five” American orchestras could well have podium vacancies in the next several years. (Chicago’s Daniel Barenboim is the one Big Five maestro who seems absolutely in place for the new millennium.)

Who’s Next: Gergiyev, Thielemann, Gatti?

But who are the Rattle types out there? Scanning the horizon, I find the pickings awfully slim. Among Americans, I can think of only two names-Kent Nagano and Robert Spano-both of whom seem, for now, less than contenders. Mr. Nagano has brought panache to the Lyons Opera and Ballet orchestras, and to the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England, but he has had relatively little exposure in New York. And although Mr. Spano has given terrific pizzazz to the Brooklyn Philharmonic, he still has too much de-greening to do.

That leaves the field, as usual, to the younger Europeans, among whom three names come to mind: Valery Gergiyev, Christian Thielemann and Daniele Gatti. Purely in terms of box office, the 44-year-old Mr. Gergiyev should be the front-runner. He has swagger (of the Dostoyevskian sort) to spare, a big presence on CDs (with his Kirov Opera recordings), international allure and the ability to lift listeners out of their seats. But he also happens to have just been named the Metropolitan Opera’s first permanent guest conductor, which might make it hard for him to straddle Lincoln Center’s plaza. His one-man showmanship at the Kirov also remains crucial to that organization’s survival in post-Soviet Russia, and I’m told that some of the Philharmonic’s musicians regard him as arrogant.

Mr. Thielmann, who conducts the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, has youth at age 38, and tremendous assurance in the mainstream Beethoven-to-Strauss repertoire. But he is perhaps too Germanic-too chip-off-the-old-Masur-for total comfort. (Does his conducting of that old Nazi sympathizer Hans Pfitzner have to be that rapturous?)

Mr. Gatti, who is conducting the Philharmonic from March 18 to March 21, is the flavor of the moment, thanks to a terrific debut with the orchestra two years ago in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, and some heavy breathing on his behalf in The Times. (Having unceremoniously blown the whistle on Mr. Masur, The Times is gearing up for one of its favorite roles-that of cultural kingmaker. Watch those reviews and Arts and Leisure puff pieces of visiting conductors from now until 2001.) Mr. Gatti, who is 36 and looks like a young tousled Robert De Niro, has been called a “savior” of the Royal Philharmonic in London, an organization not exactly known for maestro longevity. Perhaps the best thing about him, in this image-sotted age, is that he is known to zip around Milan on a BMW motorbike. Can the Gap ad be far behind?

A Distinguished Tradition Of Maestro Turnover

By throwing its hat early into the Rattle Ring, the Philharmonic is also reminding us that getting anyone to take on the top job is far from easy. After all, this is an orchestra that can’t-to paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield-automatically get no respect in its hometown. It must constantly compete against the world’s greatest (Vienna, Berlin, Cleveland) or sexiest (San Francisco, Los Angeles) or loudest (Chicago) ensembles, which show up at Carnegie Hall or in Lincoln Center’s subversive Great Performers Series with regularity, only to make the N.Y.P. seem as lumpenly familiar as the N.Y.P.D. The Philharmonic must be burdened with more concerts in the same house per annum than any other major orchestra (134 engagements over 35 weeks). Lacking a summer home that could broaden its audience base, the orchestra is especially dependent on that species of music lover-the subscriber-which is at once the backbone and bane of the American classical music business. The depth of subscriber-ensnarement at the Philharmonic means that whoever inherits Mr. Masur’s job will face, along with his crack players, a sea of graybeards in Avery Fisher Hall, most of whom want only to be coddled by more and more Brahms.

Still, the New York Philharmonic, which has the most distinguished and polyglot, tradition of maestro turnover than any orchestra in history-Gustav Mahler, Willem Mengelberg, Arturo Toscanini, John Barbirolli, Arthur Rodzinski, Bruno Walter, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Bernstein, etc.-is nothing if not primed for a new life. To make a completely foolhardy suggestion, I can think of no “Rattle type” better equipped to bring genuine musical excitement to the city than the bracing conductor whom the Philharmonic’s subscribers so stupidly trashed 25 years ago. I’m thinking, of course, of the septuagenarian Pierre Boulez. After Kurt Masur’s Reign, Could It Be Simon Rattle?