Where Are All the American Orchestra Conductors?
By George Gelles
This article appeared in The New York Times on September 14 and is reprinted here with permission.
Before winning acclaim as a virtuoso composer and a charismatic popularizer of classical music, Leonard Bernstein attained fame as a conductor. In 1943, still green at 25 and assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he took the podium as a last-minute stand-in for an ailing Bruno Walter. With no rehearsal and everything on the line, he saved the day and gained celebrity overnight.
Our major orchestras had long been in thrall to maestros from abroad, but Mr. Bernstein proved himself the equal of older, foreign-born conductors. “A good American success story” is how The New York Times described his triumph.
Mr. Bernstein was not only an anomaly but also an upstart, an American interloper on European turf. Yet, 75 years after his success, we might wonder why his breakthrough has led, perhaps, to a dead end. In a country as vast as ours and as artistically rich in homegrown talent, why have so few American music directors followed in his footsteps?
As we embark on a new season of concerts, a look at our leading orchestras reveals a situation similar to 1943. When Mr. Bernstein shot to fame, each of the so-called Big Five orchestras, in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland, was led by a foreign music director (born, respectively, in Poland, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Belgium and Austria), as is each today (with conductors from the Netherlands, Latvia, Canada, Italy and Austria).
Orchestras in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and even in Washington are led by conductors from Austria, France, Venezuela and Italy. To find American music directors at larger orchestras, you must look to, among other locations, San Francisco, Atlanta and, until recently, St. Louis.
There’s no questioning the credentials of music directors from abroad; they are generally impeccable. But these men—yes, regrettably they are all men—had an avenue for advancement that is unavailable to most aspiring Americans: As apprentices, most honed their craft into art at one of the opera houses that, since the eighteenth century, have spread throughout Europe. Starting as a répétiteur—a pianist who plays at rehearsals and coaches singers in their roles, who serves as assistant conductor prepping an orchestra for performance and who, perhaps, matures to full-fledged conductor, learning and leading a stylistically wide swath of repertory—the young European can be immersed in music-making to an extent only envied by most Americans.
A fledgling conductor in the United States might be groomed at one of our exceptional conservatories, independent or university based, but must find a different path to prominence and must overcome an attitude that undervalues musical excellence among native-born conductors.
Have you heard of “The Cultural Cringe”, a seminal 1950 essay by the Australian writer A.A. Phillips? The term, which he coined, refers to an inferiority complex that causes people to overvalue artists in other countries and undervalue those in their own. Mr. Phillips was writing of Australian artists—writers, painters, actors, musicians—and their difficulties being judged on their own merits and not measured adversely in comparison with British counterparts. Nowadays, cultural cringe has made it into academe, where examples of the phenomenon are examined by social anthropologists.
In America, while other artistic disciplines rightly take pride in our leading practitioners, our major orchestras are unique in favoring conductors of Continental or Asian lineage. Among the Big Five, only the New York Philharmonic chose an American as its founding music director, while the others chose foreigners. And post-Bernstein, few Americans have been entrusted with prominent ensembles. Among them are stars that shone brilliantly, including David Robertson, Alan Gilbert, Kenneth Schermerhorn, Thomas Schippers, Gerard Schwarz, Leonard Slatkin and Robert Spano.
Michael Tilson Thomas, Los Angeles born and bred, is the longest-tenured music director of a major American orchestra. He will end a quarter-century with the San Francisco Symphony in 2020, having unquestionably shown that an American can lead an orchestra to the pinnacle of international success.
One explanation of the current situation comes from Hugh Wolff, the former music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and currently chief conductor of the Belgian National Orchestra, as well as director of orchestras and teacher of conducting at the New England Conservatory of Music. Though born abroad to Foreign Service parents, he received a blue-ribbon schooling in the United States.
Mr. Wolff noted that American orchestras’ hiring of foreign maestros “has kind of been the case for many, many years. But some of us work more in Europe than in the States, which sometimes surprises people. So there’s a free flow of goods and services. Of course, I wish there were more young American conductors, but I’m seeing young conductors from all over the world at our festivals and music schools.”
Mr. Wolff continued: “The whole art form of concerts, and of orchestras in classical music, is not part of the educational curriculum any more, not part of what young people are expected to learn, and therein lies the nub of the problem.”
A different perspective comes from James Blachly, a generation younger than Mr. Wolff and music director of two ensembles: the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra, in southwestern Pennsylvania, and the New York-based Experiential Orchestra, which he founded. He came to conducting in his late 20s, and rather than pursue a conservatory education, he found mentors and apprenticeships at home and abroad.
“There’s still this idea that you can become an assistant conductor with a major orchestra and get a big break and your career can take off, but the traditional path no longer applies,” Mr. Blachly said. “The Big Five is one thing, and sure, if the Berlin Philharmonic called, I’d be on the next plane, but there are a lot of other orchestras out there. And for many young conductors, the new route is to start your own ensemble.”
The larger question remains: Where are our American conductors and how do they reach the top tier?
Well, you can win a prestigious competition, though most are Europe-based and worldwide in focus, with American contestants heavily outnumbered.
More realistically, there are two stages on which young conductors are welcomed: They are our largest and most prestigious orchestras, those included in Group A by the League of American Orchestras, an organization that advocates on behalf of its membership. These ensembles often engage Americans as assistant or associate conductors, where their role is the ever-ready understudy, but where they might conduct pops concerts and a youth orchestra.
Orchestras in Groups B through E, with smaller budgets, shorter seasons and less clout, also engage young Americans, often as music directors, though their exposure, inevitably, is limited.
The league is making an effort to bring gifted young conductors before orchestra managements and artist representatives. This past April, in collaboration with the Nashville Symphony, the league hosted the Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview. (That’s the same Bruno Walter, of course, whose illness enabled Leonard Bernstein’s fortuitous debut.)
The promise implicit in Mr. Bernstein’s success will be fulfilled only when the agents who manage a maestro’s career collaborate with symphony managements in a conscious effort to place gifted Americans on the most prestigious podiums. Working closely with an orchestra’s leadership and providing guidance that might prove useful, the artist’s manager is essentially a salesman, analogous to a star quarterback’s agent, and plays a crucial role pairing conductors with orchestras. In so doing, an ensemble’s artistic fortunes and public profile are defined.
Today two agencies dominate the field: Columbia Artists Management and International Management Group Artists. Together they represent 113 conductors, of whom 24 are Americans, though nine of those make their careers in Hollywood, on Broadway or as pops concert personalities. Absent these nine, that’s a skinny 13 percent of Americans, some recognizable, a majority less so.
One explanation is that foreign conductors have had more experience and more time to become better known. Another factor might be that the foreign conductor comes to an orchestra with a certain cachet and commands a significantly higher fee than the younger American, which means a fatter fee for the agent. None of this necessarily reflects on the comparative quality of performance.
The orchestral enterprise is in transition. In a generally sanguine report from the League of American Orchestras—“Orchestra Facts: 2006-2014”, the most up-to-date study publicly available—it is reported that audiences declined 10.5 percent between 2010 and 2014, and, in 2013 alone, subscription revenues fell by 13 percent.
These numbers should cause concern. Heeding signs of audience fatigue from the same-old same-old, orchestra boards and management must demand that artist managements provide choices that include the most exciting and insightful conductors, both men and women, groomed here at home and deserving the chance to shine. They need to not merely include American conductors on their rosters, but to champion their careers and advocate on their behalf.
Should there be doubt that an American maestro is up to the challenge, one need only look to the too few examples of homegrown success, to the likes of Kenneth Schermerhorn and Thomas Schippers, Robert Spano and Michael Tilson Thomas.
And, indeed, to Leonard Bernstein.
George Gelles has written on music and dance, served at the National Endowment for the Arts and for 15 years was executive director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. He worked at the Ford Foundation from 1977 to 1981 in the Office of the Arts, and has written previously for the newsletter, most recently on “The Rise and Fall of the ‘City at 42nd Street’” in the Winter 2018 issue.