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The batons are being passed; now what?

Some of the most influential orchestras in the world have new conductors. Only time will tell if we are truly at a watershed moment.

October 20, 2002|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

In two short weeks in September, revolutionary regime change spread through the classical music world.

Simon Rattle ascended the Berlin Philharmonic throne with the Ecstasy-laced "Asyla," by the brilliant, provocative young English composer Thomas Ades. A day earlier in London, Antonio Pappano stormed the staid Royal Opera, making his first appearance as its music director with an edgy, erotic production of Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos."

The following week in America, Lorin Maazel lorded over the contentious New York Philharmonic with John Adams' "On the Transmigration of Souls," a profound meditation on the World Trade Center attack. At the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Most leaped upon his first season with a pre-opening gala that included the premiere of Marc-Andre Dalbavie's Frank Gehry-inspired "Rocks Under the Water," even if his first night, devoted to Haydn's "Creation," was more traditional.

These are exciting times. Young conductors are actively sought. Progressive leaders wait in the wings in Boston, Philadelphia and Minneapolis. Elsewhere, the hunt is on.

There has been a generational shift. Rattle, Pappano and Welser-Most are in their 40s; Maazel, 72, is the exception, but he gets "radical change" points for being the New York Philharmonic's first American music director since Leonard Bernstein.

At their opening concerts last month, the mood ranged from guarded optimism (New York) to outright elation (Berlin). In fact these four music directors have been greeted not just as fine musicians but as saviors.

The much ado over Rattle is a good example. Berlin last month was plastered with gigantic posters showing the curly-haired, fashionably dressed British conductor looking almost like a rock star. As if a new day dawned, the newspaper Die Welt welcomed "Sunny Sir Simon."

All this giddy change is partly coincidence; music directors come, and they go. But a new century also generates a new zeitgeist, and that surely motivates managements, some of which have gently or not-so-gently eased out aging, long-standing conductors.

And these are turbulent times for classical music institutions. We read of new financial troubles almost daily. The Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra and San Francisco Opera have posted significant deficits for the first time in years; symphonies in St. Louis, Toronto and Pittsburgh have lately tottered on the verge of bankruptcy. There is belt tightening across the board, cancellations of operas and even a few outright closures, such as the poorly managed San Jose Symphony.

None of this, however, implies an artistic crisis for classical music as much as it does an economic one for top-heavy institutions with enormous budgets. Predictably, ticket sales and donations have slowed since Sept. 11. American institutions are vulnerable to the weakened performance of their endowments; European ones suffer from reduced government subsidies. Anyone with anything to sell competes for the youth market, and classical music fantasizes about its share.

Still, there are encouraging signs. Audiences are returning to the theaters; attendance is up at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and there is a three-year waiting list for subscriptions to the Berlin Philharmonic. One might be cynical about the quest for fresh blood, fresh ideas, fresh sounds, fresh energy, younger faces for the marketing departments to work with. But given that classical music has historically fought change, its sudden embrace of evolution, its acknowledgment that classical music will not always be the same music played the same way by the same sorts of musicians for the same sorts of audiences, does at least suggest that it is no dinosaur.

Berlin, the most closely watched orchestra, should be a good test of just how much change is possible or useful. In its three decades under Herbert von Karajan, it was generally regarded as the world's best, if blandest, band. Most of the ensemble polish was retained under Claudio Abbado's 13-year, cautiously modernizing leadership, which also included a turnover of half the players.

But Rattle, who has had the most meteoric rise of any conductor of his generation, has far greater ambitions. He wants the orchestra to do everything and be everything. His first season ranges from playing early music under period-instrument specialists to initiating out-reach programs to the schools.

"We can no longer play the aloof and glamorous diva in Berlin," Rattle told a German newspaper. So, amid the Mozart, he is spending his first weeks in Berlin with Mark Anthony Turnage's angry hourlong jazz score "Blood on the Floor" and Bernstein's musical "Wonderful Town."

But there remain real-world obstacles. The orchestra depends on $20 million from the city, which embroils it in Berlin's tangled local politics. And Rattle and these splendid musicians don't play Bernstein on the same level as Beethoven.

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