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A Classic Coup:

Conductors once ruled orchestras with an unbending baton. Now, some ensembles are downright uppity, getting in clashes that hold no sign of grace notes.

January 21, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

WE'VE heard a lot lately about the death of a tyrant. No, not that one. Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the passing of Arturo Toscanini, one of the most famous conductors who ever lived. And, no, he wasn't that kind of a monster, either. We, in fact, revere him in part for his honorable political convictions, his refusal to remain in Mussolini's Italy or conduct in Hitler's Germany.

But he did not rule over his orchestras with kindness; he was never known to invite players to participate in a democratic process. The Maestro was demanding, brusque, temperamental, formal, formidable. His withering glances inspired terror. No one called him Artie.

Toscanini was not the last dictatorial music director. There were, at the time of his death, still the scary George Szell in Cleveland and the frightening Fritz Reiner in Chicago. But the last 50 years have witnessed a steady empowerment of orchestral players.

Perhaps it is symbolic, but the year Toscanini died, Leonard Bernstein was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic and took up the post in 1958. Before long, he was Lennie to everyone, even those who didn't know him. Today, it's Simon and Esa-Pekka.

Unionized and feisty, orchestra members now wield significant power. When the longtime Montreal Symphony music director Charles Dutoit angrily resigned in 2002 after a public letter by the Quebec Musicians' Guild accused him of favoritism and abusive behavior in rehearsals, he was seen as an anachronism. Few Canadian tears were shed, even if that meant four precipitous years for the orchestra, which is finally said to be coming back into its own now that it has Kent Nagano as its gracious new music director.

With power, of course, comes its misuse. No one wants to go back to the old orchestral days of part-time employment, miserable pay and little or no benefits; the days of sexism, racism and exploitation; days of imperious conductors doling out abuse. Still, a couple of uppity American orchestras have gotten out of hand.

As in families, orchestras tend toward dysfunction. There are members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who complain that Esa-Pekka Salonen is a too-cold conductor and those in the Berlin Philharmonic who think Simon Rattle too hot. Impatient San Francisco Symphony players find Michael Tilson Thomas self-indulgent. No conductor will please a hundred musicians all the time, most of the time or even some of the time. But L.A., San Francisco and Berlin are great success stories, and a disgruntled minority has found a way to fit in. Even Bernstein had his detractors in the New York Philharmonic.

A few problem spots

THUS the Baltimore Symphony, financially failing and artistically irrelevant, did itself no favors two years ago when players publicly insulted the appointment of Marin Alsop. Not only had this been the historic hiring of the first slated woman to head a major American orchestra, but Alsop has proven popular with audiences and other orchestras. Her recordings -- whether of Bernstein, Brahms or Philip Glass -- are top sellers.

Things seem to have been smoothed over. But Alsop doesn't assume her post until the fall of this year, so we'll see.

The situation in Seattle is more shocking. In October the local press began reporting alleged instances of "orchestra terrorism." It appears that a majority of the orchestra feels it is time for Gerard Schwarz, now in his 23rd year as music director, to step down. And supposedly Gerry's supporters (yes, he's Gerry to all) in the orchestra are getting the treatment from his detractors. In this little mafia, if reports are to be believed, attacks have included scratched cars, threatening phone calls and a cup of scalding coffee being left in a French horn player's mailbox in hope he might burn his hands. These allegations have been denied by the anti-Schwarz faction. But the airing of such laundry in leaks to the press, which the players knew would be sensationalized, is bad behavior in itself.

The players may have a point, given the current sense of stagnation in Seattle. Schwarz's career has lost luster of late. But the orchestra owes him. Over the last two decades he increased its profile enormously, made many recordings and played a major role in building Benaroya Hall, which opened in 1998.

He is, moreover, still making useful recordings in Seattle. A new disc on Naxos of music by William Schuman includes his most important symphonies, the Third and Fifth. The Third was recorded in 2005 in Benaroya, the Fifth in 1992 in the old, acoustically awful Opera House. The improvements in playing and orchestral sound are dramatic. A graceful exit for Schwarz needs to be found, but the orchestra has now made that all but impossible.

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