This past Monday, the Berlin Philharmonic was expected to choose a successor to chief conductor Simon Rattle, who is stepping down from his post in 2018. Instead, the orchestra’s musicians, who govern themselves, failed to reach a decision; we may now have to wait for up to a year longer to learn who will be the next maestro to take up residence behind that prestigious podium.
Responding to this development, The New Yorker‘s classical music critic Alex Ross writes that he “had a heretical thought: What difference does it make?” In a searing commentary, Ross argues that “the increasingly unworkable celebrity-maestro model” is going the way of the dinosaurs—and not just the maestro, but the entire canon. “Classical music is singular among art forms in its bondage to the past,” writes Ross.
It is fundamentally irrational for musicians to play the same passel of pieces over and over. Conductors serve to generate the illusion of novelty: as Theodor W. Adorno wrote, in his “Introduction to the Sociology of Music,” the maestro “acts as if he were creating the work here and now.” That top-tier conductors are almost always men is less an indication of institutional misogyny—though that certainly exists—than an inevitable consequence of the play-acting ritual: because the canonical composers are entirely male, so are their stand-ins. The modern orchestra concert is not entirely unrelated to the spectacle of a Civil War reënactment.
Whoa. (Also, love that umlaut. Never change, New Yorker.)
Ross, one of the best-known writers in classical music, was widely cited during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout: just before the crisis began, Ross had written a rave review of a concert at which, he wrote, “the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.” That record-setting lockout is now over, and the orchestra’s returning hero Osmo Vänskä is leading his band on a triumphant—and historic—trip to Cuba.
The Minnesota Orchestra’s recent history seems to suggest that there’s still plenty of passion to be stirred—both on and offstage—by a talented artistic director. Meanwhile, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra are settling into their new concert hall and winning continuing acclaim under their longstanding cooperative model: instead of a single artistic director, the musicians enlist a rotating series of artistic partners. Other local ensembles—some of which include musicians from both the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO—are exploring new terrain both organizationally and artistically.
In Minnesota, it seems, we have room for both a celebrity-maestro model and other models as well. Will that continue to be true around the world? That’s a question that’s surely on the mind of the Berlin musicians as they continue their deliberations.