Sunday, July 29, 2007

Orchestras go for youth

Symphony orchestras seem to be going for youth these days. The New York Philharmonic just picked Alan Gilbert, a 40-year-old (when I was 25 I didn't consider 40 young but now I do) who is a native New Yorker and son of two Philharmonic musicians, as music director. At least the orchestra knows him; he's been hanging around since he was a kid, and he did a two-week stint as guest conductor last season He has been chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic since 2000, music director of the Santa Fe Opera, and a guest conductor with major orchestras.

Of course, compared to Gustavo Dudamel, a 26-year-old Venezuelan considered the hottest conducting property around, who was hired a couple of months ago by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gilbert is almost an old man.

It will be interesting to see how this all works out. The keepers of the institutions are engaged in more navel-gazing than usual about the relevance of symphonic music in the modern world, and agonizing over how to attract audiences with less than fully gray heads. Although I have nothing against people who make "serious" music, one of my great passions, fun, I'm something of a traditionalist. Play it well, play it with passion, don't be too stodgy about new stuff but don't neglect the standard repertoire and those to whom the music speaks will find you. Unfortunately, baffling as it might be to me personally, it's not going to speak to everyone, and I don't know if any amount of music and arts education in schools will remedy that.

But then, when it comes to symphonic music, I've been a traditionalist since I was about 12. It helped that my parents introduced me, but it spoke to me instantly and has never let go. I still have their 78s of Schubert, Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mahler and Wagner, though I don't have a contraption that will play them.

As to whether it's better to have a youngster or a seasoned veteran conduct an orchestra, there are valid arguments both ways. I was student conductor of the orchestra when I was in high school, and I had friends who I don't think were just flattering me (though I could have been fooling myself) who claimed the group played with a little more energy and passion when I conducted. Maybe, maybe not. But I do think the conducting gene shows up early, and when somebody has it as a conductor, he or she has it at an early age. A younger conductor is perhaps less inclined than a veteran to go through the motions with familiar material, and to view each concert, each piece, as a new challenge.

On the other hand, if you're any good at something, you should get better with experience. A good musician almost always finds something new in a piece of music -- if it's complex and subtle enough for stuff of value to be there -- each time he or she conducts or performs it. So old age and experience have their value.

It will be fascinating to watch and listen to these two.

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