Earlier this year, Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic, announced that he would step down from his job in 2017. With Avery Fisher Hall, the orchestra’s home, scheduled to close in 2019 for two years of renovation, fevered speculation has ensued about his successor. Music directors should quit more often, as such announcements allow music lovers to dream. Whether such dreams have any chance of coming true is as irrelevant as whether fantasy football or baseball games are ever actually played on the field. As the Yiddish proverb states: “Nor in kholem zaynen mern vi bern” (“Only in dreams are carrots as big as bears”). Music, like mathematics, is a matter of ideals for the listener as much as the performer. Why not wonder about some bearish possibilities, even if ultimately one of the previously anticipated carrots winds up with the job?
Despite the NYPO’s longtime reputation as a conductor’s graveyard for mistreating maestros, it remains an outstanding group, playing brilliantly when it wishes to do so. The announced renovation of Avery Fisher Hall may not provide further allure for job applicants: It would be splendid if the latest planned renovation improved its acoustics, but history does not suggest optimism on this issue. As Donald Rosenberg’s “The Cleveland Orchestra Story: ‘Second to None’” relates, the Hungarian Jewish conductor George Szell, a pitilessly accurate martinet, found Avery Fisher an “acoustic failure” when it opened in 1963. After renovations to improve its sound — even back then — Szell opined: “Let me give you a little simile. Imagine a woman, lame, a hunchback, cross-eyed, and with two warts. They’ve removed the warts.” By 1964 Szell was advocating, “Tear the place down and start over again; the hall is an insult to music.”
Any insult to music could be lessened by a brilliant young talent capable of contravening the usual deadly repetition of all-too-familiar symphony programs. In 2013, the jury of the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany felt they had discerned such a talent. The 2013 competition winner, Lahav Shani, was born in 1989 in Tel Aviv. A gifted pianist who studied with Arie Vardi at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Shani has been mentored by Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim, both eagle-eyed talent spotters of young conductors.
Shani already conducts with remarkable command, often from memory. Leading from the keyboard, Shani follows in the tradition of other conductor-pianists such as Leonard Bernstein and Bruno Walter, although Shani expresses more wiry energy and post-Glenn Gould neurotic joy than such predecessors. He also tames his ensemble — the burly and sometimes surly Israel Philharmonic — who play chastely and sensitively. Any conductor who can lead the predominantly Russian, tachlis-talking Israel Phil may be a match for its senior New York counterpart.
Would appointing a young, non-superstar musician of varied talents make commercial sense for the NYPO? In Europe, a highly publicized new trend has made appointing young conductors profitable. In 2008, Robin Ticciati (born in 1983) was announced as the new principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, starting with the 2009-2010 season. In 2007, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra — which in 1980 had hired a promising 25-year-old named Simon Rattle as its music director — named the Latvian Andris Nelsons (born in 1978) principal conductor. In 2003 Ilan Volkov, another Tel Aviv native (born in 1976), became chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony. In 2013 the Louisville Orchestra named Teddy Abrams, then 26, as music director designate. In 2017, when the NYPO post becomes available, Shani will be well within the age range of such recognized hirees.
Of course, the NYPO is a higher-pressure, more visible responsibility than any of the aforementioned. Returning to the sports analogy since classical music is increasingly marketed like an athletic contest, must New York teams hire only veteran players with a track record of proven toughness for the big arena?
The NYPO was once a venue for youth, and in 1956 was hoping to hire as its music director the magisterial 36-year-old Italian conductor Guido Cantelli, who was tragically killed in a plane crash. In recent years, before Gilbert, it seemed at times to have become a venue for overpaid ancients producing conventional series of concerts with neither spontaneity nor surprise.
Whatever happened to the New York tradition of pinning one’s hopes on rookies? The main thing used to be not an established sales record but the sentiment expressed in the Broadway anthem from “Damn Yankees” by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (born Jerold Rosenberg): “You gotta have heart.” Those who argue that conducting is a solo endeavor for an isolated champion rather than a team sport have not paid attention to the evolving job description. The era of podium dictators in the Szell tradition is over, and conductors who play well with others have the longest and happiest careers. Nevertheless, if we forget about the young and relatively untried for a moment, other unlikely choices would likewise provide concerts of quality.
The Hungarian Jewish pianist András Schiff, 61, has worked closely with conductors such as Sándor Végh, acquiring his own merrily exuberant approach to the podium art. Schiff’s handpicked ensemble, punningly named the Cappella Andrea Barca — a mock-literal translation of his own name into Italian — epitomizes his ludic spirit as a maestro.
Murray Perahia is another veteran pianist who learned from mentors including Georg Solti in addition to studying conducting at the Mannes College as a young man. Perahia exults as conductor of symphonies by Mozart and Haydn and serves as principal guest conductor of London’s Academy of St Martin in the Fields. There is also Peter Oundjian, longtime first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet in their heyday, before finger problems forced him to abandon the instrument. A student of Itzhak Perlman, Oundjian is Armenian and Scottish, not Jewish. Yet his ties to Yiddishkeit include a droll wit and, like the virtuosi mentioned above, Oundjian is an acutely attentive accompanist with a thought-through grasp of melody that serves him well in symphonic performances. The NYPO would have to pry Oundjian away from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Yet the NYPO, as the New York Yankees of the American orchestral world, could surely do so if they wanted to.
Any compilation of pipe dreams requires optimism and it serves little purpose to fret over the well-documented faults of the carrots more likely to be hired by the NYPO than the aforementioned bears. One bright side of supposedly being a conductor’s graveyard is that any chosen maestro may require a Kaddish not long after a mazel tov.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.