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Posted at 12:16 PM ET, 04/07/2011

Aspen and the American conductor

In the last few weeks, there have been a couple of pieces of news in the orchestra world that I’ve been mulling over in a general sort of way. Among these was the announcement of Robert Spano as the music director-designate of the Aspen Music Festival and School, a post he will take over in 2012. This is another step toward healing the institutional turbulence that has plagued Aspen for the last few seasons, which culminated, after the firing and rehiring of the festival-school’s president, Alan Fletcher, with the abrupt departure of the school’s last music director, David Zinman, a year ago.

What I’ve been thinking about, though, is less the school’s future or Spano’s accession than the careers of these two American conductors. First question: Why is Zinman, despite a long track record of strong performances, a successful tenure at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a history of involvement with new music, and one of the most-listened-to Beethoven cycles of all time, still consistently underappreciated in his home country? He continues at the Tonhalle in Zurich, where he’s been music director since 1995; he conducts the leading orchestras of the world (he’s coming to Philadelphia next week to conduct Berg and the Mahler 4th, a program that parallels this week’s NSO program of Webern, Golijov, and the Mahler 4th). Yet he doesn’t excite the same level of adulation as some other big names in the business. Even at a time when American conductors are valued; I’d say that Tilson Thomas, Alsop, and even Slatkin have higher name recognition and have made bigger splashes than Zinman, though Zinman can conduct circles around all of them (yes, even MTT, for all of his other gifts).

Second question: why does Spano’s career appear to have plateaued? Yes, Aspen is a big and visible post, but seeing Spano’s name emblazoned in Aspen’s post-announcement all over the websites of Musical America and ArtsJournal, sites I read every day, only made me think of how relatively little I’ve heard about Spano lately.

Admittedly, music critics are limited by geography; I haven’t heard Spano conduct in person for a long time. I reviewed him years ago at the Brooklyn Philharmonic, a struggling ensemble that focuses on a perhaps exaggerated reputation as a breeding ground for funky hip conductors and concerts, but I haven’t heard him often, except on recording, during his subsequent ten seasons at the Atlanta Symphony. There, he’s been playing a lot of new music (like Zinman, he puts his money where his mouth is about the importance of contemporary work), dealing with the orchestra’s financial woes, and, I gather from my colleagues, generally keeping up standards. He also records, and guest conducts with some of the big orchestras, usually in programs involving the contemporary repertory he’s known for (he performed “She Was Here,” the Golijov song cycle the NSO will play tonight, with the Chicago Symphony last year). In 2008, he was named Musical America’s “Conductor of the Year.”

But it’s my impression that, busy as he is, he isn’t moving upward. I don’t see him following up on some of those appearances with, say, the New York Philharmonic; I didn’t hear a lot of excitement about his “Ring” cycles in Seattle. More to the point, I wasn’t aware of his name being bandied about in any recent orchestra music director searches, though certainly I’m not privy to all of those discussions. Aspen is a nice post, but I’m not sure it’s equivalent to a major orchestra in the career cycle.

The larger question is what exactly are the factors that influence buzz, reputation, excitement, career? Do American conductors have to work harder to carve out a niche? (Hats off to MTT in this regard; he’s overcome the objections of a lot of detractors, including me, with what appears to me to be his tenacity and consistency in San Francisco and his impressive work with the New World Symphony.) Are Spano and Zinman both underappreciated? Can their careers even be compared? Or, not to put too fine a point on it, why is it that one of our country’s best conductors no longer even has an American post, while another conductor of more moderate talents has two?

There are concrete answers to most of these questions, known to orchestra managers all over this country. They’re not going to tell me, though, so I’m opening it to discussion, instead. What are your thoughts on American conductors’ careers in general, and Zinman and Spano in particular?

By  |  12:16 PM ET, 04/07/2011

 
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