These days, it seems there is more fuss made about the conductors who don’t conduct than about the ones who do. This observation is triggered by the Metropolitan Opera’s announcement yesterday that James Levine, who recently bowed out of his remaining commitments this season with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is now cutting back at the Met, as well: he’ll take a pass on both “Das Rheingold” and “Il Trovatore,” though he plans to conduct, as scheduled, “Wozzeck,” the Met Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall, and the new production of “Die Walkuere,” as well as attending [corrected] his 40th anniversary gala in May. (It’s a shame that the Met’s website, high-tech, packed with content and frequently updated, doesn’t include information on cast changes and cancellations; for that, you have to turn to other outlets.)
Meanwhile, last week Riccardo Muti, whose maiden year at the head of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been overshadowed by freak accidents of ill health that have kept him from conducting almost all of his scheduled concerts, was announced as the latest winner of the Birgit Nilsson prize, the largest in classical music, worth $1,000,000. The Nilsson prize, which was first awarded in 2009, in accordance with Madame Nilsson’s wishes but four years after her death, was conceived to be awarded every two to three years to a leading singer, conductor, or significant opera production (though only singers and conductors are currently mentioned on the prize’s website). The problem with a prize that big is that no jury wants to gamble with that kind of money, and therefore instead of going to help a young rising artist, it appears to be destined for lions of the field who already have millions of their own (the first winner was Placido Domingo).
Absence is not hurting either conductor’s musical reputation. Indeed, the mystique surrounding conductors is so strong that it remains tantamount to heresy to suggest that Levine’s conducting, in particular, is ever anything less than breathtaking. The fact is, he hasn’t sounded quite as fabulous in recent outings as he did in his prime (check out some of the recordings in the lavish 40th anniversary boxed sets the Met released to commemorate this season), and there was one scary period back in 2004 when he turned in some performances that were downright bad.
But the conductor retains an ineffable sense of authority, of connection to something greater than mere mortals, in part because what he or she does is so difficult to define, yet so evident in its results. You know it best when it’s not there. Another piece of news last week was that the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which has made playing without a conductor its stock in trade, was named to an artist-in-residence position at the University of Maryland for the 2011-12 season. It’s an extension of Orpheus’s educational mandate; the orchestra has long been conducting training sessions for both musicians and executives in collaborative work, but not yet at universities and not yet outside New York.
There’s no question that the skills are invaluable, and Orpheus is providing a new and improved model of institutional thinking. Give me a choice between a hoary authority figure, standing up before an orchestra and beating time, and a group of engaged musicians working to take the responsibility of making music together, and I’ll pick the latter, on paper, every time. In practice, though, there’s a problem: I always leave Orpheus’s concerts thinking that they’d be even better if only they played with a conductor.