Correction to This Article
An article in the June 4 Arts section mischaracterized the duties of Leonard Slatkin as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra beyond the 12 weeks he spends conducting concert series at the Kennedy Center. Slatkin spends at least four additional weeks on other tasks, including concert tours, a national conducting institute and a series of classical concerts that is often built around a single composer. In addition, the article understated the number of pieces by American composers that the NSO performed during the 2005-06 season at the Kennedy Center. There were at least seven.
Essay

In Seeking Slatkin's Successor, Why Settle for Just One?

(By Steve J. Sherman)

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By Mark Mobley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 4, 2006

The National Symphony wants a music director to replace Leonard Slatkin.

My advice: Stop looking. The NSO needs a radical new strategy. It's time to diversify the product by hiring a series of guest conductors. Put more emerging musicians, especially more Americans, on the podium, and let the players and staff set a course to lure patrons and improve the concerts.

The National Symphony has a prestigious address -- the Kennedy Center -- that also presents a significant disadvantage: Few orchestras have to compete in their own homes with the best ensembles in the world. But the Washington Performing Arts Society regularly books touring orchestras from all over the globe in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Under the current setup, the NSO's classical season runs 21 weeks; Slatkin conducts 12 of those weeks as part of a 16-week commitment to the orchestra. The remaining time is spent on things like pops concerts, meetings, auditions and special performances. Replacing that 16-week contract with a changing cast of characters would give the NSO more personalities to promote.

In a season reliant on guest conductors, stability and continuity could be maintained by a music adviser -- an eminent conductor or soloist who leads the orchestra only a few weeks per season but visits regularly. He or she would help shape the orchestra's programming and participate in the audition process.

In the traditional, monarchic model of American symphony orchestra management, a music director sets the general course, and an artistic administrator fills in the blanks by hiring many of the guest conductors and soloists. This system is broken.

Many orchestras are reinventing their organizational charts. The Pittsburgh Symphony hired not one, not two, but three conductors last year to form an "artistic leadership team" for the next three seasons. Atlanta Symphony Music Director Robert Spano shares the classical concerts and recording opportunities with principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles. And the Chicago Symphony has elected not to appoint a music director in the near future, building its next seasons around Principal Conductor Bernard Haitink and Conductor Emeritus Pierre Boulez. The NSO could take this further in the direction of the Vienna Philharmonic, which has no chief conductor at all.

In the old days -- as recently as 10 or 15 years ago -- orchestras in cities large and small worked on the same plan. A volunteer board of rich socialites and businesspeople hired, with minimal input from players, a conductor who'd lead a significant portion of the season's concerts.

He (it was almost always a man, and usually someone with a foreign accent) might or might not have established a home in the community. But there was no doubt he was the town's maestro, someone whose artistic brilliance made Tampa, Norfolk or Cheyenne seem a more cultured place.

Nowadays most conductors travel too much to build a strong relationship with either an orchestra or its community. They tend to conduct no more than half of an orchestra's classical series concerts, leaving the rest of the season and the majority of educational, pops and other performances to guests and assistants.

Without looking at any major American orchestra's Web site, I can still tell you with better than 50 percent accuracy what the ensemble has done over the past couple of seasons. Seven out of 10 soloists were pianists or violinists. Every three years one of those was named Perlman, Zukerman, Shaham or Bell. The chorus sang "Messiah" and the "Carmina Burana," each with a soprano or baritone who had appeared in a small role at the Met and who was also managed by the maestro's manager. There was a Mozart tribute and a premiere of an American piece under 15 minutes long.

In most cities, what you hear has virtually no relationship to the history and traditions of where you live. But the NSO should be and has at times been different. It struck gold in the '80s with Mstislav Rostropovich. He was a superstar cellist whose limitations as a conductor were outweighed by his consummate musicianship, blistering performances of Russian repertoire, oversize heart and unmatched connections. It was also thrilling to have a Russian Americanophile at the head of Washington's orchestra at the end of the Cold War.


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