NSO Picks Fischer as Interim Maestro

Ivan Fischer, here with the NSO, will conduct as the hunt for a music director goes on.
Ivan Fischer, here with the NSO, will conduct as the hunt for a music director goes on. (By Carol Pratt)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007

Ivan Fischer will become the principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of the 2008-2009 season, the NSO announced yesterday.

It is an interim appointment, slated to last two years while the search continues for a full-time music director to replace Leonard Slatkin, who will step down at the end of the 2007-2008 season. Fischer will not serve as music director.

A principal conductor generally has authority only over the concerts that he or she conducts, while a music director sets the creative philosophy for the ensemble, oversees artistic operations and has the right to initiate the re-seating, or even the replacement, of musicians, subject to conditions in the labor contract.

Fischer, 56, who made his debut with the NSO in 1997, is currently the orchestra's principal guest conductor. In the 2008-2009 season, he will spend eight weeks in Washington, including five weeks on the orchestra's formal subscription series. The following year, he will spend seven weeks with the NSO, six of which will take place during the subscription season.

Slatkin spent up to 21 weeks here in his early years as music director; the number eventually went down to 16, which was the contractual minimum. This will be only the second time in its 76-year history that the NSO has not had a music director waiting in the wings to step in at the close of another director's tenure.

According to a participant who spoke only under the condition that his name not be used, the NSO had "serious and substantial" talks with Fischer about the position of music director. In the end, he said, negotiations broke down over Fischer's determination to continue his work as the founder and director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Hungary, where he lives with his wife and two small children.

"The music directorship may have crossed some people's minds," Fischer acknowledged yesterday from Budapest. "But in the end, this was the best arrangement for everybody involved. I am very busy and committed to my orchestra here. But I love to work with the NSO. I really appreciate its collection ambition and search for good quality. It is very close to my heart, this orchestra."

Fischer is a specialist in Central European music, including the works of Bela Bartok and Antonin Dvorak. Yet he has led Mozart opera at the Glyndebourne Festival in England, conducted an all-Mendelssohn program on his last trip to Washington and has made widely admired recordings of Mahler and Tchaikovsky.

Rita Shapiro, executive director of the NSO, said that she admired the "intensity of [Fischer's] musicmaking, the depth of his preparation, his attention to detail and the color and nuance he draws from the orchestra. He's funny, too, as he proved in a children's concert he led for us."

Shapiro declined comment on any aspect of the music director search yesterday but said that she would plan the seasons and steer the orchestra's direction for the next two years, in tandem with the NSO's recently appointed director of artistic planning, Nigel Boon, and with advice from Fischer. Shapiro has an extensive background in orchestra operations and touring. She served as operations manager of the Cleveland Orchestra for 12 years.

Fischer had been the clear favorite to succeed Slatkin for some months.

"What I really think has happened here is that the NSO put all of its eggs in one basket and just assumed Fischer would take the job," a member of the orchestra who spoke only under the condition of anonymity, said yesterday. "Now, with just about all the good guys already snapped up by other orchestras, the list of possible candidates, other than heavies like Lorin Maazel, is growing thin."

Maazel, 77, has been conducting since the age of 7; he is currently director of the New York Philharmonic.

Indeed, interviews with several NSO players indicated strong admiration for recent guest conductors such as Maazel, Kurt Masur and Christoph von Dohnanyi, all in their late 70s, toward the end of distinguished careers and unlikely to want the challenges of another music directorship. "If we could work with one of these people for a few weeks a year, we'd be in better shape than we would with some younger and less authoritative person who gives us three or four months," one said.

But Michael M. Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center and a key participant in the conductor search, has made it clear on several occasions that he thinks the appointment of a full-time music director is "crucial."

With all the musicians out there, why should it be so difficult to find somebody who wants to make more than $1 million a year for 16 to 20 weeks of work? (Slatkin earned more than $1.1 million.) Henry Fogel, president and chief executive of the American Symphony Orchestra League and former president of the Chicago Symphony and executive director of the NSO, noted "a shortage of perceived star conductors in the 50-to-75-year-old age range. And the NSO will have a lot of competition -- remember that Chicago is looking for a music director, Philadelphia is in the middle of a search and Maazel's contract with the New York Philharmonic is up in 2009."

According to Thomas W. Morris, who has served as executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra and general manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and is now the artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival in California, the notion of having a kind of interregnum between music directors is not unusual. "Chicago has a principal conductor in Bernard Haitink," he said. "Philadelphia is working with Charles Dutoit. In both cases, the long-term search continues." Haitink is 78; Dutoit is 70.

The next music director might come out of left field. Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that it had selected Gustavo Dudamel -- a 26-year-old Venezuelan wunderkind who made his first conducting appearance anywhere only three years ago -- as the replacement for Esa-Pekka Salonen, who leaves at the end of the 2008-2009 season.

"There have been a number of stunning music director appointments that came as a real shock," Morris said. "When Cleveland appointed Dohnanyi in 1982, everybody sort of went 'Who?' He was pretty much unknown over here, but it worked out very well. Even the appointment of Mstislav Rostropovich in Washington all those years ago was a shock; most people thought he was only a cellist. So, remember -- there are a lot more people, a lot more potential candidates, out there than you might think."

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