NSO Isn't Skipping a Beat

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tonight the National Symphony Orchestra opens its 78th season -- and its first without a music director. Leonard Slatkin has left after 12 years on the podium; Iván Fischer starts a two-year, interim tenure as principal conductor Oct. 16, but the orchestra is temporarily without an actual leader.

It's certainly not directionless, though. Decisions about programming are made several years in advance. The current NSO season was planned two years ago; the 2009-10 season, though it won't be announced to the public for months, is basically set. The orchestra's artistic staff is already starting on plans for 2010-11.

So if it is possible to plan out seasons without a music director, why does an orchestra need one at all?

The music director is the person who conducts the orchestra, but in major orchestras today, he or she is typically present for no more than half of the subscription concerts in a season. The music director gives an orchestra its artistic stamp, but many of them have commitments to more than one organization (James Levine at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera; Kent Nagano at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian State Opera).

And when it comes to planning a season, there are as many different styles as there are orchestras. A music director typically figures out what he or she wants to conduct first. But "there are some directors who say, 'This is exactly what I'm doing, the rest is up to you,' " says Nigel Boon, the NSO's director of artistic planning. "There are other directors who say, 'This is what I'm doing, and this is what I want the others to do' " -- that is, the other guest conductors. "And there will certainly be music directors who will come in and say, 'Well, what do you think we should do?' "

Boon's job is to do the heavy lifting for planning the NSO seasons. He, like other artistic advisers, travels constantly to hear soloists, conductors and repertory, scouting the field for artists the NSO might want to invite. Negotiating those invitations is a lot more complicated than simply calling up and asking if Artist X can play a Tchaikovsky concerto on a certain date. Most soloists select a repertory of a few concertos that they offer in a given season; those wishes have to be synchronized with the orchestra's own plans for the season.

"We have Gil Shaham doing Stravinsky this season," says Boon, who has known the violinist for 20 years. "And in fact he hadn't planned to have that on his repertoire for this season, but I did ask."

NSO Executive Director Rita Shapiro, who is also part of the programming process, outlines a similar back and forth with guest conductors. "Certain people will come, like Lorin Maazel, and say, 'Here's my program,' and you say, 'Thank you, maestro, that's fantastic.' " But with others, there's "an endless e-mail trail back and forth: 'Well, how about this?' 'Well, no, we just did this last season.' "

Few music directors want much to do with this kind of logistical tangle. The music director's role is generally to guide the overall programming direction (Slatkin, for instance, wanted the orchestra to represent the nation with music by living American composers) and to advise about specific decisions -- something that Fischer has certainly been doing for Boon and Shapiro. But a permanent music director generally takes the lion's share of the actual conducting duties: While Slatkin conducted 11 or 12 subscription programs in a season, Fischer is doing five. This gives Boon considerably more freedom in the selection of guest conductors and repertory.

An interim period, such as Fischer's, is also a chance to explore new works. After Slatkin's focus on contemporary American music, the orchestra is doing more core repertory on the one hand (such as Mozart and Stravinsky), and has expanded its new-music offerings to include some European strands, as in its Contemporary Music Week in May, on the other. Not that Slatkin necessarily vetoed European music; it's just that "that plate was filled already," Shapiro says, with his own preferred American offerings.

A lot of things are put on hold in the absence of a music director. Hirings, for example: The NSO, an ensemble of 100 musicians, has eight vacancies, which will not be filled until the next music director is appointed. Also on hold are commissions for new musical works, because the music director is supposed to be the arbiter of an orchestra's taste.

And a common fear among orchestras without firm leadership -- like the Detroit Symphony, which was without a music director for three seasons before Slatkin took over there in August -- is that the quality of the playing will deteriorate. "People need a boss," NSO's Shapiro says.

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