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For Ailing Orchestras, the New Maestro Cure

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009

New season. New beginnings. New music directors.

No, not at the National Symphony Orchestra, which Saturday night opened its second interim season under its principal conductor, Iv?n Fischer, while waiting for Christoph Eschenbach to take charge in the fall of 2010. But the New York Philharmonic welcomed Alan Gilbert on Sept. 16, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic is gearing up for the arrival of the 28-year-old wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel. The demand for free tickets to a "Welcome, Gustavo" concert on Oct. 3 produced lines around the block.

That's what orchestras would like to see. American orchestras need help. The recession has cut into endowments; all over the country, orchestra musicians have voluntarily accepted pay freezes and cuts as their employers struggle to stay above water. And audiences, whether or not they are aging, shrinking and/or dying off, certainly appear to be declining. So orchestras hope that a new music director will bring in new life, new energy and -- more to the point -- new attendance.

What does "success" actually mean for a music director and an orchestra? Does it lie in artistic excellence? The musicians' excitement about their leader? Better ticket sales? A strong community presence? These things do not necessarily go hand in hand. And a new music director does not necessarily create them.

The traditional best-case scenario for an orchestra involves luring a big name as music director. It's this model that the National Symphony Orchestra has followed in securing the leadership of Eschenbach, nearly 70, widely acclaimed, a regular guest on the world's podiums. But these days it's not clear that big names necessarily translate into big buzz, or big ticket sales.

Lorin Maazel at the New York Philharmonic hardly set the world on fire, though he delivered accurate, high-quality performances. Yuri Temirkanov, one of the greatest living conductors, had a fine artistic partnership with the Baltimore Symphony from 2000 to 2006; yet by 2007, when Marin Alsop took over, average attendance had dropped to below 60 percent of capacity. (Under Alsop, it immediately went up to 72 percent -- in part because of a grant that enabled the orchestra to sell all its subscription seats for $25.)

The National Symphony Orchestra is in a funny position with regard to new winds. Fischer, its interim leader, is a perfect example of a mid-career European conductor capable of inspiring great excitement, but while he has done community-focused events (such as family concerts), provided thoughtful programming and conducted well, his contract limits him to a mere five or six weeks a season, rather than the nine or 10 of a full-time music director -- not enough time truly to build excitement or an audience. The NSO said it could not provide exact figures for ticket sales during Fischer's tenure, although Rita Shapiro, the orchestra's executive director, indicated that they were steady: "We're holding our own," she said.

The question is whether Eschenbach, who has had varying degrees of success with different orchestras over the years, can bring even more excitement to the Kennedy Center. He is certainly hoping to. In town for a few days in August, he oversaw auditions for two vacant solo positions within the orchestra and spent some bonding time, Shapiro said, just making music with the players -- a rare chance in a climate usually governed by the pressures of an upcoming performance. "Everyone was really buzzed about him," she said.

But even the love of musicians isn't always enough to create the excitement. Witness the case of Wolfgang Sawallisch, another eminent and venerable German who led the Philadelphia Orchestra for a decade. "Musicians adored Sawallisch," said Joe Kluger, a consultant who was president of the Philadelphia Orchestra for 16 years. "But rarely did that come across to the audience, because of his interpretive style."

The two biggest success stories in the orchestra world last year support the idea that a new wind can be powerfully refreshing. They involved two unknown Europeans taking over two American orchestras: Manfred Honeck (Austrian) and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Jaap van Zweden (Dutch) and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Both cities seem to be caught up in honeymoon fever. Van Zweden "has transformed the orchestra in both sound and skill," wrote the Dallas Morning News critic, Scott Cantrell, in July. Honeck "has wasted no time putting his stamp on the tone and timbre of the PSO," wrote Andrew Druckenbrod, the critic of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, in June. The orchestra certainly sounded terrific when he brought it to Washington in May with a rip-roaring reading of the Beethoven Seventh.

Dallas avers that this positive energy is reflected in ticket sales. "We had a record year for ticket revenue last year, in a year that was really tough," said Doug Adams, the orchestra's president. The record, however, was for dollar amount rather than individual ticket sales. And Adams conceded that "We had a tough year fundraising last year," despite contributions that, he said, were "tied to his [van Zweden's] being here."

But artistic energy and freshness alone may not increase ticket sales. Even a conductor as popular and as hyped as Gustavo Dudamel does not seem to have an immediate box office effect. In August, the Los Angeles Times reported that subscription sales for Dudamel's inaugural season had fallen 7 percent from the preceding season under Esa-Pekka Salonen. Does this reflect a wait-and-see attitude among subscribers? The first day of single-ticket sales at the box office, certainly, 50 percent more tickets were sold than the same day the year before. But in an orchestra's financial planning, single tickets represent popcorn as compared with the meat and potatoes of subscription sales -- though this is going to have to change as audiences become ever more reluctant to commit themselves in advance to attending 10 or 12 concerts a year.

Honeck and van Zweden have both furthered their success by getting involved in their communities -- traditionally a sticking point for European conductors who stereotypically see such extra-musical duties as a major disadvantage of a gig with an American orchestra. (In Europe, most big orchestras are funded with government subsidies.) Daniel Barenboim's distaste for this aspect of the job allegedly led to his departure from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2006. This can't have been the whole reason, since his successor, who takes over in the fall of 2010, is Riccardo Muti, who in Philadelphia was willing to do no more than two fundraising events a year.

But increasingly, community involvement is playing a role in a music director's success. For Alsop at the BSO, there is no question that new music programs for inner-city schoolchildren, and even programming that seeks to reflect the orchestra's audience (this season, the BSO is exploring the theme of immigration and musical heritage of different cultures), have contributed to the palpable excitement that led the audience at the Meyerhoff to give her a standing ovation when her contract extension was announced in June.

Alan Gilbert, in New York, seems eager to embrace this part of his role. The day of his first Philharmonic concert was marked by an unusual degree of openness: a live broadcast on Lincoln Center Plaza, the conductor and orchestra musicians making a point of going out and talking to audience members waiting in line for tickets. Gilbert is also full of interesting programming ideas, something he signaled by opening his televised first-night gala with not one but two pieces written within the last 70 years ("new" by classical music standards), Magnus Lindberg's "EXPO" and Olivier Messiaen's lyrical 1937 song cycle "Po?mes Pour Mi" (with Ren?e Fleming). All of this is welcome: The question Gilbert's opening concert left in my mind concerned the level of the musicmaking, though many other critics waxed ecstatic.

Ultimately, the goal for a music director is "someone who can inspire musicians and audiences on a consistent basis," said former Philadelphia Orchestra president Kluger. But that inspiration is as individual and hard to pin down as any other form of human attraction. "I can't tell you," Kluger said, how it happens. "But I know it if I see it."

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