New York City’s classical music institutions are energetically trying to signal new beginnings. The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic announced their 2018-2019 seasons this week, on Thursday and Tuesday respectively, and both contained bombshells.
The Met’s surprise was that conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was supposed to continue as music director designate for another two seasons in part due to ongoing commitments as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is unexpectedly stepping into the role of music director in September, two years early. It was a necessary move, even an overdue one. Since the disgrace of its music director emeritus James Levine, in the wake of allegations of sexual abuse that surfaced publicly in December — after several decades of loud rumors behind the scenes — the Met has been in dire need of a new artistic face and direction. Some might add that the need has been apparent for at least the past 10 years, while Levine continued to be propped up as a kind of figurehead despite a string of physical ailments that seriously curtailed his abilities to be a meaningful leader, and Peter Gelb, the general manager, was left the default last word on artistic decisions, arguably to the detriment of the company. In any case, Nézet-Séguin, 42, now steps in as leader and will conduct a new production of “La Traviata” (with Diana Damrau), revivals of “Pelléas et Mélisande” and “Dialogues of the Carmelites” and both of the Met Orchestra’s concerts at Carnegie Hall.
Other new productions are “Samson et Dalila,” which opens the season; Nico Muhly’s opera “Marnie,” a world premiere; and “Adriana Lecouvreur,” a production by David McVicar featuring Anna Netrebko and conducted by the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda. The Met is also bringing back Robert LePage’s “Ring” cycle, starring Christine Goerke: an expenditure of resources that is a reason — its news release claims — that it is only doing four new productions this season.
The New York Philharmonic’s surprise was a season that amounted to a shot across the bow of the orchestral world and an attempt to dismantle the carapace that has long encrusted this particular institution and kept it from playing a more vibrant role in the city of New York. Deborah Borda, who took over last year as the orchestra’s president and chief executive, has already demonstrated herself a visionary in the classical music world by turning the Los Angeles Philharmonic into one of the most creatively vibrant and financially solvent of American orchestras. Now, in New York, she is trying to accomplish the same thing. In a live-streamed season announcement with Jaap van Zweden, the orchestra’s new music director, she outlined focuses on New York (with works by significant New York composers, including world premieres by David Lang and Julia Wolfe), social issues (a concert of music by immigrant composers; a series with $5 tickets specifically targeting the city’s service professionals), and even van Zweden’s Dutch heritage with a season-long focus on the great octogenarian composer Louis Andriessen, including a world premiere.
The Met’s season announcement amounts to a much-needed attempt to stanch the bleeding of a house that has taken bad hits to its reputation and ticket sales in recent years. Getting in more fancy conductors (Gustavo Dudamel will make his company debut leading Verdi’s “Otello”) does not fully mask the fact that this season relies heavily on war horses (“Carmen,” “Aida,” “Traviata,” “Tosca,” “Rigoletto,” “Don Giovanni,’ and so on), though Boito’s “Mefistofele” and Puccini’s “Il Trittico” and “Fanciulla del West,” with Jonas Kaufmann, will please aficionados.
The New York Philharmonic’s, by contrast, comes as an indictment to the rest of the orchestra world — for the fact that a season that is lively and refreshing and connected to the world around it seems so radical in a field that specializes in clinging to a status quo, despite evidence it no longer works. Musicians are eager to make music, and audiences want to hear it, but orchestras around the country effectively propagate the myth that this music has to be presented in an old-fashioned format, dominated by a certain kind of work (a largely 19th-century canon), and that audiences have to be made to want it. Since deviations from the canon tend to be regarded as necessary evils that audiences will not like, orchestras only reinforce their audience base as a group of people seeking the status quo (even as the subscription audience is largely being replaced by single-ticket buyers). None of this has much to do with actual art — as dwindling audiences demonstrate. There is plenty for traditionally minded audiences at the New York Philharmonic next season, yet you can hear the new wind whistling through the hallways — music to our ears.
The conventional wisdom is that the Met has been gambling for some years, under Gelb, on new productions that focus on innovation rather than tradition and now needs to go back to the tried and true. That is not really the problem. The problem is that individual “innovative” gambles, absent an overarching vision, do not create trust in or excitement about an institution or serve the art that has to remain its main purpose. Borda’s approach at the New York Philharmonic, by contrast, seems to represent a new idea of what the orchestra could potentially be in this city: a vibrant part of its cultural life, something the New York Philharmonic has not really been for decades. Let’s see if she, and van Zweden, can make it work.