Mulling Salonen’s Resignation — Take Two

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In response to the resignation of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the San Franciso Symphony has now issued a statement denying disagreement over artistic goals – Salonen’s cited reason for quitting. Rather, according to the board, cutbacks in Salonen’s distinctive programing initiatives were mandated “solely by a lack of immediate financial resources.”

Mulling Salonen’s resignation in this space a day ago, I stressed that I know next to nothing about what actually happened in San Francisco. But I know enough to offer some context – which I did, reflecting on the rarity of full-service music directors like Salonen. Conductors possessing institutional vision are bound to incur “extra” costs and, in the short run, seem riskier in every way. 

I cannot help recalling my experiences a couple of decades ago working for Harvey Lichtenstein, who made the Brooklyn Academy of Music the pre-eminent performing arts venue in the Western hemisphere. He was a man who, so far as I could tell, not once discovered that he lacked “financial resources.” Rather, Harvey would excitedly decide what he wanted to do and instruct his legendary development director, Karen Hopkins, to find money for it.

Harvey’s signature initiative, the Next Wave Festival, became a prototype for arts programming across the nation. But there was only one BAM. Certain lessons can be learned from that – not merely about the purposes of art, but about the means of production. 

The first, and most obvious, is the importance of individual vision and initiative. That Lichtensein was known to all as “Harvey” was less a sign of affection than of familiarity – with Harvey’s easy charm, his volcanic temper, and above all, his unrelenting intensity. It was Harvey who had beginning in 1967 single-handedly transformed a moribund facility in an obscure neighborhood. His formula was to draw audiences from Manhattan by offering what Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center did not. His first BAM season included the long delayed New York premiere of Alban Berg’s Lulu, conducted and directed by Sarah Caldwell; the first New York season ever afforded Merce Cunningham, the maverick choreographer long associated with John Cage; the return from European exile of the Living Theatre of Julian Beck and Judith Malina; and Robert Wilson’s state-of-the-art epic The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud. Lichtenstein, in short, was America’s last great performing arts impresario. (Unless it was Joe Papp.) 

Here is a Harvey Lichtenstein story: we went to St. Petersburg for Valery Gergiev’s 1994 Rimsky-Korsakov festival at the Mariinsky Theater. This was years before Gergiev was a household name in classical music. Our first night was an opera wholly new to both of us: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. After the first scene, Harvey slapped my knee and announced, “I’m bringing this to BAM.” And he did – conductor, orchestra, soloists, chorus, sets and costumes for four performances in 1995. This was New York’s introduction to the Mariinsky company, and to an opera sometimes called “the Russian Parsifal.” The New York Times panned it and the run sold poorly. Harvey had a guarantor to make up the deficit. 

In the years I worked at BAM, Harvey also fell in love with France’s Zingaro Equestrian Theater, which required bringing a company of twenty-six horses across the Atlantic and constructing a circus tent in lower Manhattan. He was enamored of Arianna Mnuchkin’s Les Atrides, a series of Greek dramas so elaborately re-imagined that he had to refit a Brooklyn armory to house it. A favorite book of Harvey’s was Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, whose protagonist is plagued by an interior voice repeating the words “I want!”

My job was running the Brooklyn Philharmonic – then the “resident orchestra” of BAM. Prior to my arrival, the BPO had lost over two-thirds of its subscribers over the course of two seasons. As there was nothing more left to lose, Harvey gave me a free hand. My most expensive undertaking was a “Russian Stravinsky” festival including two symphonic concerts (different programs a day apart) and a six-hour Sunday “Interplay.” I brought the Pokrovsky Folk Ensemble from Moscow to perform source rituals for The Rite of Spring and Les noces. I assembled a coterie of feuding scholars including the late Richard Taruskin, whose insistence that Stravinsky was “the most Russian” of all composers, and also “an inveterate liar” who falsified his artistic past, anchored these and other events thematically. We also produced a 60-page illustrated program book (which won an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award). I did not think to inquire where I would find the money – but I did.

During my tenure the BPO audience more than tripled and funding-raising increased exponentially (in those days, major American philanthropies supported bona fide classical music initiatives — that’s over now, a crucial story in itself). With the exception of Gidon Kremer, I engaged no celebrity soloists. I hugely benefited from access to BAM’s audience and reputation. But good things happened in great part because the BPO was self-evidently mission-driven. It was different from other orchestras. 

And that’s the first thing I noticed about the San Francisco Symphony when a few months ago my daughter moved to the Bay Area and I had a look at the subscription season online. You could delete every performer’s name – every conductor, every soloist — in that 2023-2024 brochure and the San Francisco Symphony would still retain its own brave identity. Try doing that with another big American orchestra and see what you come up with.    

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