What’s an Orchestra For? — Mulling Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Resignation from the San Francisco Symphony

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The resignation of Esa-Pekka Salonen as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony is dominating classical-music news because Salonen made no secret why he quit: a falling out with the board over his elaborate artistic plans and their cost. I have no first-hand knowledge of any of this. What I do know is that Salonen is not merely a conductor; rather, he is – a rare species today – a full-service music director with a vision and the means to realize it. 

That’s what he showed in Los Angeles, where he shaped the Philharmonic as a cultural institution distinctive to southern California and in synch with contemporary cultural mores. He looked for Americans he could champion and came up with two first-rate West Coast composers – John Adams and Bernard Herrmann – and a magnificent Mexican: Silvestre Revueltas. He inquired into the LA sojourns of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Theodore Thomas, the founding father of the American orchestra a century and a half ago, said “a symphony orchestra shows the culture of the community.” That’s what Salonen was about.

Music directors who are more than conductors are ever in short supply, and never more than today when a hyperactive international career seems to certify a conductor’s importance. In this space, I have often extolled Delta David Gier, whose Lakota Music Project makes his South Dakota Symphony matter to South Dakota. Gier moved to Sioux Falls and raised a family there.

Salonen’s departure from San Francisco – assuming that loud protests from his own musicians, among many others, have no effect – resonates with a 1950 Boston Symphony debacle, and also controversial board decisions in New York and Baltimore: stories that may be currently instructive.

If ever there was an exemplary music director of an American orchestra it was Serge Koussevitzky, who not only made the Boston Symphony his own but defined its mission for Boston and America. His long tenure (1924-49) coincided with a surging modernist moment – led by Aaron Copland – supporting a fresh identity for American concert music. Koussevitzky not only declared that “the next Beethoven vill from Colorado come” – he in effect created the Tanglewood Festival as an American music laboratory. You may well think: What a legacy! But Tanglewood today is nothing like the Tanglewood Koussevitzky envisioned and realized. That Tanglewood ended the day the BSO board named Charles Munch his successor. Koussevitzky had urged the board to appoint his protégé Leonard Bernstein. Leaving aside the question of whether Bernstein at 31 was ready for such an assignment, he was in all other respects the ideal choice: securing an American classical music was his raison d’etre. He was even a Harvard graduate, a Massachusetts native.

The late Robert Freeman, whom I was privileged to know, was the son of the BSO’s longtime principal double bass. Henry Freeman served under Koussevitzky, then Munch, then Erich Leinsdorf. With each appointment, he told his son, the orchestra declined. Freeman was probably mainly reflecting on the standard of performance. (In a recent blog about the BSO, I had occasion to embed Koussevitzky’s peerless world premiere broadcast of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.) Commensurately, the Boston Symphony lost its way. In truth, it has never recovered from the board’s 1950 decision.

And so Bernstein instead wound up in as music director of an orchestra for which he was less suited. The New York Philharmonic had never been mission-driven. Rather, it was misruled for  more than three decades by a powerbroker – Arthur Judson — who frankly believed that “the audience sets taste.” Here was a case where a symphonic board itself stepped up in quest of an institutional mission. It fired Judson and, in the same salvo, ousted its music director: Dimitri Mitropoulos, who happened to be a conductor of genius. And Mitropoulos had earlier pursued a brave vision in Minneapolis – a prerogative denied him in New York by Judson’s stranglehold on artistic policy. In any event, when Bernstein took over and declared that he wished to begin with a historic survey of American music, the Philharmonic board passionately approved. 

An initiative like that would have resonated in Boston. In New York, it was too late in the day and Bernstein left after a mere ten seasons.  His preferred successor, one understands, was another conductor/composer/pianist: Lukas Foss. Foss was an astounding musician (I worked with him at the Brooklyn Philharmonic). It is little recognized that, however incidentally, he was one of the supreme American pianists of his generation. On the podium, his unconventional methods inspired many instrumentalists and alienated others. In any event, the Philharmonic opted instead for Pierre Boulez, who had nothing in common with Leonard Bernstein or Bernstein’s American vision. After that came Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel, Alan Gilbert, Jaap van Zweden, and now Gustavo Dudamel – an eclectic list resistant to lineage or tradition.

But the most startling conductor appointment in recent American decades came in Baltimore in 1998. David Zinman, a bona fide music director, had turned the orchestra into an important  platform for American music. He also had a radically fresh take on Beethoven. And he was a gifted advocate whose singular Casual Concerts” revealed a zany comedic gift. Zinman was succeded by a major Russian conductor: Yuri Temirkanov. That was a startling coup. At least as startling, it was a rebuff to David Zinman and everything he had achieved. Zinman renounced his “Conductor Laureate” status in 2001.

Beset by conductors, lacking music directors, our major American orchestras today struggle to define what they’re for and how they connect to the changing cities they serve. Perhaps the most distinguished exception, proving the rule, was the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Mark Swed, the Los Angeles Times’ longtime chief music critic, chimes in valuably here.

I deal in detail with Koussevitzky, Mitropouos, Judson, and Bernstein in Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall (2005).

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