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Klaus Makela Conducts the Philharmonic — Take Two


I am of course grateful for the torrent of comments I have received in response to my previous blog about Klaus Makela conducting Tchaikovsky with the New York Philharmonic. Some of you, however, have misconstrued my meaning. I am certainly not suggesting that Klaus Makela would be an ideal music director for the New York Philharmonic (or for that matter for the Cleveland Orchestra, where rumors are swirling).

I wrote: “The Philharmonic’s challenge is to find a leader with chops, institutional vision, and (I would insist) a passion for exploring American music.” So let’s unpack those criteria, one at a time.

1.CHOPS

My impression is that Klaus Makela is a young man born to conduct orchestras. At the age of 26, he is capable of bringing fresh energy to a well-worn symphony. If he were fifty years older than that, he would probably be capable of extracting a more tragic reading of the Pathetique Symphony. For me, the supreme recording of this work was made by Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1951, courtesy of Radio Cairo. It’s a famous performance that you can access right here. It has little in common with Makela’s thrilling rendition the other day in New York. For instance, the first movement’s “love theme” is transformed into an expression of world-weariness. The entire work becomes an exercise in tormented retrospection. As my wife Agnes remarked, hearing this performance for the first time: it’s about World War II and the aftermath of Hitler. Furtwangler uses Tchaikovsky to channel his own dire experience. You will find a related blog here.

2.INSTITUTIONAL VISION

I have no idea what institutional vision Klaus Makela may exert in his current position as music director of the Orchestre de Paris. He is also chief conductor and artistic advisor of the Oslo Philharmonic. It is apparent that he takes a lively interest in contemporary European music – an excellent sign.

3.A PASSION FOR EXPLORING AMERICAN MUSIC

Let’s just say: very unlikely. On Makela’s Philharmonic program, the opening work was Peru Negro (2012) by the Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez Bellido. The conductor’s bio in the Philharmonic program lists Lopez Bellido as a composer Makela will also perform with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. I enjoyed the energy and Latin tang of Peru Negro – but (as I wrote before) it’s the wrong preface for Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony. As far as Central/South American symphonic music goes, the composer to perform is Silvestre Revueltas, a full-fledged genius with a unique sonic signature. Revueltas isn’t “contemporary”; he died in 1940. And so what? He might as well be a living composer, because our conductors and orchestras have for the most part ignored him. He’s also pertinent today as a surpassing political composer. (You can read more about him in Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music, my plea to curate the American musical past.)

OK so what are the chances of the New York Philharmonic finding a conductor who meets all three criteria? Such conductors have of course existed. Leonard Bernstein was one. Serge Koussevitzky, during his Boston Symphony tenure (1924-1949) was another. And I would call Leopold Stokowski in Philadelphia (1912-1936) a third even though his passion was for exploring all kinds of new and unfamiliar music, some of which happened to be American.

If the Philharmonic cannot locate another Bernstein, Koussevitzky, or Stokowski, the obvious move becomes: don’t appoint a music director. Do what the Berlin Philharmonic does (and also, I have noticed, the London Philharmonic ): appoint a principal conductor. The institutional vision can be supplied by someone else – maybe an executive director (like Ernest Fleischman during his long tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic); maybe an artistic administrator. And the expert in American repertoire might be an associate conductor or (something major orchestras need no less than museums that already have them) a scholar on staff.

A reconfiguration of this kind is hardly a new topic. In 2001 the Boston Symphony convened a “summit conference “(I was there) when it hired James Levine to be its music director on top of his consuming responsibilities at the Metropolitan Opera. The premise of that exercise was that most “music directors” were not music directors. As often as not, they have multiple jobs and mainly reside elsewhere. The same observation was mulled at the Brevard Project last summer. (As I have often remarked in this space, an exception that proves the rule is Delta David Gier, music director of the remarkable South Dakota Symphony.)

In April, my first novel will be published: The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York. It explores Gustav Mahler’s fate as conductor of the New York Philharmonic (1909-1911). Henry Krehbiel, in the New York Tribune, notoriously declared Mahler’s music directorship a “failure.” In an Afterword to my book, I comment: “Mahler was a great personality and, when circumstances permitted, a great man. He arrived in America weakened and fatigued. His energy and idealism were aroused by the New World, but fitfully . . . he remained a chronic outsider. Gustav Mahler was not really cut out to be music director of an American orchestra, sensitive to the needs of a cultural community, its scribes, audiences, and benefactors. He had bigger things to do.”

Biographers of Mahler demonize Henry Krehbiel. But Krehbiel was right. He was looking for cultural leadership of the kind personified in Boston by Henry Higginson, in New York by Anton Seidl, and in Chicago by Theodore Thomas. Higginson’s Boston Symphony, under Arthur Nikisch or Karl Muck, was equipped with a major conductor fortified by Higginson’s institutional vision and a general eagerness to explore and pursue American repertoire. Seidl, with the New York Philharmonic (1891-1898), and Thomas, with the Chicago Orchestra (1891-1905), were three-criteria leaders.  

Post-Mahler, the New York Philharmonic named Josef Stransky its new conductor: an uninformed choice. After that, Arthur Judson and Clarence Mackay decided that the Philharmonic did not need a music director. So there was no Koussevitzky or Stokowski in New York. It’s a long story, told in full in my Classical Music in America. And it’s more pertinent than ever.

As for Klaus Makela – it is truly wonderful to discover a young conductor so abundantly endowed and justly recognized. 

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