Rhinegold One offs: There’s only one Simon Rattle. And there’s only one Vasily Petrenko

Andrew Mellor

Introducing your next principal conductor: nobody

9:00, 7th August 2017

Just as the LSO prepares to enter the ‘Rattle Era’, some of the other big conductor-orchestra relationships in the UK are beginning to creak under the weight of overfamiliarity. If we imagine 13 years as the average tenure of a chief conductor or equivalently titled incumbent, there might be vacancies at a whole bunch of ensembles in the next few years and one or two cases of orchestras looking to ‘replace the irreplaceable.’

For 90% of the time, you replace the irreplaceable not by signing-up a carbon copy of your departing maestro but by looking to make a change – opting for something different. Where does that leave those orchestras in Liverpool, London and Bournemouth who snapped-up ‘exciting young’ (the invariably deployed adjectives) Slavic musicians in the 2000s? Should they be placing ads with the caveat ‘only sensible over-fifties from Japan or America need apply’?

Probably not. But now we’re well into the 21st century, orchestra bosses will have a few more criteria on their wish list than great chemistry with the orchestra’s players and a vision for their musical development. They’ll be after a woman or man who understands the importance of communication on stage and on the internet, who has enough interest in wider cultural activities to instigate and develop partnerships with performing institutions of differing disciplines, and who knows that the role of an orchestra in today’s society involves rather more than dusting down the Brahms symphonies.

In Rattle, the LSO has bagged someone who lives and breathes all of those qualities and who happens to be a PR gift (even when angry) and one of the most inspiring conductors in the world to boot. Win-win. But there’s only one Simon Rattle. There’s only one Vasily Petrenko, too. If a city like Liverpool can get so collectively excited about his work on their band, can any amount of PR or genuine goodwill re-create the same magic when somebody else arrives?

One way to avoid finding out is to go full ‘Vienna Phil’. Organise a press conference, sow some misleading rumours and then proudly unveil your new chief conductor in a blaze of glory: nobody. If it’s good enough for the world’s most famous orchestra to hire a freelancer every week, then surely it’s good enough for the civic orchestras of Britain.

Just think of the advantages! No paying of higher concert fees to a conductor simply because they have their name on the letterhead. No colossal egos knocking around the place blaming the marketing department when concerts bomb and taking all the credit when they sell out. Nobody insisting on programming a festival of music by that little known contemporary of Tchaikovsky who is ripe for rediscovery, if only people gave him the time…

And now for the serious arguments. The Vienna Philharmonic might have retained its distinctive sound because there hasn’t been a succession of titled conductors arriving with a self-proclaimed mission to change it. In an age of increasing sonic globalisation, wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear an orchestra develop its own sound once more, with no single, dominant podium figure to mould it in his or her image before packing his bags for somewhere else?

Speaking of image, orchestras, by definition, are collectives. Ensembles that equate the profile of the chief conductor with that of the entire outfit are running huge long-term risks and diverting attention from the miracle of ensemble performance. New (for which read, potential) audiences just don’t get it, reporting in market research that orchestral publicity material often implies there’ll be one man with a stick on the stage. ‘We don’t need a chief conductor to be the face of the orchestra’, one progressive ensemble’s CEO told me recently, ‘because our musicians are the face of the orchestra.’

In fact, in most cases even existing audience members don’t much care who’s on the letterhead. They come for the music – in other words, the composers – occasionally for added extras, sometimes for known soloists and now and then for a favoured conductor (their choice). As for the hard-core loyalists, it’s mostly the musicians on stage they relish seeing every week. And a few years of total empowerment wouldn’t do them any harm.

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