Much fuss has been made of the title given to Sir Simon Rattle on arrival at the London Symphony Orchestra. Unlike his LSO predecessors — Valery Gergiev, Colin Davis, Michael Tilson Thomas, Claudio Abbado, André Previn — all of whom were engaged as principal conductor, Rattle has been named music director, a position that bears serious administrative responsibilities. As Rattle put it recently in one of a dozen media interviews: ‘Valery wasn’t interested, nor Claudio. Colin loved them to bits, but he made it very clear that he did not want anything to do with the running or the auditions or the personnel… I will be much more involved with the day to day.’
But will he? Of all the erosions that have affected orchestras in the past generation, among the most significant is the progressive degradation of the music director. Once a towering despot who fired players at will and treated orchestras as personal fiefdoms — think Toscanini, Beecham, Solti — the role evolved first into a chummy primus inter pares and latterly into some way below par.
The passing of tyrants is not altogether unwelcome. Boston players still tell of the oboist who, fired in mid-rehearsal, stalked out yelling, ‘Fuck you, Koussevitzky!’ The Russian maestro, no master of English idiom, replied, ‘Is too late to apologise.’ Despotism of his kind was decidedly unappealing.
Leonard Bernstein, Koussevitzky’s protégé, pioneered a friendlier style, salting his rehearsals with Jewish jokes and, on occasion, dropping both hands to his sides and conducting by expression alone — as if to say that the conductor is a luxury item, to be sparingly used and widely shared.
By the 1980s it was common for the top maestros to be music director on two or three continents, allowing each orchestra a fragment of their golden attention. With maestros away, their powers were usurped. Musicians seized the right to choose new members of the orchestra. In 1989, Herbert von Karajan resigned from the Berlin Philharmonic after years of acrimony, following the players’ rejection of his choice of principal clarinet in 1983, arguing that Sabine Meyer — their first female candidate — did not suit their sound. In 2005, Riccardo Muti was ousted at La Scala by a players’ vote of no confidence.
Further erosions followed. In the absence of maestros, managers controlled content. ‘I would never let a music director tell me which soloists to hire,’ a US orchestra president assures me. ‘Nor would I accept his preferred guest conductors.’ Patronage used to be a maestro’s perk, giving old codgers access to young talent that some would shamefully abuse. Loss of patronage has all but disabled the role. Except for Muti in Chicago and Barenboim at the Berlin State Opera it is hard to name a musical institution today where the dominant voice belongs to the music director.
Take Covent Garden. Antonio Pappano has kept the old ship running at decent speed for 15 years but was powerless to stop cuts to his orchestra. Over 45 years at the Met, James Levine has left no lasting imprint. When his friend, Kathleen Battle, was fired for being a pest, Levine was unable to reinstate her. At the Vienna State Opera, all Franz Welser-Möst could do when his productions were cut by the general director was to resign, stating that the music director’s job lacked meaningful authority.
So what, exactly, can Rattle hope to achieve at the LSO? He has told friends he would like to see some changes in personnel, but hiring and firing are entirely in the players’ hands. All the music director can do is nudge and wink to his supporters and hope for a desired outcome. Rattle opened the season with a programme of all English composers, most of them living, but he won’t be allowed to push programming any further than the box office will bear — and it won’t bear more than one such eye-catcher per season.
What Rattle ought to do is abolish otiose tours that exhaust his best players, along with the recording dates at Abbey Road with fourth-rate wannabees. But LSO needs the dough from these dates and players would not tolerate a music director who interferes with revenue streams.
In an ideal world, Rattle would tour the LSO around its own country, instead of everywhere abroad, with a rallying cry to raise standards. That won’t happen either, because the Arts Council won’t fund anything that treads on the toes of regional clients. All of which leaves Rattle with a job title that has less clout than a viscountcy, an honorific to deceive the media into believing in miracles. These inhibitions may help explain why the incoming music director has set such store on getting the public authorities to build him a new hall. That, at least, could be credited as a concrete achievement.