Critic’s Notebook: With James Levine Fired, Should We Rethink Maestro Worship?


Music directors might spend less than a third of the year with an ensemble but are the center of its marketing campaigns. The San Francisco Symphony is struggling to choose just the right successor to Michael Tilson Thomas, who will retire in 2020, after 25 years; that orchestra’s very existence without him feels, at the least, delicate.

The centrality afforded to conductors makes them appear indispensable. It inclines institutions to look past obvious problems and try their best to make their relationships with their maestros work, at most any financial or moral cost. (The critic Justin Davidson, writing on the Vulture website, has pointed out a slew of questions regarding the Met’s involvement in Mr. Levine’s case that are left unanswered by the company’s curt statement firing him.) The way some conductors have abused their power — Charles Dutoit, like Mr. Levine, has recently been felled amid numerous accusations of sexual misconduct — is a function of being granted so much power in the first place.


The conductor Charles Dutoit, like Mr. Levine, has recently been felled amid reports of sexual misconduct. Credit Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times

Activists in any number of fields have lately renewed their calls to topple the patriarchy, but classical music is one of the few remaining areas of human endeavor in which leaders are still encouraged to think of themselves as daddies. When Jaap van Zweden, the incoming music director of the New York Philharmonic, visited The New York Times recently to speak with writers and editors, he referred without apparent irony to his role as “father” of that orchestra. Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s Twitter biography likewise describes him, abbreviating some of the ensembles he directs, as “Father of Rotterdam Phil, Philadelphia Orchestra, Orchestre Métropolitain Mtl” — and “Future father of the Met.”

Mr. van Zweden and Mr. Nézet-Séguin doubtlessly believe they’re being sweet; they aren’t not. Mr. Nézet-Séguin told The Times a few weeks ago that he is “consciously breaking” what he called “this culture of ‘You can’t say anything to the maestro.’ ”

Their paternal self-conception leaves them well short of Mr. Levine’s or Mr. Dutoit’s trespasses; most fathers, of course, aren’t abusers or even unfair leaders. But in these cases, the two modes — parent figure and accused abuser — are sides of the same coin: a male-centered, star-driven structure that saps coffers, repels gender equity and leaves ensembles at a loss when a charmed leader disappears, unexpectedly or not.


Alan Gilbert, the former music director of the New York Philharmonic, was genial, bookish and curious and utterly without glamour. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

The end of this story may well be happier. As classical music and opera slowly, steadily drift from mainstream culture, ticket sales that were once driven purely by the names of beloved music directors have dried up; audiences want experiences, not artists they more likely than not haven’t heard of. The record companies that spent millions on advertising plumping up the celebrity-conductor complex are shadows of their former selves.

While orchestras and opera companies hold tight, for the time being, to the fading magic of the maestro, beloved of aging donors and subscribers, audiences as a whole believe the illusion less and less each year. This demystification will eventually result in a more diverse, more modest pool of leaders.

There are already examples worth following. The Cleveland Orchestra, perhaps the finest in America, has had its music director, Franz Welser-Möst, for nearly 20 years now. He’s plainly guided its style and artistic choices, and yet it has stubbornly, inspiringly declined to be defined by him. This orchestra and conductor seem truly like colleagues.

And I’ve been thinking a lot, over the past few months, about Alan Gilbert, Mr. van Zweden’s predecessor at the New York Philharmonic, whose up-and-down eight-year tenure ended in June, earlier than he probably would have liked. It causes me some shame, now, to look back on those years; I think I resisted Mr. Gilbert’s performances, his presence — genial, bookish and curious, and utterly without glamour — because they didn’t meet my sense of what a conductor was supposed to be. He acted like the Philharmonic’s peer, not its papa.

He was more of a model than I recognized. The Met shouldn’t want a savior to follow Mr. Levine. It should want a musician.

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