Copyright © Markand Thakar, 1999
Commentary for National Public Radio, Performance Today
First Aired, September 15, 1999

Don't Hire an American Conductor!

A great hue and cry has been raised across the nation over the non-hiring of American conductors for top American positions. I say: Don't hire an American conductor!

This is a great time to be a conductor in America. An unprecedented number of American orchestras of all sizes are looking for a music director. What orchestras? For starters, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Then there's Houston, Minnesota and Cincinnati, Atlanta, Indianapolis and St. Paul, not to mention San Antonio, Charlotte and Hartford. From Springfield, Massachusetts to Springfield, Illinois, from Ann Arbor to Albuquerque, from Long Beach to Long Island, orchestras across America are looking.

To hire a music director, orchestras often begin by narrowing the pool of candidates to those with the proper credentials: A-level orchestras look at current or former A-level music directors, or perhaps current B-level music directors; B-level orchestras look to hire a current C-level music director, and so on.

Once they've established the pool, they consider a number of factors. Artistry is extremely important, but often not as important as movie star good looks, media smarts, an engaging personality, sexual preference or nationality.

Nationality is a hot-button issue right now, largely because the top orchestras will almost certainly NOT hire an American. To be sure, there is a prevailing assumption that American conductors are not up to the task of presenting profound performances of the European masterworks. But all peoples have a tendency to look outside their own for artistic guidance. Consider the leading German cultural cities of Berlin and Munich. In Berlin the British Simon Rattle succeeds the Italian Claudio Abbado and the Argentinean Daniel Barenboim heads the opera; in Munich the American James Levine succeeds the Romanian Sergiu Celibidache, and the Indian Zubin Mehta leads the opera. Not a Günter or a Karlheinz among them, and this is in Germany, the world's capital of nationalistic musical snobbery!

Despite the complaining, or perhaps because of it, the climate for American conductors in America has improved dramatically. Twenty years ago the accepted model of a conductor here was an elder statesman with a German accent. But increasingly orchestra boards are coming to value the ability of an American to connect with American audiences off the podium, in person and in the media, thereby raising stature and income. At this point all but the largest orchestras would PREFER an American at the helm.

This should be good news to me, a reasonably good-looking American conductor, who is engaging, media savvy and happily married. To a woman. And in fact, having recently entered the music-director pipeline, I am being considered for several of those positions.

But, my personal prospects aside, the worst thing that can happen to all of us is for orchestras to hire American conductors just for the sake of hiring American. Orchestras are in the spirituality business. You pay us your 20 or 30 dollars for the possibility of a spiritual experience through sounds. The quality of that experience is largely determined by the artistry of the music director.

PR savvy conductors, from Leopold Stokowski to Leonard Bernstein to Michael Tilson Thomas are helped by their off-the-podium skills, without a doubt. But ultimately their success, and the success of their orchestras, has always depended on the quality of the experience you can have when you hear their concerts. It's that simple: artistry rules. Keith Lockhart, perhaps the most publicized conductor in America, will ultimately stand or fall as music director of the Utah Symphony on the basis of his musicianship alone.

The worst thing an American orchestra can do for American conductors is to hire an American as music director who is not up to the colossal demands of the job. This would confirm the latent bias against Americans, and would make it that much harder for a more qualified American in the future.

So orchestras, please, choose your leaders not on the basis of nationality, or sexual preference, or Q-rating, but on the basis of musicianship. If you do, then plenty of appropriate opportunities will be available for the qualified Americans who are steadily rising through the career pipeline, and all of us -- American audiences, American musicians and American conductors -- will be better served.

Close This Window