November 28, 2003
The New York Philharmonic – stuck in the past

In the latest Spectator, Petroc Trelawny, a regular voice in British classical music broadcasting, writes about the current travails of the New York Philharmonic.

Basically, Los Angeles and San Francisco (under the leadership of Salonen and Tilson Thomas) have made the jump, away from safe and solid programmes of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and so on that appeal to the traditional but ageing classical audience, and towards more adventurous fare which at least gives them a chance of a future. Meanwhile, the New York Phil has just appointed as its music boss … Lorin Maazel!

Maazel is classical music living dead. He's a fine conductor. But everything I've ever heard him say, or read about him, tells me that he takes the future of classical music for granted, and regards actually having to, you know, do anything to secure that future, anything risky, as being just too undignified for someone of his supreme grandeur to contemplate. He wafts about in his opera cloak, issuing orders to trembling orchestral musicians, his head stuck in a vanishing age, imagining himself to be at the top of his tree, seemingly unaware that it is rotting. He has recently been recording Richard Strauss, and Sibelius (again), for RCA, to, er, mixed reviews. He never seems to have a go at anything recently composed, no doubt on the not unreasonable grounds that most of the stuff recently composed is garbage. But the good stuff has been recorded to death, and if they can't find new music and new audiences, these orchestras will themselves fade away. Taking no risks is the ultimate risk that is doomed to fail.

Salonen, Tilson Thomas, and Simon Rattle in Berlin of course, know that both orchestras and audiences now have to be seduced and charmed and jollied along. Orchestras no longer care to be tyrannised over. If new audiences are not sought out, they will disappear.

At the heart of running a great orchestra nowadays is having a hall to play in with good – preferably great – accoustics. Rattle got that built in Birmingham. Salonen now has it in Los Angeles. I don't know the situation in Berlin, but I've always assumed it to be pretty good there too. (It was good enough for Karajan.) In New York, they have the Avery Fisher Hall. Inadequate, apparently. They've been trying to manoeuvre their way into Carnegie Hall, which has great accoustics, but that doesn't now seem to be working. Instead, they're going to try to refurbish the accoustics in Avery Fisher. Dodgy, apparently, according to Trelawy. Could be a costly failure.

Could this be a moment for another big lump of what David Sucher calls "starchitecture"? (I can't find the actual word here, but the principle of the thing is all explained in this posting – the money raising, and the need to get it right at ground level.) Well, they have thought of that, but the descendants of Avery Fisher have vetoed it, because Avery Fisher Hall would have to be destroyed to make way for the new place and Avery Fisher might not end up being as immortal as he is now. The Disneys of Los Angeles seem to have contrived to behave rather more generously, but there you go, I guess this is New York and a deal's a deal.

All of which is a great pity. I mean, it's not as if they don't have money in New York. The problem now is that classical music is not offering New York anything enticing to spend it on. Except non New York orchestras when they play at Carnegie Hall.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:21 AM
Category: ArchitectureClassical music