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The Semi-Conductor

A great conductor used to lead an orchestra. These days he leads two or three.

In many fields, growing old means cutting back on your professional responsibilities. But for orchestra conductors, figures of mythic virility and longevity, advancing age seems only to entail taking on more obligations. Consider Kurt Masur, the 71-year-old music director of the New York Philharmonic. Last week, it was announced that, beginning in 2000, Masur would become the principal conductor of the London Philharmonic. In London, the Guardian reported that the German maestro would, naturally, be resigning his New York position, which pays him $1.3 million a year. But the paper was forced to print a correction: Masur is not leaving New York. He will be conducting in both cities until at least 2002, when his New York contract expires.

With just two big jobs, Masur is far from the busiest of the big guns. The title probably belongs to Plácido Domingo, the globetrotting tenor. Anticipating the decline of his prolific singing career–he’s 57, and most voices don’t last past the early 60s–Domingo has pursued a sideline in opera conducting. In 1996, he was appointed artistic director of the Washington Opera. Nov. 1 it was announced that he would also be replacing the retiring director of the Los Angeles Opera. Domingo intends to run both institutions without cutting back on his performance schedule at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, his “Three Tenors” concerts with Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras, his recording calendar, or his bookings as a guest symphony conductor. Perhaps the paella will suffer at Domingo, a Spanish restaurant he owns in midtown Manhattan.

Domingo’s helicopter-to-rehearsal lifestyle is now the model for conductors whose salaries often match those of star athletes and CEOs. Norman Lebrecht of the London Daily Telegraph, perhaps the only music critic with much of an instinct for sleuthing, has unearthed some of the closely guarded salaries. In 1996, the conductor Lorin Maazel earned $4.5 million, including $1 million as the chief conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and an additional $2.7 million from the Bavarian State Radio Orchestra. The pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim earns $3 million or more as music director in Chicago, artistic director and general music director of the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, and as a touring conductor with both the Berlin and the Vienna philharmonics. Perhaps most amazing is Charles Dutoit, who serves as artistic director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, musical director of the Orchestra National de France, and the artistic director and principal conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer season in Saratoga. In his spare time, Dutoit likes to … guest conduct.

Such hall hopping undeniably adds to the wealth and fame of the world’s top conductors. But is it good for music? The era of the ludicrously prodigious maestro has coincided with a sense of unease about the state of the symphony, especially in the United States. Many orchestras are in poor financial shape, faced with rising costs, declining box office revenues, and a cutback in public subsidies. At the New York Philharmonic and elsewhere, labor and administrative conflict seems perpetual. And among people with long musical memories, there is a general feeling that while this may be a period of high competence, it is not a great moment for orchestras or conductors. A common complaint is that the sound of the big five American symphonies–New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, and Chicago–while still of extremely high quality, is more and more homogenized. Might these phenomena–the lackluster symphonic scene and the overbooked conductor–be related?

The great American orchestras were built by conductors who by today’s standards would be hopeless homebodies. The Boston Symphony was honed and polished by the Russian exile Serge Koussevitsky, who conducted 100 concerts a year for 25 years until 1949 and was midwife to the creation of great works by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Copland. The Philadelphia Orchestra was led by Leopold Stokowski, who reigned supreme for 26 years until 1938, when Eugene Ormandy succeeded him–and stayed for 42. George Szell had a similar role in shaping Cleveland into a great musical city, as did Fritz Reiner in Chicago. These men might travel to Europe for the summer festival season, but they lived in the cities in which they played. They auditioned musicians personally and knew them well. If a guest conductor visited Philadelphia, you would probably find Ormandy backstage or in the audience. Today, by contrast, conductors tend to have a much more tenuous relationship with their home cities. Rather than live in some backwater, they jet in and out for rehearsals and conduct 30 performances a year there instead of 100. For nine months at a stretch, they are somewhere else.

The musician who first set this pace was the ex-Nazi Herbert von Karajan, who in the late 1950s was simultaneously principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna State Opera, and the Salzburg festival. Von Karajan’s ricocheting around Europe stoked an epic recording career and helped build an estate that was worth $300 million when he died in 1989. There is no one so dominant now, but Karajan remains the model for the hyperactive batons of Maazel, Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Seji Ozawa, and Claudio Abbado. These conductors compete in a kind of orchestral arms race. The advent of jet travel–and supersonic jet travel–has made it possible for them to work virtually simultaneously not just in several cities but on several continents. The ambition of the conductor is abetted by the avarice of the agent, who receives a commission of up to 20 percent on the fees and salaries he negotiates. The most powerful of these is the reclusive Ronald Wilford of Columbia Artists Management International, who manages the world’s leading conductors and uses his market power to drive fees ever higher.

There are a few honorable exceptions to the orchestra-collecting trend. Perhaps the most admirable is Simon Rattle, who took the insignificant Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and, over a period of 16 years, developed it into a distinguished ensemble. Despite many lucrative offers, Rattle has been loath to even spend much time visiting elsewhere. Rattle has now stepped down from the podium at Birmingham and is weighing offers. It is expected that he will again choose to work with one orchestra rather than several. Michael Tilson Thomas, who in 1995 became the music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, draws praise for doing more than hanging his hat there. Finland-born Esa-Pekka Salonen gets high marks for his commitment to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as does Leonard Slatkin at Washington’s National Symphony.

Why would an orchestra prefer an overpaid, absentee landlord like Muti or Abbado to a dedicated resident, especially given that the latter is likely to come much cheaper? Partly, it’s the battle for prestige. A provincial orchestra with an off-brand conductor seems doubly provincial. But the bigger issue is finance. Orchestra boards believe that a star like Muti sells tickets, even to the majority of concerts he doesn’t conduct. And even the occasional presence of a musical superstar makes it much easier to raise money. At a recent fund-raiser, the Washington Opera took in an extraordinary $2.6 million, thanks to the charming presence of Domingo.

There are many more orchestras than there used to be and arguably fewer great conductors. The result has been a bidding war for top talent and an opportunity to make money that few can resist. The recent transformation of the conductor’s career parallels what has happened elsewhere in the economy. As the income of top performers of all kinds has risen exponentially, the old patterns of indenture have fallen away. The ability of a Zubin Mehta ($6 million plus per year) or a Charles Barkley ($4.6 million) to make really big money has led to a system of free agency. In basketball, where teams are constituted by the season, each player looking out for his own career doesn’t appear to harm the overall quality of the game. But in symphonic music, where great achievement comes from teamwork over a much longer time frame, the moonlighting maestro is playing too fast.