Conductors under 40: Wave of the Future or Passing Fad?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011 - 10:50 PM

Last month we celebrated Gustavo Dudamel's 30th birthday here on WQXR with a broadcast of a concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by the Venezuelan conductor from the Barbican in London.

When the maestro was named Music Director of the orchestra, he was only 28 years old. Naturally, there was a lot of buzz that went along with the appointment of this talented young man. His immediate predecessor -- the gifted Finnish conductor and composer Esa Pekka Salonen -- was 26 when he made his debut with the orchestra. But, Salonen was actually 34 before he was appointed Music Director. Andre Previn was 56 when he was tapped for the position and Carlo Maria Giulini was 64.

So you might think that Dudamel is the youngest conductor to have been appointed Music Director of the LA Philharmonic. But I recently discovered that Zubin Mehta was only 26 when he was given the position in 1962. And Mehta stayed with the orchestra for sixteen years.

Mehta’s appointment aside, it does seem as though more and more under-40 types are making it to the podium these days. Last October, another 28-year-old whiz kid was tapped in Indianapolis to lead its orchestra. His name is Kryztof Urbanski. French Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin became Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra when he was 33. Next year – at the age of 37 – he becomes the eighth music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Seattle has a new 36-year-old named Ludovic Morlot who replaces Gerard Schwarz in the fall.

So, what do you think? Is youth is the magic bullet for what ails orchestras right now? Do these young conductors have what it takes to live up to the hype? Do they have the fundraising skills...the programming chops...the respect of their fellow musicians? Will more young people be drawn to the concert hall if they see one of their own on stage?

Or, will we eventually find that the more seasoned conductors do a better job of standing the test of time?

Lest you think I’ve left New York’s own Alan Gilbert out of the mix, as far as this conversation is concerned, he’s one of the older generation of conductors on the podium today. He became music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2009. He will be 44 this month. And Jacques Lacombe of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra? He’s 48 this year!

So, chime in when you have a minute. And, if you have time, have a look at three different performances of the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th – by Gustavo Dudamel and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic and Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra:





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Comments [21]

All conductors were young once. Look at Loren Maazel-- didn't he start as a teenager? Young conductors are not a fad; they are an important part of the life of classical music and the good ones will stand the test of time and become old ones someday.

Mar. 10 2011 04:16 PM
Arden Broecking from Connecticut

I like Gustavo Dudamel. I do not care for Alan GIlbert, but I'm not sure why. My favorite sonductor of all time was herbert von Karajan, with Leonard Bernstein a close second, maybe even a tie. I truly do not believe that anyone under 30 had had the time to study the music he or she plans to conduct, or to let it mature in his orher mind before it is time to stand in front of an orchestra or an opera cast. As a singer, Midge, you will understand how necessary it is is to feel confident that conductors know what they're doing, what they want, and how much they are prepared to support you. I don't think a conductor has to be ancient by any means -- Antonio Pappano or Christian Thieleman -- both of the paid their dues,so to speak.

Feb. 09 2011 10:29 AM
Michael Meltzer

In answer to the opening question, "Do today's young conductors have what it takes to live up to the hype?," I do have to point out that when Dudamel was appointed to the podium of the L.A. Phil, no one posted more hype than WQXR. It all seems like a big circle.

Feb. 09 2011 06:02 AM
Michael Meltzer

If you turn on the radio in the middle of a selection you know, to a less-than-desirable performance, you may say "That conductor is too romantic, too pedantic, too heavy, too monophonic, careless, in a hurry, ponderously slow, affected, a whole variety of characterizations.
I challenge anybody to listen to an unknown orchestra and come up with "That conductor is too young."

Feb. 07 2011 04:52 PM
Neil Schnall

No slight intended to Bob Sherman. His "Young Artists Showcase" is another excellent forum for the display of young talent.

Feb. 07 2011 03:42 PM
Neil Schnall

The YouTube examples here demonstrate some notable differences, but it would be difficult to assign those differences purely to relative age; rather to conducting styles, which may be more a function of personality. You could classify these 3 as “historically significant, feared and revered” (Toscanini), “beloved, deeply respected and admired” (Abbado), and “talented, hyped and hyperactive” (Dudamel). These descriptions are completely arbitrary, and I don’t intend to generate controversy. Of Dudamel, I cannot yet form a true opinion, having not yet heard enough of his output, certainly not in standard rep. Although wary of the hype, he clearly has talent, and I doubt he’d last long if he didn’t really have the chops. My only observation from this clip is that he hasn’t yet learned that more is not necessarily more. Perhaps he will develop more economy of gesture.

The job of music director is not merely that of a conductor, but as well of administration, fund-raising, glad-handing. It may be that certain younger conductors are willing to take on these responsibilities in the furthering of their careers than certain older ones. Yet it’s dangerous to generalize. One could easily cite as many older ones taking the job as younger.

As for young talent, Michael is correct to point out that it usually manifests at a young age. In this respect, we have a great wealth of young instrumental talent at hand, and conductors, after all, must gain experience by… conducting. The level of accomplishment for young pianists or violinists could be considered astonishing. And the syndicated program “From the Top” broadcast on this station is a prime example of showcasing the achievements of teenagers who will be the next generation of professional musicians. It is fascinating to consider not only the technical skills of youthful performers, but also the emotional maturity often in evidence. A good example might be the debut recording, some years ago, of Bach works by Hilary Hahn. She has gone on to perform and record many of the standard concerti of the violin repertoire. It should be most interesting to see what revelations her future re-recordings may contain.

I agree with Amanda that the interest must already be present for younger audiences. Ticket pricing policies must be geared to making concerts accessible to the younger members (as well as the rest of us paupers). We may have prejudices against the inexperience of the young, but we are at the same time a youth-oriented culture. If someone is the genuine article, if whatever charismatic quality gets people into the seats, more power to them indeed!

Feb. 06 2011 02:46 PM
Michael Meltzer

I see three things at issue. The first, great musical ability, often shows itself quite early, we should be suspicious if it doesn't.
Second, interpretive insight (re: the Mahler example) is a question in the young, but again, the talented young often surprise us and it is results that count.
The third is the quality of interpersonal leadership, executive ability if you will, and there it is our prejudices against the young and often against women as leaders that are the problem, and can cost us the needed services of individuals qualified and ready.
Perhaps the real enemy is the institution of the screening committee.

Feb. 05 2011 06:03 PM
Amanda Schnall from New York

I don't know that younger conductors are going to bring in younger audiences, if the potential concertgoers do not already have some exposure and interest to the artform.

Maybe they'll inspire dilettantes to learn more about the music and thereby attend more concerts, but I don't think they'll be drawing in anyone who doesn't already have some kind of interest in it.

As a young(ish) concertgoer myself, they do nothing for me and frankly I am tired to death of hearing about our lord and saviour Dudamel.

Age isn't a draw for me, what is going to draw me in is knowledge, passion, and ability. If younger conductors possess all of these things, then more power to them, but just as I would not want to see an actual 16 year old sing Salome, I have little interest in hearing a 26 year old's interpretation of Mahler. Your mileage may vary, however.

Feb. 04 2011 02:33 PM

Hi, Ruth -

There are definitely some female conductors out there. But, they are definitely in the minority. Marin Alsop in Baltimore, JoAnn Faletta in Buffalo and Jane Glover in Chicago are names that come to mind.

It's a great question, though, so if there are others of you who would like to comment, please do. Why is it that conducting is a male dominated field?


Feb. 04 2011 11:16 AM
Ruth from East Brunswick, NJ

Age has nothing to do with quality, and quality changes constantly. My question has to do with gender. Conductors are always male. Why? Are there any female conductors that I am unfamiliar with? If so, please correct me.

Feb. 04 2011 10:23 AM

Thanks to Neil Schnall for sharing the link to the video clip of the young(est?) conductor! It's worth taking a look, for sure!


Feb. 04 2011 09:45 AM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

I've had the pleasure of seeing Gustavo Dudamel conduct twice at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. The first time was in November of 2008 when he conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony. Now, I admit that I'm no music expert, but I have heard that symphony (which is a favorite of mine) performed quite a number of times, and that was the finest performance I have ever heard. The second occasion was in May of 2010 when he conducted the L.A. Philharmonic in the Mahler 1st Symphony (also one of my favorites). Another electrifying performance! I hope he continues to develop his talents, and I look forward to following what I hope will be his long and successful career.

Feb. 03 2011 07:54 PM
Neil Schnall

OK, it's the 4th movement, but still the Beethoven 5th.... and this just might be as young as it gets:

Guaranteed to make you smile!

Feb. 03 2011 06:21 PM
Louise from NJ

Susan from NYC is exactly right! Toscanini brought such intelligence to his interpretations. I don't think "youthful energy" need show itself in grimaces or lurching and jerking all over the podium. Mr. Dudamel's Beethoven is certainly loud as was his interpretation of Beethoven's 7th at the Barbican in London last week. I have always found that piece so uplifting but under his baton it was just frenetic.

Feb. 03 2011 12:59 PM
Brian from New York

The hair is what counts. No one's listening.

Feb. 03 2011 12:43 PM
Ed from Manhattan

Younger conductors are essential to the survival of the craft. I started subscribing to NYPhil concerts 25 years ago, when I was 23, and I was always among the youngest audience members. Unfortunately, today, at 48, I'm STILL among the youngest in the geriatric crowd. Orchestras cannot afford to be hopelessly out of touch with the under 40 crowd, given the demographics.

One other note: I have a very fond memory of one bright shining day as a member of the All-City High School Orchestra, 32 years ago, playing under the young conductor Claudio Abbado at Avery Fisher Hall. It was a musical thrill I'll never match, or forget.

Feb. 03 2011 12:42 PM
LES from Washington, DC

Yes, I believe that younger conductors will help draw young people to classical music, both as musicians and as audience members. In the same way that WQXR and its staff, compared to other classical music stations, give classical music a youthful and hip appeal, in my view. Younger listners can relate better. Plus, WQXR has a great, interactive web site, allowing listners to be part of the experience.

Feb. 03 2011 09:59 AM
Rob from Manhattan

I certainly hope it is NOT a passing fad, but a literal passing of the baton to a young, exciting and refreshing group of relatively new conductors. Certainly, no one can quibble with the energy and new insights that Gustavo Dudamel brings to the podium. He constantly delights me with the new and stimulating interpretations and colorations he elicits from the many orchestras he has conducted, especially his own orchestra, the LA Philharmonic. I never tire of listening to the recent DVD release of their opening night concert with Juan Diego Florez.

In the past two months I have been wonderfully impressed by a consummate group of relatively young, and new to me, conductors that have led the Metropolitan Opera orchestra in stirring and insightful performances of several mainstay operas. These would be: Yannick Nezet-Seguin, "Don Carlo" (brilliant interpretation); Nicola Luisotti, "La Fanciulla del West;" Gianandrea Noseda, "La Traviata;" Paolo Arrivabeni, "Rigoletto;" and, Marco Armiliato, "Tosca," to name but a few. All have conducted powerfully masterful and original interpretations of these operas. These experiences have left me confident that our musical future is indeed in good hands.

Feb. 02 2011 07:28 PM
Michael Meltzer

The brilliant debut of Arturo Toscanini in Rio as substitute conductor of the La Scala touring orchestra was at age 19, with 18 more podium appearances that season to follow. The mentality required is probably comparable to that of a Chess Grandmaster and that shows itself quite early.
I think fundraising is also a talent, it shows itself as early as five years old. We all know people like that.

Feb. 02 2011 06:40 PM

What I like about Dudamel's performance especially is the way he slows down the tempo toward the end of the piece and you feel as though you're listening to the march of a Minor key army taking shape and starting a battle. Its one of my favorite sections of the movement and I think he nails it.

Feb. 02 2011 02:30 PM
Susan from NYC

It's Toscanini for me. The musical tempo is fiery, yet distinct. He captures the tension between the instrumental voices with an unparalleled clarity. One feels the oncoming storm gradually building. He conjures images in the listener's mind.

Feb. 02 2011 01:35 PM

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