The granddaddy of summer festivals, the most highly regarded summer show, perhaps of the world, is having its 75th Birthday.
Some of their programs, featuring many of our musical stars, are performing programs from its initial season in 1937 which
was conducted by Koussevitzky. Tanglewood is the world’s pre-eminent festival and its alumni includes the Who’s Who of classical music.
What comes to mind after reading all the press about this celebration is my own personal trip to the Cleveland Symphony summer home, Blossom Festival, a wooded area right outside of Cleveland, not nearly as beautiful and enchanting as Tanglewood in Massachusetts. I travelled there for the sole reason of watching how the Big Guys conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a barn-burner of a piece which I was going to use an audition piece in a few weeks. The Cleveland Orchestra, was hosting a young guest conductor, a student of Franz Welser-Möst, their music director. Musical nepotism abounds in the guest conducting business. In the last SYMPHONY magazine there was an article entitled “Family Reunion”! Shameless nepotism. Everyone knows it’s there and nobody seems to care that it exists.
At that concert in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio I witnessed so clearly the tail (the Orchestra) wagging the dog (the conductor). The star of the evening was a soloist, young in stature but enormous in presence and talent, playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, in spite of the flailings of the young inexperienced conductor. In thhe second half, the CSO performed the 4th; no one looked up to watch the conductor; I couldn’t look up either. I travelled hours to see this symphony performed so I could carefully watch and dissect how to perform it with elan, precision, and power. The guest conducting showed such a lack understanding of the work and of the composer. My seat was ten rows from the Orchestra. I was so disappointed for some many reasons.
With so many well-seasoned, experienced American conductors available, why do orchestras tend to choose these days 30-somethings with no or very little experience? These conductors win a competition or two and they become instant successes. Even one of the winners of the esteemed Malko Competition admitted that he never conducted a professional orchestra in his life until the competition in Denmark.
So what’s your problem with young conductors?” I have been asked. “After all Leonard Bernstein, at the tender age of 25, shot into stardom by stepping in for Bruno Walter, to conduct a performance with the New York Philharmonic, without a rehearsal.” To which I answer, paraphrasing a great comeback line,” I met Leonard Bernstein. I watched Leonard Bernstein conduct. You’re no Leonard Bernstein.”