Since the 1950s, the concept of the "Big Five" American orchestras has held sway and influenced ticket buyers to attend what are ostensibly the most reliably consistent performances. Here in New York, the grouping is especially significant: Each of these orchestras appears in town every year. The time is right for a radical realignment — and a revamped "Big Five" is in order.
IN: THE PITTSBURGH SYMPHONY
Mariss Jansons accomplished miracles as an orchestra builder. The group was very good under William Steinberg in the 1950s and even survived the Lorin Maazel years, but Mr. Jansons, son of the Latvian conductor Arvid Jansons, brought with him a solid sense of discipline and an incredibly detailed approach to the maximizing of inner voices. Right now, it is the cleanest, crispest ensemble in America. The wind section alone is worth the price of admission. Tonight the Pittsburgh Symphony appears at Carnegie Hall, so you can judge for yourself.
But music director Mr. Jansons recently announced his intention to move back to Europe permanently, taking over not one, but two of the world's finest ensembles, and leaving Heinz Hall forever.
Now the powers that be have spent their money not on a new music director but rather on spin doctors. The new paradigm is for the orchestra to be led by Sir Andrew Davis, Yan Pascal Tortelier, and Marek Janowski. And apparently, the twain shall never meet. The plan is for each conductor to instill his own ethnicity into the mix and for the public to swoon with delight at the innovation. The board had better be prepared to authorize a lot of expensive rehearsal time.
OUT: THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA
Despite having been so good for so long, the Philadelphia Orchestra has quite recently lost its edge. After enjoying the heralded reigns of Stokowski, Ormandy, Muti and Sawallisch, all of whom preserved that patented "fabulous Philadelphians" sound, the players were extremely upset by management's decision, taken unilaterally and without consultation, to hire Christoph Eschenbach. That signature sound is now unraveling at the seams.
In 2004 at Carnegie Hall, Mr. Eschenbach milked the last movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 shamelessly — he had undoubtedly practiced each preening gesture in front of a mirror. The "I'll Be Seeing You" theme was drawn out into an almost unrecognizable length of pulled taffy: Even Liberace performed it less histrionically. He does look good up there — like Yul Brynner in "Once More With Feeling" — but, isn't it the sound that counts? Give me the dumpy Mr. Ormandy any day.
But there is hope: Mr. Eschenbach recently announced that he will not seek a contract extension after 2008.
IN: THE CINCINNATI SYMPHONY
The demographic of James Levine's hometown is largely Germanic and they are the proud boosters of the oldest symphony hall in America. A fine ensemble under Schippers, Gielen, and Lopez-Cobos, the orchestra has truly blossomed under the son of another world-class conductor. Paavo Jarvi has proven to be the finest of his generation, a sensitive and result-oriented maestro. Nurtured in a great tradition since birth but still independent enough to challenge it, Mr. Jarvi has made his mark decisively and with great panache. The orchestra has never sounded better and presents interesting and varied programming on a regular basis.
OUT: THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA
The finest orchestra in America in the 1960s, with the sainted George Szell on the podium, occupied Severance Hall. The group also had a pretty good assistant conductor named Jimmy Levine. It later survived Maestro Maazel's rather sloppy legacy and tightened up once again under the iron hand of Christoph von Dohnanyi. Everything seemed to be going its way, until its board made a decision that can only be described as screwy.
Austrian Franz Welser-Moest had a terrible reputation when chosen to take over. Crucified by the British press — they quickly dubbed him "Frankly Worst Than Most" — he was hunted down in London as relentlessly as Bill Sykes. His tenure at the head of their Philharmonic was not just stormy but deeply unsatisfying for audiences at the Royal Festival Hall.
In Cleveland, performances have been uniformly poor, unpopular with both patrons and critics alike. For four years now, Maestro has brought his charges to Carnegie and my critical reaction has been somewhat subdued as I have been forced to concentrate on physically controlling my impulses to shudder on a regular basis.
IN: THE LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC
Nobody in this part of the world seems to know how good this ensemble really is, but this, I believe, is strictly a matter of East Coast superciliousness. Esa-Pekka Salonen is a dynamic, exciting presence, and a first-rate composer to boot. His ability to prod his forces into extraordinary bursts of color while still keeping proper balance allows the left coast Phil to dance on winds positively fairy-blown. The strings are lush but nimble, the woodwinds precise and poetic, the brass warm and accurate, the percussion bright and crisp. All are allowed to let loose in a rather elastic manner. Perhaps Mr. Salonen's secret is a palpable confidence that allows his players to breathe freely while still under his strict control. Whatever the formula, he has applied it exceptionally well. For 20th century music, this is the band of choice.
OUT: THE NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC
Not even the best orchestra on the plaza.
Limiting our discussion to the modern era, the local Phil has been deficient for a long time. A pedestrian string sound, a tendency to lose intonation as a piece drags along, an inconsistent trumpet section, and a sometimes frightful set of French horns are just background for an ensemble that often seems to have little investment in its own performances. Add to the ensemble's frustrating nonchalance a conductor in Lorin Maazel who simply cannot leave a piece alone and the net result is often blaring, leadfooted, and embarrassing. The worst part may be that, on certain evenings, they can still conjure a decent performance. At Avery Fisher, it often seems that attitude is more critical than aptitude.
ON THE BUBBLE: THE CHICAGO SYMPHONY
No change in status, but the future is key. The annoyingly inconsistent reign of Daniel Barenboim is finally over. Who will shepherd this great group going forward? Rumor has it that the very talented Kent Nagano will leave troubled Montreal and settle on Michigan Avenue. Under steward Pierre Boulez, the group appears in town later this week.
HANGING ON: THE BOSTON SYMPHONY
In the late 1990s, Seiji Ozawa became the most infamous victim in Massachusetts since Sacco and Vanzetti. His troubles began with The Great Nutcracker War, when he took his orchestra to Asia in November and December 1996, leaving the city without a season of Christmas music performances. Then he dared to assert his leadership at the Tanglewood festival, replacing certain key personnel who were beloved by the press. The crushing blow came from New York critics, who wrote articles claiming the BSO had lost all professionalism and that its sound was devoid of proper intonation and balance. This avalanche of disrespect eventually led to Mr. Ozawa abandoning his lifelong artistic project and signing on with the Vienna State Opera, where, I am happy to report, everyone loves him.
Now James Levine is in charge and this should save the day. But some of his performances have been blowsy and imbalanced, as witness the recent sour Brahms First at Carnegie Hall.
Without question, Mr. Boulez is correct when he states, "Music is not the Olympics." Yet it is natural for critics and audience members to rank performing groups based on their overall abilities. With today's high ticket prices, don't we want to have some assurances that the concert will be worth it?