Can it be true that conductors are like cheeses: the best ones come from overseas? That, at any rate, is what you would have to conclude from looking at the history of U.S. orchestras, all of which have regularly preferred foreign (usually European) conductors. Even the New York Philharmonic has had only three American music directors, responsible altogether for just 18 (so far) of the Orchestra's 161 years: Ureli Corelli Hill, the founder, followed more than a century later by Leonard Bernstein, and now Lorin Maazel. Neither the Philadelphia Orchestra nor the Chicago Symphony, with a combined age of well over two centuries, has ever had a U.S.-born conductor in charge.
Happily there are signs of change in the air, and one of them is Robert Spano, who makes his New York Philharmonic debut this month during the Diamond American Conductor Debut Week (May 22-24). Mr. Spano was not only born in this country, but has built his formidable reputation largely here, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and now the Atlanta Symphony. He and some of his similarly gifted U.S. contemporaries (and indeed some cheesemakers) are showing that the imported variety is not necessarily superior.
The old predilection for the foreign maestro was so much a fact of life that you almost have to pinch yourself to be sure it has gone away. To an extent it was healthy, a sign of U.S. openness, and useful, too, in bringing fresh strains of thought, feeling, and discipline into musical life: the Philharmonic gained‹immeasurably, and lastingly‹from being exposed to the very different styles of the Frenchman Pierre Boulez and the German Kurt Masur.
Sometimes, though, it seemed that European music directors were being preferred for reasons less positive, out of a notion that they were heirs to the great tradition. So they may havebeen‹ but then that tradition has long been imparted as faithfully at The Juilliard School as in Vienna, Leipzig, or Paris. It is also being discovered, right now, by any child anywhere making contact with music by way of radio, piano, or school choir.
Tradition is learned. And although a German or Austrian conductor may, in speaking Beethoven's language, be more closely attuned to how the music breathes, the effort of learning that rhythm‹or the confidence of overriding it‹can produce performances just as compelling. Also, the current orchestral repertory includes works not only from German-speaking Europe but also from Russia, France, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Spain, Finland, Hungary, Britain, Norway, Japan, and, indeed, the United States. This music is home territory for no one; it belongs to us all, and it certainly belongs to conductors from this country as much as to any from Europe.
At last that is being recognized. In the second half of next season the Philharmonic will be presenting a virtual festival of younger U.S. conductors, among whom Alan Gilbert, David Robertson (both of whom made their first Philharmonic appearances as Diamond American Debut conductors), and Antonio Pappano (the 2003-04 Diamond American debut conductor) hold posts in Stockholm, Lyon, and London, respectively. Mr. Pappano (a U.S. citizen, although London-born of Italian parents) and Mr. Robertson have spent most of their conducting lives to date in Europe. On the other hand, Marin Alsop, who will lead the Philharmonic next spring in Bernstein's Candide, has divided her time pretty evenly between Europe and the U.S.‹as has John Adams, a special case as a composer-conductor.
What all five share‹and share with Mr. Spano‹is a freshness more valuable than wearied familiarity. They offer fresh repertory: Kaija Saariaho from Mr. Spano; Ives from Mr. Robertson, Mr. Gilbert, and Mr. Adams; Bernstein from Ms. Alsop. But it will also be good to hear their approach to Haydn (Mr. Pappano), Strauss (Mr. Robertson), and Mahler (Mr. Gilbert). And some day soon, too, we will want to hear their Beethoven.
Paul Griffiths is a writer and critic living in New York and Wales.