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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Baton, Baton, Who's Got the Baton?

Exploring podium possibilities at The Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul J.  Pelkonen
Call it a comeback: James Levine's return to the Met podium in 2013.
Photo by Jonathan Tichler, © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.
A pair of stories published by the Arts section of the New York Times earlier this month have offered some much-needed insight into the conducting situation at the Metropolitan Opera. The articles, by Michael Cooper and Zachary Woolfe, also fueled Internet speculation as to the artistic future of that great institution, which will announce the 2016-17 season later this month.

In the first article, "Adjusting Medication May Prolong Levine's Tenure", (published Feb. 1) Mr. Cooper interviewed Met general manager Peter Gelb. Mr. Gelb shared the details of a recent visit to neurologist Dr. Stanley Fahn, who is currently treating Met music director James Levine for the onset of Parkinson's disease. There, Mr. Gelb and Mr. Levine learned that a reduction of the dosage of the latter's medication may help the conductor deal with the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease. This, Mr. Gelb claimed, may help Mr. Levine continue his duties at the Met for the foreseeable future.

In this decade, Mr. Levine has  suffered a series of chronic illnesses and debilitating injuries that cost him one of his full-time jobs as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Starting in 2013, he staged a comeback at the Met, conducting concerts and operas from a motorized wheelchair mounted atop a specially-built podium. However, earlier this season he bailed out of the Met's new production of Berg's Lulu (an opera that he first brought to the Met.) Instead, he elected to lead the far less challenging Johann Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus.

Three days later, the Times published Mr. Woolfe's piece. In "Fabio Luisi’s Future Looks Bright, Wherever It Is", Mr. Woolfe dropped the news that Mr. Luisi, the Met's current principal conductor, has elected not to renew his contract with the opera house. With Mr. Levine sidelined, Mr. Luisi emerged as a savior of sorts t, leading the premieres of major new Met productions (including Wagner's Siegfried and Götterdämmerung) and handling many aspects of Mr. Levine's role. The role of Principal Conductor was created for him in 2011, but he is leaving for two new positions in Europe.

With the post of music director occupied by a conductor who is battling serious medical issues and the post of principal conductor about to be vacated, the Met stands at another artistic crossroads. There is some speculation that the company may tap Philadelphia orchestra music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin for one of these positions, although Mr. Nézet-Seguin currently occupies podiums in Rotterdam and Montreal alongside his Philadelphia duties. Still, he is a popular and inspired conductor who has opened successful productions of Otello, Don Carlo and Carmen at the Met.

He is not the only conductor in the field. The Met might consider Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov, who appears this week the New York Philharmonic leading performances of Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony. A veteran international conductor, Mr. Bychkov has over a decade's experience at the Met, leading a 2004 Boris Godunov and Otello in 2008 and 2012. With some strong recordings in his discography including an excellent Eugene Onegin and an inspired Lohengrin, Mr. Bychkov would be a more than competent choice.

Another intriguing candidate (and this is pure Superconductor speculation!) is outgoing New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert. There is a sort of "reverse" precident here, as none other than Gustav Mahler left the Met to lead the New York Philharmonic in the final years of his life. Mr. Gilbert also has some history in the Met pit, leading the company premiere of Doctor Atomic in 2008 and last season's run of Mozart's Don Giovanni. He also conducts at the Juilliard School where he is the director of conducting and orchestral studies.

A third  possibility for the Met job would be Gianandrea Noseda, who was recently chosen as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, based at Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center. At the Met, Mr. Noseda has filled tall orders like War and Peace, Prince Igor and the company's new production of Les Pêcheurs de Perles, to sterling reviews. He is also a committed Verdian, leading five of that composer's operas at the Met. He represents an intriguing possibility but like Mr. Luisi and Mr. Nézet-Séguin, he has heavy commitments elsewhere. 

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