You have to love this business. Really, you do. Any sane person who didn’t would likely throw up their hands in frustration and swear off classical music forever after a few years. Why on earth anyone cares about whether or not a music director is 26 or 66 is beyond me. Nevertheless, the business seems determined to forge ahead with shaping phony connections between age and audience development…
Deep down I was hoping this wasn’t the case but Alan Gilbert’s appointment as the New York Philharmonic’s next music director shattered any remaining vestige that this business isn’t saddled with age based discrimination. The thinly veiled message being pushed is simple: young=good, old=bad.
Case in point, among the theories behind the shrinking orchestra audience is the notion that music directors in their 60’s and 70’s are simply too old to reach out and connect with a younger crowd. “Not enough young people in the audience? Well then, you’re conductor must be too old.” What a bunch of nonsense.
Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to hear Alan Gilbert conduct the Chicago Symphony and although I thought it was a solid concert it was no where near as exciting as when Bernard Haitink (nearly twice Gilbert’s age) is in town to conduct the same ensemble. But wait, Gustavo Dudamel (14 years Gilbert’s junior) conducted the very same Chicago Symphony a few months back as well and his performances were filled with the same level of excitement as Haitink’s.
So what does this tell us? It tells us that age doesn’t matter.
In order to get butts in the seats, an orchestra needs to put on exciting performances where the rapport between conductor and musician are obvious. At best, a conductor serves as the catalyst for pushing an ensemble above and beyond into an artistic accomplishment that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Does it matter that Gilbert’s concerts with the CSO weren’t as exciting as those by Dudamel or Haitink or should that be a good reason for him not to have the job in New York? Absolutely not, that would be ridiculous. The fact is that although he’s likely not the right man for the job in Chicago he may be exactly what New York needs. I’ve never heard Gilbert conduct New York but he may produce concerts with that ensemble that are just as exciting as the concerts I look forward to with Haitink at Chicago.
One of the most wonderful components of music (classical and non classical alike) is that it is among the few universal languages of the world. It transcends culture, political ideology, religion, and even time. Why then, on a universal scale, is the American orchestra business so concerned with whether or not an individual is too young or too old for audiences? Beats me. After all, the only part of the conductor you usually see is their posterior and it is generally covered in multiple layers of black clothing. Once this business learns to place less importance on marketing theories du jour when looking for a conductor they’ll realize it is as simple as finding someone who fits best with their ensemble.
Will Alan Gilbert ultimately succeed in New York and prove himself to be “the right choice?” Who knows, only time will tell. Nevertheless, his chances will be helped along if the decision to hire him was made purely on his abilities and rapport with the ensemble’s musicians as opposed to his age.