Does It Really Matter How Old The Conductor Is?

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.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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5 thoughts on “Does It Really Matter How Old The Conductor Is?”

  1. Very well said. This is exactly what I was feeling. I also believe that the same is happening to the orchestra players. Why does it make the news when a 19 year old wins a job but doesn’t when a 50 year old wins. To me, the 50 year old is more news worthy.

  2. I don’t think it’s confined to the orchestra world, if it is indeed ageism. It would make headlines if Warren Buffet announced that an unknown 40 year old were chosen to succeed him as CEO of Berkshire Hathaway – the NYPhil is the flagship orchestra of our musical (and arguably the world’s capital) capital, and age, or lack of it, matters. Don’t forget, it was only a few years ago that the NY Times was full of complaints about how old Maazel was and that a younger hand on the helm was more desireable. As Alex Ross pointed out in a recent post, the age thing is cyclical, and soon we’ll wonder why they aren’t hiring older stick wavers again.

    No doubt it’s a cycle Charles, I entirely agree. But not unlike many other cycles in this business the pendulum tends to swing from one extreme to the next, missing the relevant middle ground in the process. ~ Drew McManus

  3. I think the Gilbert appointment makes sense, in terms of having a young, ambitious and highly-talented conductor with a good programming sense charting a course for the group (and perhaps doing much of the schmoozing that more established conductors generally disdain), and then they have Riccardo Muti coming in to do the “old master” thing for a few weeks each season


    But let’s not confuse youth with hipness. The most cutting-edge and “cool” orchestras (and the ones getting received as such by their audiences) seem to be in in SF (with 60-something MTT), LA (49-YO Salonen) and Montreal (55 YO Nagano). And there are plenty of stodgy-seeming orchestras with relatively young music directors.

    Let’s also remember that a lot of major conductors got big jobs relatively young: Ozawa took over the BSO at 37; Chailly the Concertgebouw at 35; Bernstein the NYPO at 40, Muti in Philly at 40, Welser-Most in Cleveland at 41, Dutoit in Montreal at 42, and Mehta was 42 when he took over the NYPO. So Gilbert’s age is not really an outlier.

    Are SF ensembles drawing more under 40 audience members than other professional orchestras? I don’t know about that and I’m not aware of any data that would allow anyone to do a reasonable analysis. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to find out. ~ Drew McManus

  4. I seem to recall that a study of music directors few years ago tentatively concluded that all the exercise involved in waving that baton was good for the body and partially accounted for their longer-than-normal life expectancy. How ironic that the nature of one’s occupation might extend a viable worklife just as a youth movement takes over.

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