Monday 14 December 2009

What about Runnicles (et al)?

I don't want to make a habit of critiquing poor journalism in the Grauniad. However, once again I find I have little choice. I suppose the solution would be for them to stop writing ill-thought-out articles.

The latest example cropped up in The Observer yesterday and described how young conductors are sweeping the concert halls of Britain (well, taking them over rather than being forced to take up janitorial posts due to a lack of suitable work).

Now, before I lay into them too much, it is the case that unlike the last piece, which suggested conductors were pointless, there is at least a kernel of truth in this one: there are lot of prominent young conductors working in the UK just now who, by all accounts, are very talented (I say by all accounts since I haven't actually had the chance to hear a lot of them). It certainly isn't my intention to question the abilities of any of these individuals or merits of their appointments; indeed, I've championed some of them, such as James Lowe, unmentioned in the article, and I'm sorry to have missed Ticciati's debut on Saturday (and am very much looking forward to encountering him on Thursday). No, I just object to poor journalism.

The problem is more that it confirms to two worrying trend in media today - namely identifying a story and then proceeding to write it, regardless of any evidence to the contrary, and also writing about process rather than substance. I myself recently came up against this when I spoke to a hack from the Scotsman who had a clear story he wanted to tell, and, despite my efforts to enlighten him, went ahead and wrote it anyway, misquoting me in the process.

It is much the same here:

British orchestras are increasingly defying tradition by hiring a fresh generation of brilliant young maestros.

Absolutely, there's no tradition of that in Britain. I mean it's not like Simon Rattle (one of the most famous conductors in the world) was made principal conductor of the CBSO at the age of 25 in 1980. Except, of course, that he was (indeed, he became assistant conductor at the Bournemouth Symphony at 19 and the RLPO at 22). A quick look at the history shows that the CBSO has form here: they hired Adrian Boult all the way back in 1924 when he too was just 25 (and he took charge of the BBC Symphony before he was 30). In 1988 Andrew Litton (then 29) was appointed by the Bournemouth Symphony, in 1990 Franz Welser-Most became principal conductor of the LPO (age 30) and Mark Elder was just 32 when he was made music director at ENO in 1979. I could go on, and on, and on, in demonstrating that young conductors taking charge of orchestras is hardly new or uncommon. There may be a few more just now, but not having done any detailed statistical analysis (as, I'm sure, the Grauniad hasn't either) I don't want to make any kind of definite statement. (If anyone out there can be bothered to do the analysis, I'd be happy to publish it here - or link to your site.)

There are some particularly amusing flaws as the article continues:

The emergence of the musical Generation X has occurred with startling speed: only five years ago, pundits regularly bemoaned the fact that, aside from increasingly middle-aged maestros, such as Rattle, now working in Berlin, the Russian Valery Gergiev at the LSO, and the Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen, now at the Philharmonia, there were no new talents emerging.

Quite right too. Let's go back a few paragraphs to note this:

At 33, the Israeli Ilan Volkov – principal guest conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – remains the youngest person to hold the enviable position of conductor with a BBC orchestra.

I mean, where was Volkov five years ago? Nowhere, that's where. Except, of course, you and I both know that he was, in point of fact, holding an even more senior post, that of chief conductor, with the very same orchestra (and doing a great job too). He was appointed to the post as young as any of those discussed in the article, though not so young as Boult was when those stuffy BBC folk hired him back in the 20s.

But the most baffling assertion is yet to come:

This missing generation of conductors in their 40s and 50s suggests that the young blood currently are likely to continue their uninterrupted, headlong rush towards the great musical appointments.

Yes (leaving aside the hideous sentence construction), I can hardly think of any conductors in this age bracket, and certainly none regularly working in the UK. Actually, as you may have guessed I can; indeed, when I should have been going to sleep last night, I kept having to get out of bed and make a note as I'd remembered another! Take, for example, the top opera job in the UK, music director at Covent Garden, held by Antonio Pappano (49, for a few more days); or what about the LSO, where internationally renowned and insanely busy Valery Gergiev (56) rules the roost; both Gergiev and Esa-Pekka Salonen (51), now in charge of the Philharmonia, are mentioned in the article in the preceding paragraph, but clearly the authors didn't bother to look up their ages; then there's the BBCNOW with Thierry Fischer (52); Gianandrea Noseda (45) is doing great things at the BBC Philharmonic, and is on a great many iPods as their cycle of Beethoven symphonies was made available as a free download by the BBC a few years back; I've not heard of him before, but Lothar Koenigs (44) has just taken at Welsh National Opera; over at Opera North it's much the same story - Richard Farnes (45) is music director; and how could they forget the recently appointed 55 year-old chief conductor of BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a man who was still in his 30s when he became music director of San Francisco Opera, none other than Donald Runnicles. There, that's seven people in the 40s and 50s bracket in charge of major UK orchestras and opera companies. Exactly the same, in fact, as there are young conductors featured in the Grauniad's piece (okay, they count nine, but they're using creative accounting by taking in people in principal guest roles and the like which they don't seem to realise are not at all the same as chief conductor or music directorships - if one added in those, I'm certain the 40s to 50s would be in the majority).

And if one casts the net a little wider, there are even more in this age group: Franz Welser-Most (49), who is now in charge of the prestigious Cleveland Orchestra and about to take the helm of Vienna State Opera; Sakari Oramo (44), the phenomenal chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, whose great work as music director of the CBSO over the last decade the media seem intent on airbrushing out; Osmo Vänskä (56), who a decade ago was at the BBC Scottish and will be conducting a Sibelius symphony cycle with the LPO in the new year; Christian Thielemann (50), currently with the Munich Philharmonic, a major player at Bayreuth and due to take over at Dresden in a few years time; Simone Young (48), currently in charge of Hamburg State Opera (whom she brought to this year's Edinburgh festival) and the Philharmonic; Alan Gilbert (42), who's just taken over at the NY Philharmonic and who'll be bringing them to London soon; Christian Zacharias (59), the superbly talented pianist and artistic director of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra (who regularly conducts the SCO and will do so again in April when he presents Schubert's great C major symphony); Marin Alsop (53), currently music director of the Baltimore Symphony, formerly at the Bournemouth Symphony and who will play a big part in the South Bank Centre's forthcoming Bernstein celebration; Robert Spano (48), music director of the Altanta Symphony Orchestra; Paul Daniel (51), the previous music director of ENO; Joseph Swensen (49), the previous SCO principal conductor and current conductor emeritus; Carlo Rizzi (49), until recently at Welsh National Opera; lastly (only because I don't want to keep on), there's that former wunderkind Simon Rattle (54), now languishing in the relative obscurity of the music directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic (amusingly, only a few days ago the Grauniad did a piece on the London residence they have planned for 2011). Astonishingly, they've even missed Charles Hazelwood (43). Now, I hate to lump him in with the rest since I don't care for him at all, but he's such a darling of the media it's surprising they've not noticed him. Missing generation? This is one generation that's missing only if one doesn't bother to look for them! I just fail to see how you can arrive at that conclusion unless you've either been lobotomised, or simply couldn't be bothered to do any research. I await with interest their article on the invasion of the middle-aged.

Actually, the more interesting and story is why there aren't more women conductors about. However, while I think there should be, that's not the subject under discussion here. Perhaps the middle-aged are ignored because they fall awkwardly between the wunderkind status that so excites the press and the grandee status enjoyed by those over sixty such as Jansons, Barenboim, Abbado and Mackerras.

I think I've identified the problem though: look at the article's authors: Amelia Hill (social affairs correspondent) and Vanessa Thorpe (media editor). Nobody from the arts desk? What genius: let's write a piece about conductors and orchestras and not consult our specialist journalists whom we pay to write about those things! It beggars belief. Can we please have articles about the arts written, or at least fact-checked, by people who actually know about the arts. I mean, we don't get Rob Cowan to write a piece on Manchester United.

More importantly, can we have articles that are actually about the arts themselves, rather than process stories. Of course, process stories are easier to write, and, on the face of it, require less expertise (at least, to write badly) but that doesn't excuse it. I don't much care how old a conductor is; I have my favourites in just about every age bracket going. What I care about is a good musical performance, so why not let's have big long articles about that. And the print media wonder why they're tumbling into irrelevance.

In the meantime, I present messrs Hill and Thorp with:

The Philippa Ibbotson Award for a Bafflingly Terrible Piece of Arts Journalism that Reads Like it was Written by Someone for whom the Arts are a Foreign Country and which was Inexplicably Unhindered by the Editorial Process

I myself am spending today celebrating the middle-aged conductor by listening to recordings by only those currently aged 40-60 (though I realise this may not fit everyone's definition since, as Chamber's puts it, middle-age is "between youth and old age, variously reckoned to suit the reckoner").

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