In the World of the Symphony, the Guests are not Leaving
I was surprised to discover while doing the simple arithmetic that over 50 percent of the San Francisco Symphony’s concerts this season are being conducted by guest conductors, a figure not out of line with what is happening at other top 10 symphony orchestras in the country.
Guest conductors are ‘guests that are not leaving’ because US symphony orchestras need them—and the situation hasn’t changed much in the last 30 to 40 years.
A full time top 10 US orchestra actually plays about 39 weeks, so if the Music Director does 12 to 16 weeks (including touring), that means that one needs guests for 23 to 27 weeks.
For symphony orchestras that have annual contracts with union musicians, guests reconcile the need to have a full 39-week season on the one hand with the current market for Music Directors which allow them considerable time away from their home base.
How lucky for the San Francisco audience then that its local band uses such terrific A-list guest conductors when its celebrated music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, is on the road.
The truth is that some of the most memorable concerts I’ve experienced in San Francisco in recent years have been led by guests.
The return to San Francisco of MTT’s immediate predecessor, the almost 90-year old Herbert Blomstedt, reminded me of this fact the other evening when he led a transcendental performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—the so-called ‘Ode to Joy’. How ironic that it took a 90-year old veteran to put new life into the old warhorse.
Mr. Blomstedt is like a great wine that gets better with age. The Swede, born in the US, was a wonderful conductor when he left San Francisco 20 years ago-- now he is even better. His ‘Ode to Joy’ was indeed a true joy for those of us lucky enough to attend the performance.
Audiences may think of guest conductors as somehow inferior to the one whose name and face get plastered all over town and in symphony programs --but that is not necessarily the case.
There are lots of very good reasons great conductors like Blomstedt, Bernard Haitink, Semyon Bychkov and Charles Dutoit, among others, choose to be guests rather than have a steady gig.
Music directors have a lot more duties in the current climate of budget austerity than actually making music. In the United States at least they are required to help with fund raising and community outreach.
They also have to hire and fire musicians, which can be quite an off-putting task. Although Mr. Blomstedt enjoyed being a music director in his day, he said in a recent interview that he had been put off by having to fire people who for reasons of health or whatever had become a burden on their orchestra colleagues. Guests do not have that duty.
A true gentleman, Mr. Blomstedt said it was unfair for the symphony musicians to be obliged to have their fate in the hands of an older person whose health situation can quickly turn. ‘You can fall or have a stroke,’ he said. That’s why so many guests are older conductors.
It also must be said that managements like guests—especially younger ones anxious to build up a resume and reputation—because they are cheaper.
Music is a business. Substituting lower-priced guest workers for higher-priced music directors may be good for the bottom line—so long as the seats in the auditorium stay filled. And audiences and orchestra members alike may appreciate the diversity.
Not only do orchestras use guest conductorsto fill in ‘time gaps’ in the schedule—they also use guests to fill in ‘repertory gaps’.
In the second program Maestro Blomstedt conducts in San Francisco he will be doing Brahms Third Symphony. Marek Janowski will be conducting Brahms Fourth later on in the season. Brahms is not an MTT forte. So guests fill the gap.
The same holds true for MTT and Mozart. Not a great pairing. So, Pablo Heras-Cassado, James Gaffigan and Charles Dutoit are conducting all the Mozart works this season.
No one appears to be complaining. So long as the Music Director gets to do all the glamorous stuff (which in San Francisco means Mahler, Stravinsky, favorite new music and concertos with top soloists) a lot of very important repertoire is left for the others.