The Podium Revolution

It used to be policemen that kept get- ting younger. Now, it’s conductors. Last month, one of Europe’s richest and most respected orchestras chose a young man of 26 to be its music director. He is exactly half a century younger than the grand old maestro he is replacing.

Lionel Bringuier was spotted six years ago by Esa-Pekka Salonen and taken as his assistant to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Promoted by Gustavo Dudamel to the rank of Resident Conductor (“Lionel makes me feel old,” jokes Dude), Bringuier has spent much of the past three years learning the ropes as chief conductor of a Spanish orchestra in Valladolid and preparing for a meteoric leap.

Last spring he impressed the tough-minded BBC Symphony Orchestra with his ease in handling a difficult premiere. Senior players in the Zurich Tonhalle, many of them professors at the nearby conservatoire, called for his appointment almost on sight, so galvanised were they by the young Frenchman’s insouciant command. Short and soft-spoken, Bringuier exudes a natural authority allied to deep musical understanding.

The only question that needed to be resolved during a brief negotiation was whether this soaring star would want to commit to a city that offers millions of francs but little in the way of fizz. Zurich is not the first place a young guy would go for a good night out. Its elderly concert audience prefers, on recent evidence, a good night’s sleep. Parts of the Tonhalle around me at a benefactors’ concert were a snore palais.

Lionel Bringuier knows full well that he has a mountain to climb if he is ever to put smug and snobbish Zurich into the top league of cultural destinations. Yet it is this very anomaly that gives his precocious appointment a cultural significance far beyond the gnomic bars and euthanasia clinics of a city that has all the money in the world and nowhere worthwhile to spend it.

Bringuier is, of course, neither the first, nor the youngest, to ascend a high-visibility rostrum. Simon Rattle was 25 when he was made principal conductor in Birmingham, Franz Welser-Möst 29 when he became music director of the London Philharmonic. Dudamel, at 26, was the youngest ever maestro of a leading US orchestra. Today the first two bestride the twin capitals of European music, Berlin and Vienna, and none can predict how high the Venezuelan will fly.

Such early starts, however—while common before the media age (Volkmar Andreae, the Tonhalle’s formative chief, was 27 on ascension in 1906 and still giving the beat in 1949)—are rare in modern times.

The legacy of many maestro myths has led audiences and musicians alike to prize competence above potential, experience above exhilaration. Conducting is one of the few occupations where advanced age is a positive advantage. Munich this year installed a music director in his eighties, Lorin Maazel. The Lucerne Festival is powered by two eminences of equal vintage. Fame, acquired over decades, pays off at the box-office, at least among the older patrons. And that’s just one of three anti-youth disincentives.

Financiers, who provide the bulk of orchestral funding, are risk-averse. They look for track record in a music director, amplified by a large recorded catalogue. Anything less they regard as a disqualification. Orchestral managers, who run the day-to-day business, expect a music director to know the complete core repertoire to ensure that subscribers never have to complain of missing their favourite symphonies.

Conservatism, hyper-caution and endless repetition are the three wicked witches that brought classical music to its knees. The Tonhalle knows all about energy loss. Its early honeymoon with the American conductor David Zinman settled into marital routine. After 17 years, players wondered why the audience was disappearing and the deficit deepening. In choosing Lionel Bringuier, they have effectively rewritten the job description of music director across the classical industry.

Taking Bringuier as brand leader, the new-model MD will not need to know Beethoven and Brahms by heart. He must, rather, reinvent the reasons for performing them and discover contexts, in and outside the concert hall, that reflect contemporary lifestyles. He will not stay to press flesh at sponsors’ receptions. Instead, he will dash to an all-night club to engage with his own age group. He will not exert total control over programming, narrowing his gaze to the priorities he can bring and the talent he can attract to shift the image of classical music from then to now, before it’s too late. That, in a nutshell, is the Zurich gambit.

Others have already set a new generation in motion. Birmingham, Liverpool and Bournemouth all appointed music directors in their twenties—Andris Nelsons, Vasily Petrenko and Kirill Karabits—each to tremendous effect. Glyndebourne’s incoming chief, Robin Ticciati, is 29. Indianapolis has a dazzling Pole, Krzysztof Urbanski, also 29.

The Halle’s assistant conductor, Jamie Phillips, is just 20. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has Jessica Cottis, 31. Three young Venezuelans command orchestras in northern Europe; there may be more whom I have overlooked.

What is going on is more than just generational change. It involves a profound perceptual change of what musicians and audiences may expect of a music director, and what a music director may hope to achieve. Those aspirations are, inevitably, inhibited by the shadow of past titans. The winner of the first Carlos Kleiber prize, a gifted Greek called Constantinos Carydis, responded to the overwhelming burden of expectation associated with the most perfect conductor of all time by cancelling all engagements for a year and taking an unscheduled sabbatical.

But those, like Lionel Bringuier, who have an uncluttered view of the art and who got to work before most musicians get their first college audition, offer a prospect of genuine renewal in the stuffiest and most change-resistant of musical occupations.

Look around and you will find that conductors are getting younger, day by day. Much younger. We are in the thick of a podium revolution, the most radical and progressive upheaval in two generations. 

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