The American Dream

You might suspect that every young American conducting student starting a career today is daydreaming about leading the New York Philharmonic someday. But at the moment not one of what are regarded as the top five American orchestras has an American conductor. CBS Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner wanted to know why.

When you say "American conductor," it is a good bet that most people still automatically think Leonard Bernstein, even though he died in 1990. Say
New York Philharmonic
and a lot of people still think Bernstein, even though it has been 30 years since he was music director of the orchestra.

So where is his successor? Why are no American conductors leading any of what are regarded as the top five orchestras in the United States: New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland? Is there an assumption that foreign conductors, especially Europeans, sell more tickets?

The answer is a lot more complicated than the question.

"Each country in the world that's of major musical importance seems to ignore his native born," says Leonard Slatkin. "Perhaps in this country however, more than the others, we are still at the stage where we are fascinated by the foreign accent. If it comes from someplace else, it must be better."

Leonard Slatkin

In September 1996, Leonard Slatkin became music director of Washington's National Symphony Orchestra, which is considered a rung below the top five. Orchestra ranking is loosely determined by budget size, not necessarily quality, but the two usually go together. Slatkin is one of only two American conductors even at that level.

Michael Tilson Thomas is the other. A Bernstein protege, he took over the San Francisco Symphony in 1995.

Symphony orchestras until recently existed in a conservative retro world. That encouraged the image of the old maestro from the old town who maintains that tradition. It is only since Bernstein that audiences have discovered how exciting it can be to discover the music with someone who comes from their own culture.

But young Americans hoping to follow in Bernstein's footsteps have found the route to the top difficult.

Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas says, "There wasn't that natural system existing in America, people coming up through opera houses by being assistants to famous conductors and getting that kind of training of watching somebody who really knows the ropes do what he does."

Paul Haas is the one American among the 4 students--that's right, only 4--in the Juilliard School's prestigious conducting program this year. It is headed by Otto-Werner Mueller, a German. And despite the obstacles, Haas says, "It is an incredible sensation to be in front of an orchestra. And you as a conductor--as literally a conductor as in electricity--you're the focal point."

Each week the class works with a live orchestra. Extraordinary as it may seem, you can count on one hand the number of music schools in the world, let alone in the U.S., where conducting students have this luxury. Imagine a piano student expected to practice without a piano.

Paul Haas says, "After a program like this you can pretty much expect to get a job as an assistant conductor of a smaller symphony, a regional type orchestra. So, if your resume says Juilliard, it's going to be a good thing. I mean, if you have 300 people applying for an entry level job, which is the case in any job opening, there are 200, 300 plus people applying for it, regardless of the job."

Paul Haas & Otto-Werner Mueller
Otto-Werner Mueller, the program's director says, "Here a young person has to be an assistant conductor somewhere." But that according to Otto-Werner Mueller means young American conductors are often forced to do too much too fast.

"He gets a lot of chances to conduct this and this, so they have to fake through an incredible repertoire where they try to hold the gang together, but hardly know what is in front of them," says Mueller. "But this kind of quick faking is very detrimental to the profession."

In 1994, Robert Spano won a prize every young conductor in this country covets, the Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award. It recognizes American conductors the music world believes are destined for great careers.

Robert Spano
Spano, who now directs the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, argues, "I don't feel discriminated against or neglected or not taken seriously because I'm an American."

But he does aknowledge some lingering bias: "I think given that there probably is, it's amazing how little it's impeding American music making."

Like many American conductors, Spano is a champion of American composers. Although he might someday be a contender for a top five orchestra himself, he thinks the whole question of nationality is irrelevant. With dwindling audiences for orchestras, what counts in his opinion is finding anybody who can make the concert experience worth having. "It's our duty to make something happen that is extraordinary, that's not day-to-day, that's not routine," says Spano.

Michael Tilsen Thomas guest conducted in San Francisco for years before being selected as musical director. He was a known quantity. His nationality was incidental, says Peter Pastreich, who recently retired as executive director of the San Francisco Symphony: "I was very happy that Michael Tilsen Thomas was an American, but we didn't pick him because he was an American. The San Francisco Symphony picked him because he was the best conductor we could get. The best conductors around today are the ones everybody knows are the best conductors around. I most certainly would put Michael Tilsen Thomas in that category. There are too few of them. And there are more great orchestras than there are great conductors."

The New York Philharmonic is on the list of great orchestras in the market for a new conductor. Kurt Masur's contract will not be renewed when it runs out in the year 2002. Cleveland and Philadelphia are also looking, so that makes three of the top five U.S. orchestras in need of a new conductor.

Will any of those positions go to an American? Washington's Leonard Slatkin would be surprised. "It's a very conservative and tradition bound institution, the orchestra, particularly the ones in the United States," says Slatkin. "I think as long as we're in perilous financial times with our orchestras, most situations are going to play the safest card they have."

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