Friday, January 05, 2018

SFO Music Director Opening

Nota bene: I drafted this a couple of months ago; long story why I didn't publish it then.

I read Joshua Kosman's final interview with Nicola Luisotti about a week after it was published. Most of it is unexceptional, although Luisotti's "Nobody understood what I was trying to say!" about his remarks in 2015 on the Second Viennese School struck me as...a little late, on his part.

What really caught my eye was this:
Matthew Shilvock, the San Francisco Opera’s current general director, says the search for his successor will be thorough and painstaking, perhaps taking as long as two or three years.
Oh? Nobody says that kind of thing in public except to signal the likelihood that they will stretch the process out for two to three years. There's plenty of talent out there looking for jobs - see my running list of open positions and conductors without permanent contracts, and SFO probably has a much more extensive list of available conductors.

Luisotti's departure was announced in May, 2016, eighteen months ago, and presumably there had been discussions about his decision and the timing of that announcement before that. He could have gone to Shilvock and the board six months or more before May, 2016. A search committee could, and should, have been formed right away. At the very least, Shilvock must be asking around: consulting other general directors and conductors about potential candidates. He must also have a list of conductors available to take over in an emergency, say, if someone under contract for a scheduled opera is ill or injured or has a family emergency.  Imagine a conductor who is in a serious accident and won't be able to conduct for a year or more. Recall the real-life drama of James Levine's medical problems and their impact on two major musical organizations. Someone in Shilvock's position has to plan for these things in advance.

But maybe the reason for the thorough, possibly multi-year search is financial: Luisotti made more than $600,000 in the last year for which I can dig up a 990. Or maybe the reason is that SFO has someone in mind and that person isn't available yet or discussions are under way or whatever.

Let's think for a moment about the qualifications needed to be the music director of an opera company in the US.
  • Excellent to great conductor, of consistent skill and a convincing interpreter of a wide variety of repertory, that is, not a specialist who can do Wagner and Strauss, but not Verdi, or the opposite, who can do Verdi and Puccini (and their bel canto predecessors), but falls down elsewhere in the standard rep and important perimeter works 
  • Broad knowledge of the repertory
  • Experience beyond the podium: can work with the music librarian, chorus master, chorus; knows voices; can do orchestra-building
  • Worked as a repetiteur / assistant conductor for some time
  • Comfortable with the possibly-maddening fund-raising and socializing and glad-handing required of any US music director
  • Familiar with, or has performed, the administrative tasks required of a music director
  • Gets along with the general director of the company
  • No history of abusive behavior on or off the podium
Best of all might be someone who has experience as a music director of an opera company (although the absence of this didn't keep the Met from hiring Yannick Nezhet-Seguin.) Interestingly, there are a few of this rare breed floating around the music world just now:
  • Lothar Koenigs, former music director of the Welsh National Opera, who stepped in for Levine to conduct what sounded on the HD broadcast like an excellent run of Lulu in 2015
  • Henrik Nànàsi, former music director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, who just happens to have conducted the fabulous Elektra in SF this season
  • Philippe Augin, about whose upcoming departure from Washington National Opera you might be scratching your head
  • Antonio Pappano, whose ROH contract will be up in a couple of years, although interviews make it sound as though he is not looking for another opera house gig
  • Simone Young, former chief conductor of Opera Australia and former chief executive of the Hamburg State Opera
And there are plenty of other fine conductors who are currently guesting or who might be in a position to add an opera company to their responsibilities. I suspect that the great Susanna Målkki is fully booked, between the Helsinki Symphony, guest work at the LA Phil, and other guest conducting (but please, book her for something!), but how about David Robertson? (Actually, one might wonder just what went wrong with Robertson at SLSO; his departure surprised me.) What about Ludovic Morlot, who will be leaving the Seattle Symphony in another season or two? What about....Krzysztof Urbanski? (Written before I read about an age-discrimination lawsuit at the Indianapolis Symphony that involved Urbanski. Ooops. That could be disqualifying.)

Regardless of which conductor is eventually tapped, I hope that some of the immensely talented conductors out there will visit San Francisco Opera as guest conductors.

(Note: I drafted this blog post before the MTT bombshell hit. Some conductors who might be suitable for SFO might also be suitable for SFS. And MTT is a talented opera conductor who might now be able to guest conduct at SFO.)

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